Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm

Steering a properly balanced sailboat up wind is one of sailing's greatest pleasures.
Steering a properly balanced sailboat upwind is one of sailing's greatest pleasures.

There are few problems that detract more from the pleasure of sailing than a bad case of weather helm, a surprisingly common affliction.

The good news is that the problem is usually fixable.

The bad news is that the cause is often a combination of things and many of them are not intuitively obvious.

Here are ten tips to fix weather helm.

But before we start, there are a couple of things we need to clarify.

Hidden Weather Helm

First, if you have a modern boat, you may have weather helm without even realizing it, since with a balanced spade rudder you won't feel much load on the helm even if the boat is wildly out of balance.

To test for weather helm, first mark the king spoke on the wheel—spoke that is vertical when the rudder is centred—then put the boat on the wind in a fresh breeze and see how much the king spoke is off vertical.

On most boats about a quarter of a turn of weather helm, or 4° of rudder, is optimal—gives you a bit of feel and the boat a bit of bite to windward, without being excessive. Anything more than half a turn is too much and needs fixing. (I base this on our own Morgan's Cloud where the wheel takes three full revolutions stop to stop.)

Wipe-Out Syndrome

Second, some hull forms, mostly modern ones with wide sterns, get badly out of balance as they heel because the shape of the water plane changes radically. Some of these boats will actually over power the rudder and even self-tack when hit by a hard puff of wind forward of the beam. In these cases, while these tips may help, they won't fix the underlying problem.

Most Boats Can Be Fixed

Having said that, back in the day when I was making sails and tuning boats, many owners that I worked with blamed the boat and designer for weather helm, but in fact I found that most boats' weather helm could be fixed with changes to the rig (with the exception of the situation I mention above).

So, let's do it:

  1. Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often
  2. Don’t Forget About The Sails
  3. Your Mainsail Is Your Friend
  4. Hoisting the Mainsail Made Easy—Simplicity in Action
  5. Reefs: How Many and How Deep
  6. Reefing Made Easy
  7. Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through
  8. Reefing Questions and Answers
  9. A Dangerous Myth about Reefing
  10. Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks
  11. Topping Lift Tips and a Hack
  12. 12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig
  13. Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?
  14. Cutter Rig—Optimizing and/or Converting
  15. Cruising Rigs—Sloop, Cutter, or Solent?
  16. Sailboat Deck Layouts
  17. The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails
  18. UV Protection For Roller Furling Sails
  19. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing—Convenience and Reliability
  20. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing —Performance, Cost and Safety
  21. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  22. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  23. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  24. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  25. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  26. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  27. Rigid Vangs
  28. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  29. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  30. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  31. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  32. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  33. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  34. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  35. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  36. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  37. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  38. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  42. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  43. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  44. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  45. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  46. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  49. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  50. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  51. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist
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Nick Kats

Check weight distribution. Shifting weight forward may be relevant & helpful. If so, this might be an additional reason to get more chain & a heavier anchor.

Greg Davids

This sounds backwards to me. I believe you want to move the hull’s center of lateral resistance aft and the sail’s center of effort forward. This means reducing chain in the anchor locker, not adding more.

Nick Kats

Hmm??
Shifting weight forward tilts the mast forward. This moves the top of the mast forward – this moves the center of sail forward. More pressure on the bow & less on the stern. Which reduces weather helm.
And shifting weight forward brings the stern up, the bow down deeper – center of lateral resistance moves forward a little. Less pressure on the stern = more weather helm.
I’m guessing that the first is stronger than the second.

Greg Davids

A when bunch of years ago I had a Morgan 32 – the Ted Brewer design. When I first got it there was simply more weather helm than there should be. The previous owner had set up the anchoring system with 100 feet of chain and a bunch of nylon rode. Since my sailing was on San Francisco Bay, I was not concerned about the line rubbing on rocks or coral. I decided to remove 80′ of the chain. The resulting reduction of weather helm was not subtle. Another benefit was a reduction of hobby horsing while going upwind in the waves.

Ernest

Nick,
shifting weight forward moves the center of lateral resistance farther forward, which in turn will make the stern lighter and have the bow pushed to windward. I don’t think that the “induced mast rake” would add any significatnt effect in the waves.

Marc Dacey

We raced for the first five years of cruiser ownership on other people’s boats. The first two years was spent in learning how to win. The last three were occupied with learning why we didn’t. Racing is very instructive for cruisers, and we cruise as if we were racing, or that’s the aspiration. Sorting out weather helm is part of that.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

This is a very good list and I think that you put it in a good order. A few thoughts on some of these:

Many people view mast rake incorrectly in my opinion. Since we use gravity as our reference axis instead of a reference on the boat, it is highly dependent on fore and aft trim. Therefore, I believe it is critical to fix trim issues first and then look at rake. Changing trim will affect weather helm as well. In our case, we had to move quite a bit of weight around before we got our trim to be acceptable. To add to your comment on looks, boats with multiple masts have to have increasing rake in each mast as you go aft or they look wrong.

Your point about jib size is completely right. Our current boat has hank-on sails and the best part of it is that we never sail with a reefed jib. Someday we will get old enough to switch to a roller furler but the difference in sailing qualities of using the right size jib is enormous. The most used sail for us is actually just under a 100% which produces a faster and better ride upwind in anything over 10 knots over our 150%.

Halyard stretch is the one for us that we have not fixed yet and I find it kind of embarrassing to look at the luff of the main in certain conditions. I finally decided earlier this season that I am going to open the checkbook this winter and get better halyards.

Eric

Marc Dacey

Eric, we did this last year and saved money by buying a reel of Dyneema core 1/2″ line, about 410 feet, or four halyards with some left over. We are very happy with the results, although we don’t feel the need to go with Dyneema very many other places where a little stretch is desirable.

Shop around and if you don’t care about colour, you can find deals when you buy a lot. You could even split a reel with a fellow sailor.

Rob Gill

Hi John,
Really nice summary on the main factors involved in excess weather-helm on cruising yachts. Perhaps swap point 5,6&7 around though? Experimenting with adjustable mast-bend #7 is usually easier on the water than adjusting rake #5, or increasing mast pre-bend #6. Changing rake may also adversely affect other things like heaving-to and pointing. Then if adjustable mast bend #7 (with back-stay, baby inner fore-stay and kicker) is making a difference, you can increase mast pre-bend #6 to often multiply the effect of #7. One thing to remember with point #7 and #6 is you may need to ease the mast bend when reefing, especially with in-mast and in-boom systems, so the sails furl flat without creases. Slab reefed fully battened mains may also stow / reef easier with mast bend temporarily eased.
Having experimented successfully ourselves, first with an older staysail (as a jib) and then fitting a new purpose built jib, we would vote to promote point #9. The change was as much about the move from an outboard sheeted 120% genoa, to an inboard sheeted 100% jib. In not having to sail lower to have the genoa luff filling properly with the attendant heel that gave, the mainsail can be trimmed better and becomes more of a complimentary foil that creates lift and power, and less an independent sail that needed earlier reefing or the leech opened up high to avoid closing the slot to leeward and stalling both sails. From this change alone, we are able to sail 5-10 degrees closer to the wind, and also sail about 5-10 degrees more upright, which assists your point #3.
In lighter conditions, the jib performs as well as our old genoa in 10 knots of true wind or above (but our VMG is better), and below 8-10 knots we now use a code 0 going to windward deployed on a furler. We are almost as close winded in these conditions as with the old genoa, but about 2 knots faster than before – remarkably better! Overall our sail plan (3 sails) is much simpler and easier to handle, particularly through a tack. Think of it as a cheat’s cutter rig! We have a 120% genoa and cruising asymmetric kite for sale!
cheers,
Rob

Rob Gill

Hi John,
WRT slab reefing and pre-bend, we chartered a 13m sloop that had a fully battened main but no cars (only track slides), and the main was a devil to hoist and even harder to drop, or reef in a breeze. Only towards the end of the holiday did I realise the mast-bend was causing pressure on the slides (transferred from the battens?) and easing the back-stay straightened the mast and eased the slides, hence my comment.
cheers
Rob

Drew Frye

For boats without a backstay, like my cat and all beach catamarans, headstay tension comes almost entirely from mainsheet tension. Thus, every time the mainsheet is released, the headstay sags and the jib gets full. On beach cats and cats with small jibs this is a minor issue, since the jib is small, but as the jib gets larger it is a problem. The solution? Play the traveler instead of the mainsheet, keeping the main tight. Fortunately, nearly all cats come with an efficient traveler system.

Keel revisions can help too, specifically if the trailing edge was big and rounded, instead of relatively thin and sharp. But this is the sort of thing you look at AFTER all of the sail and rig trim options are exhausted.

Steven Schapera

My 45ft cutter has a Profurl furled genoa. I have too much mast rake but have never been able to figure out how/where to tighten the head stay. Any ideas?

Steven Schapera

Thanks for taking the time to reply, John. Im not sure what is meant by “two blocked with no more throw left” – but in any event I intend to get a rigger to look at it. Thanks fir this very handy article.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Steven,
Two-blocked is an older term, I suspect from when boats needed the mechanical advantage of blocks to raise sails. When the blocks come together- two-blocked- the sail could be raised no further and therefore there was no more “throw left”. (The same could be said of any block and tackle system.) I find it a lovely evocative way to signify “no more movement available”.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Steven Schapera

Dick – thanks for the explanation – agree its a great way to describe the situation. I’m surprised it hasnt crept into common usage, as so many situations (in life, business, relationships, politics etc.) can be described as “two-blocked”! I might start using it! BTW, where is Alchemy based? Are you still in the Med?

Marc Dacey

Profurls (at least ours) have a turnbuckle at the bottom. With the sail off, tighten this with a long screwdriver to turn the body of the turnbuckle and a channel lock wrench to hold the jaws/terminal. A rag in the wrench keeps from marring the finish. I’m lucky in that my neighbours have a Mainship and the swim platform is a nice place to get at our bowsprit right at eye level.

Nick Kats

Also, this reply has some relevance.
I used to enjoy the feel of a little weather helm on the tiller.
But with my traditional heavy long keeled ketch, I find it easy first to balance the sails, then to reset them slightly so she steers herself, indefinitely if wind direction & force don’t change. This requires that there be no weather or lee helm.
The rudder runs 6 feet under water. That is a lot of surface area there. If there is constant weather helm, the rudder offers a constant resistance to the water slipping by. The hull is not flowing through the water freely. The boat is in a state of self contradiction.
By balancing the sails, the rudder merely slips behind the keel, offering least resistance, a suspended appendage doing nothing.
To self-steer, the trade-off is that the self contradiction shifts to the sails. They must slightly self contradict to keep her course straight, or the mizzen must be set as a steering (not driving) sail, etc.
I feel that this shift from weather helm to a rudder that is freeflowing is the state of least contradiction on my ship.
This has been my state of mind for years. My boat is at minimal self contradiction. She is in a state of grace.

Bill Bowers

i love your esthetics Nick.
We are just feeling out the new Cape Horn vane and 115% Yankee on our J42. Optimizing vane performance requires nearly neutral helm. But John’s point about slight weather helm benefit pertains to VMG to windward on the wind. When in the groove the rudder is lifting to windward due to countering weather helm and VMG improves. Pleased the Cap was able to sail us from Marblehead to Sandwich close hauled with up to 1/8 turn of helm dialed in with the setting of the control lines.

Nick Kats

Thanks for the kind words Bill.

I was talking about self steering with only the sails – no wind vane needed, no autopilot. This requires zero helm, either weather or lee. Any helm at all will cause the boat to change course til there is no more helm & she reaches equilibrium. I’ve used this method a lot, maybe 5 to 8 thousand NM. Joshua Slocum was my inspiration for this.

This is a different situation from yours & John’s. A little weather helm on the wheel will require that your wind vane have a little lee helm to counter it, to get equilibrium. This is a inner contradiction, and it can be removed by having no weather helm on the wheel. Makes it easier for the wind vane. If this contradiction is slight it is of no import.

Robert Smout

John said that less than a quarter turn of the wheel from vertical (king spoke at 12 o’clock and rudder centered) is optimal for weather helm. What about a tiller? I won’t be surprised if keel shape and rudder configuration (keel-hung, skeg-hung, spade, etc.) are factors. Maybe it’s a matter of touch.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Steven,
Yes, agree, two-blocked could be used to describe a wide variety of situations in modern life.
Nope, after 5 years in the Med we have been 5 years in Northern Europe. Hence, the writing about how to keep warm on a boat. N Europe has fabulous cruising grounds.
We are now in Dingle working our way N along the west coast of Ireland.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Steven Schapera

Thanks Dick, I’m a few years behind you then. I’m still learning the Mediterranean, sailing out of Carloforte, Sardinia for the last few years. Not in a hurry (yet) to go anywhere.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Steven, I can well understand sticking around Carloforte. It was my first stop in Italy and we almost never left because the eating was so fabulous. Dick

Steven Schapera

Dick
Feel free to come back any time that I’m there and we can go for a sail!
Regards
Steven

Eric Klem

Hi John,

One other thought that appears not to have made your list but is a big factor on many boats: windage. People with large cockpit enclosures and solar arrays back aft can really hurt the balance of their boat. It can be alarming to sail to weather of a boat with a lot of stuff on it and try to estimate the amount of area that is in the sails versus in the boat and bolted on stuff and realize just how little sail area there is compared to everything else.

Eric

richard s (s/v lakota)

please help me better understand the difference: ‘rake’ vs ‘bend’ …up til now i thought these terms were synonymous

with regard to reefing the main i firmly believe in doing this early as in when the thought to do this enters my mind that’s when i do it…sometimes this is before i ever set it in the first place so i simply start out reefed and have nearly always felt gratified with the results…cheers

richard in tampa bay where recent t.s. colin performed inconsistently…significant in some places and not in others even only a few miles apart

Clive Arnold

Regarding the expression” two blocked” it has the same meaning as the very old nautical term “chock a block” signifying when two blocks were jammed against each other and could not be moved further. This developed into the current usage as meaning ” full up”. The shortened version of the phrase is ” chockers ” .

Steven Schapera

Thanks Clive – I’ve used that expression hundreds if times and had no idea of its origins! Thank you for explaining….makes perfect sense!

Erik Snel

Hi John,

Good list and in my opinion the sequence is right to. I seem to miss one step, though.
A couple of years ago I bought a new mailsail, but this applies to the old mailsail. I used to tighten the cunningham hole as an additional step before reefing. This flattens the mainsail more than just tightening the halyard. As said, this applies more to older mailsails.

Another observation about tightening the headstay: I have roller reefing for my genoa, and tighten the headstay by tightening the backstay. Therefore, tightening the forestay can be done even without using spanners 🙂

johan

Hi John,
I partially agree with your article, but the part with lengthwise center of force i don’t think helps much.
How much do we actually move the center of force by altering the rake (mast top) lets say 50cm, given the headstay and the goosneck stay in roughly the same place. Not much i think (maby 15 cm?), compared to the forces the rudder creates ( Only on a boat not making way this will be a factor) . On the other hand, what i do think affects the weather helm is the heel. A boat heeling 25 degrees will move its center of “driving” force out to leeward and it will be like rowing with one oar. I have raced with gennaker on 2m sprite and 3rd reef in main and essentially slack, and still weather helm (and broaching to windward) and then the lengthwise center of force is nearly in front of the boat.
The point about hull shape is a definitely factor and more on light displacement boats. The trim points mentioned will be making forward force larger relative to sideways force, as will better sails, essentially reducing heel with same or better driving force. These are all good points. The problem grows however as the boat starts pushing the hull speed, then the trough midships gets deeper and the boat looses stability (no water where it is widest). This makes the boat heel even more. Another factor is, when heeling, the rudder also heels, so the force from the rudder in the horizontal plane is reduced and calls for larger angle.

johan

Another point came to mind.
The sideways force from the rudder at a given AOA (angle of attack) increases exponentially with the speed of the boat. So as the wind increases until we reach hull speed, all the forces increase (asymmetric driving force, rudder force, resistance), but as we reach hull speed the boat speed stops increasing significantly, so does the rudder force, while the asymmetric drive force still increases. Reducing sail will serve several effects. Center of effort lower down reduces heel, but also means driving force nearer center on a heeled boat so reduces weather helm caused by asymmetric driving force double up.
In the gennaker situation mentioned above we need to get the boat up to speed by trimming the main, before we can let the gennaker fill again or we broach again instantly. This is to get flow over the rudder.

Drew Frye

Just for laughs, I measured boat speed under power below hull speed and above, motoring into a 15 knot wind. No measurable difference. The question is, are the aerodynamics better with the windows open or closed? Is the area significant? I don’t know.

I know I like the dodger in the winter and when it’s raining.

Stedem Wood

Almost a deep dive, rather than a primer, given all the great comments on weather/Lee helm and sail/rig trim. Fun to read!

Possibly yet another point: trimming forward (weight) on a long-keeled (and rudder, for that matter) boat will change the center of lateral resistance aft, reducing the tendency toward weather helm, maybe more than some of the other changes.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John, BTW, did anyone comment on what a fabulous picture of Phyllis leads off this article? Cause it is. Dick

Marc Dacey

Very true. It’s “relaxed but focused”, the mien I associate with seaman(or woman)ship!

Conor Smith

John,

Thank you for a wonderful article.

I posted previously about weather helm issues with our Brewer 44 (I think giving some incentive for this post) in the sail handling chapter. Quick summary, we have bad weather helm and have been working to correct it. The boat is set up as a cutter.

I was out testing the boat and had about 18-20 knots of true wind, and just the genoa up, on a perfect beam reach. I was getting weather helm in this case.

My question, and hopefully a useful discussion for the other readers, is testing weather helm with only the jib, a useful test to check forestay tension and jib shape? Of course boats like to be balanced and have proper drive for the conditions, but could this be a proper start to begin to isolate one of the the likely several factors affecting (our and others’) weather helm?
Thanks in advance! Conor

Marc Dacey

Short answer: yes. I have a cutter and the few times a year I bypass the hydraulic steering and use the huge tiller, I try different sail combos to see if I have further tweaking to consider. Try jib alone, staysail alone, main alone, then main and staysail, then main, staysail and jib. Try close, then broad reach. If you have running backstays, use them. Bring the whole family and some notepads and try to pick a 12 knot day with the wind over the land. You’ll get a load of data points that will guide you. In my case, the tiller is part of the wind vane setup so we are very interested in making that mode of self-steering as “friction free” as possible, and weather (or lee) helm is a form of friction.

shane

good morning all. i am wondering if anybody can recommend a good tuner around chester n.s. i need to learn how to do this properly and will gladly pay for their expertise.
thanks in advance
shane