Weather helm


Last summer I purchased Romilly 9, Corriemhor, with an old friend & have greatly enjoyed sailing her on the West Coast of Scotland. This year I am planning cruises around some of the larger Scottish islands. I think she is wonderfully responsive in light airs – really a joy to sail.

My query is about sailing in a breeze. I understand that it’s good to take a reef early, but accepting this I feel she carries a lot of weather helm. Could more forward ballast be the answer ? I tend to sheet the main quite hard & dump the mizzen, but it’s not enough !

I would appreciate any advice on what I can do about this as, in every other way she exceeds expectations.

Many thanks!

Stephen Booth

    1. Nigel Irens says:

      Stephen –

      The problem is that the helm balance of all single-hulled boats changes as they heel – mainly due to the fact that the forward component of the drive from the sails moves out to leeward as the boat heels, and this ‘offset’ force naturally tries to crank the hull up to windward. This phenomenon is exaggerated in the case of ROXANE and ROMILLY. This is because both boats have a pretty tall rig and yet both also have a very inefficient ‘barn door’ rudder (the result of putting shallow draft well up the list of desirable attributes right from the start !).

      Clearly some weather helm is needed to get a boat upwind, so anticipating the perils of too much helm in a breeze by moving the centreboard aft would result in poor windward performance in lighter airs. This dilemma was what prompted the original decision to rig the boats as yawls. Dumping the mizzen does cause a fairly dramatic shift in the C of E of the sailplan and you are, of course, right to get rid of it as soon as weather helm becomes excessive, but if doing so still leaves too much weather helm then reefing the main is the only option.

      In order to take the reef safely you’ll need the mizzen back in play to hold the bow up to windward, which is why we’ve always been keen on the brailing system – which is very quick and easy to operate.

      The worst option is easing the main sheet in order to lighten the helm. What happens is that the luff of the main may be fluttering, but the leach of the sail is still driving, and that drive is both well offset from the centreline of the boat, and also well aft. The result is that the helm gets even harder and drag from the high rudder angles is practically stopping the boat in its tracks !

      Obviously easing the sheet is fine temporarily – in response to an short-lived gust, but I can only re-emphasize that experience repeatedly taught us that the boat will go faster and in more comfort with less sail – set properly (i.e. with the luff of the mainsail supplying the power.

      In answer to your suggestion that moving ballast forward could help I’m afraid I think the opposite is true ! Some years ago I used to sail a 20 ft dipping-lug rigged Shetland Model. She carried some internal ballast – traditionally stone, but in my case I made do with wet sandbags as I needed to transport the boat by trailer. The ends of the waterline were very hollow, which made her very sensitive to longitudinal trim. She also had very shallow draft and, in consequence, a rudder that was even less effective than that on ROMILLY ! We soon found that the placement of additional ballast (in this case her crew!) was crucial to the ability to steer. You might say that the rudder itself was only used as a ‘fine-tune’ device !

      We found out the importance of understanding this quite early on when attempting to beat up the Hamble river – against the ebb. Each tack usually ended when we reached the trot of moorings each side of the river, but as it was out of season there were quite a few gaps between piles, so we were able to make pass between piles and make up some good ground along the shore – and out of the tide.

      As we tried to pinch up to weather to squeeze though a gap we realised we weren’t going to make it an so chickened out and tried to bear away. My crew, (quite a big fellow) quite understandably went forward in case we needed to fend ourselves off the boat moored down-tide of the pile as we bore away. The only trouble was that we didn’t really bear away at all, because the weight forward had sunk the hollow bow way down – to the point where the boat only wanted to luff up. To add to the fun the rudder, meagre as it was, was also now half out of the water. We ended up abandoning the idea of bearing-away and sort of mushing-up against the pile with the leeward bow.

      In ROXANE and ROMILLY’s case it’s worth remembering that shifts of crew weight can influence the helm balance, but only in a mild way because crew weight forms a much lower percentage of the all-up weight than on the little Shetland boat. What is important, though, is for the helmsman to remember that the mizzen is, in effect, part of the steering mechanism on ROXANE and ROMILLY. Given the same situation (i.e. the need to bear away in a hurry), it is vital that the mizzen sheet is dumped as quickly as possible, to allow the main to carry the bow down.

      In extremis it does also help to get crew weight aft. ( It is possible that the crew’s instincts might already have been to move as fast as possible to a position as far away from the point of impact as possible !)

      As usual, although my comments about sailing ROXANE and ROMILLY are the result of having spent a lot of good times sailing them both in the 90’s, I’m sure by now there are plenty of owners out there who have had much more experience that I have, so there’s plenty of room for opinion!



    1. Bruce Levell says:

      I had this problem too. I have now been sailing my Romilly for about ten years. I can only endorse what Nigel writes- she appreciates timely reefing. One point to add (especially when single handing) is that life is made a lot easier bringing the mainsheet from round the leeward winch up to the windward winch so that the sail can be properly trimmed easily, without a journey to the dark side, to avoid that baggy sail which is not driving from the luff. Also the brailing-up of the mizzen does need to be tight, even furled it seems to have a lot of leverage all the way back there !

    1. Leo Kolff says:

      I had the same problem and changed the rudder slightly by adding a 25cm wide strip of wood on the bottom of the rudder of Lady-E,the Turkish SPV Romilly which is sailed in the Med.This solved the problem to well into Beaufort 4 without reefing.

    1. Charles and Gillian Taylor says:

      This is a radical solution… Please see the photos of Roxanne of Restronguet.. Two deep reefs down I can walk away from the helm.. The main reefs from the cockpit.. I know this Rig is not a true Roxane but after much recutting .. We are finally delighted with the result