As we’re deep in the throes of a cold start to the winter – polar vortex/arctic blast kind of cold – thoughts are somewhat removed from sailing. But not entirely.
While on the slopes enjoying fresh pow over the holidays, and warming back up to techniques shelved during the boating season, I was reminded of the concept of turn initiation. Don’t ski or ride? Don’t even sail yet? No problem – we’ll break it all down and maybe even get you stoked in the process.
“Turn initiation” is the technique used to get a ski or snowboard to go from flat on the snow to beginning a turn to one side. Anyone who can link turns on either kind of plank knows what I’m talking about. It’s like this: we make certain motions to suggest to the equipment that we want to turn instead of going straight. After it starts listening, we add more motion to shape and complete the turn to the extent we want. Regardless of what kind of turn we make, we have to start it – and eventually end it.
Same with boats! Techniques, and consequences for ignoring them, are different. Thankfully for sailing, there are usual no real consequences.
If you ski or ride, but are beginner to intermediate, it’s time to think about this again as you begin your snow sliding season. You experts out there don’t think much about it, but warm up your technique and self-critique as you get your form back each season.
Back to sailing and turning a boat. Let’s leave special techniques like steering with sails, and with body weight, out of it and focus on the thing we all use all of the time: the rudder. (Don’t even sail yet? That’s the fin that we turn back in forth behind the boat to make the boat turn, like a paddle stuck in the water and angled to one side. Makes the boat turn.)
At the most basic level, we angle the rudder to one side or the other when we want to turn a boat. Some boats have a stick attached called a tiller, found on smaller boats and almost mandatory to learn with. Once the boat is in the upper 20-foot range, and especially at around 30 feet, it tends to have a wheel instead. As the rudder is angled more to one side, the pressure of the water hitting it pushes it back the other way, taking that end of the boat with it. The boat pivots in the middle, and turns. (The direction the fin aims is also where it want to go once it gets moving.)
So, to make a slight or narrow turn, the rudder does not need to angle much to the side. To make a sharp or tight turn, the rudder needs to move pretty far over. Turn initiation is really the rate of motion to get it started, so that the whole process works better.
On a board or skis, if we suddenly wrench the plank over to the side, we often catch an edge in the snow and catapult or slam. No fun. But if we get the edge to gently start engaging, and then add more edge and pressure, we can smoothly get the plank on its edge and into a turn. Can’t usually skip steps: have to START the turn before shaping and completing it, before ending it.
I haven’t skied since I as a boy, but I’ve watched a lot of skiers. Good skiers are graceful in their transitions. I’m a pretty solid boarder – somewhere in the advanced range by objective standards I’ve come across. I’ve watched a lot of boarders too. I won’t pretend I know how to turn skis. But Im supposed to be expert at understanding how to turn a board, as I’m a certified instructor. So, I’ll talk about boards.
For most turns on a snowboard – and some experts say all – we initiate by twisting the front of the board slightly so one edge is pressing into the snow and the other starting to lift. Think of holding the ends of an ice cream stick with your thumbs and forefingers. Now, think of holding one end level, but rotating or twisting the other end slightly. That’s the general idea. In the air, this does nothing but flex the stick. But on snow, one edge of that stick presses into the snow, and starts to take the rest with it to that side.
Of course, we add some at the other end, and make more of a turn. And, release. And, rinse and repeat, maybe mixing it up from time to time to not get bored.
How do we translate this to turning a sailboat?
Think of the rudder as the edge. initiation is turning the rudder ever so slightly to suggest to the boat that it should stop going straight, and to pivot. Once it listens, we gradually increase the rate of turn but angling the rudder more. But at what rate? And how far?
This is the beautiful part, elegant in its simplicity.
We slowly, steadily, move the tiller to the side. One simple, steady motion. Easy. How far? Until we like how much the boat is turning. For how long? Until we’re half way through the turn, at which point we reverse the motion at exactly the same rate.
What if we need the turn to happen quickly? Well, there is no shortcut here unless we’re throwing the boat around with our body weight, and/or using sails to help turn the boat. Again, let’s leave it at rudder only for this discussion. (And even when we’re using other techniques, rudder action doesn’t change.)
Too many sailors just jam the rudder over hard when they want to make a quick and/or large turn, especially for tacking (crossing through the wind quickly and ‘catching’ it again on the other side). Jamming it over skips the initiation. Consequences?
Drag. The rudder is now sideways to the water, creating lots braking resistance. Imagine gliding along in a canoe or kayak, and suddenly jamming the paddle in the water off the back end, with the flat side perpendicular to the direction of travel. Sea brakes! Craft slows down. Think of air brakes on a plane. Overuse them at the wrong time, and the plane starts to drop.
Stalling. Because it’s angled too aggressively to the flow of water, the water doesn’t flow around the far side of the rudder, and and bottlenecks against the near side. Water flow around the rudder allows the rudder to take the back end of the boat with it in an arcing turn, and therefore makes the front go the other way, pivoting around the middle. Stall the flow, and we stall the turn. (This also increases “leeway,” both when turning and when trying to go straight, for those with more sailing savvy. It’s why excessive rudder angle has to be dealt with one way or another when going straight.)
It’s slightly counter-intuitive at first. “I want to turn hard, so why not just turn the tiller/wheel hard?” Doesn’t work that way. You’ll get there sooner by starting slower. A slow, steady, linear motion of the tiller (or wheel) gives you everything you need:
- Turn initiaiton. Suggests to the boat what you want to do, and it gently begins.
- Shaping. We turn the rudder enough to get the turn shape/speed we want.
- Completion. So simple – half way through the arc of the turn, we just reverse what we did with the rudder at the same steady rate!
The tiller moves in a linear fashion, but the boat turns in a crescendo/decrescendo. See? We’re teaching to both logical learners and musical/rhythmic ones! If we graph it out, we’ll see different patterns for the tiller and the boat…
The more rudder angle, the greater the turn. To get there, we simply move the tiller steadily to gradually increase rudder angle, and therefore the rate of turn. Your boat will take over, and the rudder will follow. When you feel that, you’ll know you got it right.
Then, you’ll be ready to shred!
Want to learn more about turning a sailboat? See us at NY Sailing Center in the spring. We start in April.
Want to learn how to snowboard? Already ride, but want to improve or take it to the next level? Our Director, Dockmaster and rambling Editor at Large, Captain Card, is a certified snowboard instructor who loves to teach. Hit him up to discuss getting out on snow. This can be as close as Mountain Creek, NJ (an hour from the GWB), as far as South/Central Vermont, or mid way at Hunter or Windham in the Castkills.