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Sailing by Telltales

August 1, 2016

Sometimes you "figure out" something that seems so simple you KNOW everyone else must already know it, and you're embarrassed that it took you so long to learn it. But I've discovered that many of those "duh" moments really ARE things that others have yet to learn. Sure, you're certainly not the first to think of it, but maybe if you share it with enough people, you can save at least one person from years without your little trick. That's my hope with this post.

While sailing through the Exumas this summer, we started breaking our own rule. For the first decade we lived aboard, we folded back the bimini any time we went sailing because it blocked our view of the sail. But these last few years, when we are in the 100-degree heat index part of the world (i.e. just about anywhere this year, it seems) we tend to leave our scrap of canvas up to provide us a bit of shade. Yes, it means we have to lean outboard to see the masthead, but we can still see three-quarters of the sail, and, as I discovered, sometimes that's good enough.

Point the tiller to port, OFF wind.

We were sailing close-hauled toward Big Major Spot, trying to round Harvey Cay without having to tack yet again. The wind was light (and not behind us as predicted) so we were paying close attention to wind shifts in gusts, trying to get a lift. This is my favorite part of sailing, using the wind, challenging ourselves to be the best sailors we can be in any situation. Anybody can make a boat move in a gale, but it's the light air sailing that impresses me. Dave was tired and getting frustrated, so I took the tiller and made it my personal goal to clear Harvey Cay.

Because the bimini was still up, I had to be a contortionist to hold the tiller and peak at the windex on the masthead. In light air, our bits of ribbon on the shrouds are basically worthless. Often, they point AT each other, indicating that the wind is coming from both sides of the boat at the same time. Needless to say, I don't rely on them in those cases. But what I FINALLY discovered, after 25,000 miles of cruising, is that you can steer by the telltales on the headsail. Duh.


The first step (in any sailing situation, really) is to be sure the sails are properly set. Move your sheet lead until both the leach and the foot break at the same time. Next, point the boat has high into the wind as you want to sail (in our case. as close as she would go) and trim the main until it just stops breaking. Then let it out a little to be sure you've not gone too far, then bring it in the smallest amount. Repeat with the headsail. If your main starts to break as you bring in the genny, you have probably brought it in too far. Let it out just the tiniest bit and your main will likely fill.

Now, if your sails are trimmed properly, both your inboard and outboard telltale will be lying flat against the sail. If you've pulled it in too far, the outboard one starts to flutter. Let out the sail. If it's not in far enough, the inboard telltale will flutter. Bring it in. Depending on the size of your genny, we may be talking about less than an inch of sheet in either direction. Sometimes we just take the sheet off the cleat and let the line tighten around the winch and that's enough adjustment. This is for fine tuning only. As an easy way to remember it, the fluttering telltale demands attention. So if the INboard one flutters, bring it IN. If the OUTboard one flutters, let it OUT.

Point the tiller to starboard, CLOSER to the wind.

OK, so you've got a perfectly trimmed headsail. You are sailing as close to the wind as you want to be. And you want to stay there, right on the edge. Here's the trick. We know that if you want to trim the sails you adjust them according to the telltales. But changing your angle to the wind does the same thing as changing the set of your sails. In other words, if you have drifted too far OFF the wind, the telltales will look the same as if you need to let your sail OUT. But your sails are set perfectly: it's the boat that needs to change. So you bring her up closer to the wind. If the INboard telltale starts to flutter, it's an indication that you need to bring the sail IN, UNLESS your sails are prefect, in which case you need to steer the boat OFF the wind until your telltales are both streaming aft again.

I'll admit, this is a tricky one to remember. I am queen of the mnemonics, but I had a hard time with this one. Finally, I came up with this: point the tiller at the fluttering telltale. (This is the same as if you are sailing wing and wing and one of your sails starts to luff. Point the tiller at the luffing sail.) Here's a specific example. You're on a port tack, close-hauled. The red telltale starts to flutter. This means you are too close to the wind. Point the tiller at the fluttering telltale (i.e. to port), which steers you to starboard, which is OFF the wind, which will put the boat back on the right course for the trim of your sails. (If you're still using a wheel, you'll have to come up with your own way of remembering it until you come to your senses and replace it with a tiller.)

I'm sure many, if not most, of you already knew this obvious trick, but this is for the one person who learns something from today's post. I sure wish I had read about it sometime in the past 15 years. Sail on.

MONDAY we'll discuss the problems we have because we row our dinghy.


Connie McBride's work has been published in Good Old Boat, Sail Magazine, Small Craft Advisor, Cruising World, All at Sea, and Blue Water Sailing. As a full-time liveaboard cruiser for over 15 years, she has written several books and in her spare time, well, who has spare time?

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