Don’t put the boat before the horse

July 2002

By Dodge Morgan

F.E. “Ted” Hood once told me that his most important education in boat design came from his experience at the helm of so many different boats during sea trials for his sails. He could not even estimate the total number of these boats and trials. I have put in considerable helm time myself, but almost all of it on just a few boats of my own or borrowed – a Hunt 110, a Beetle cat, a Wianno Senior, two gaff-headed schooners, a special Hood cutter, and two of Hood’s elegant sloops. These boats I have known and, I believe, sailed well. There is a significant advantage to sailing an old friend, not unlike that of making love to one. But I sense there are those I have known who would sail even my friends better than have I.

You can quickly tell if a person is with the boat or is simply with the helm by watching. H.A. Callahan, who wrote widely of sailing in the early years of the 20th century, advised one to “ride one’s horse just before taking to one’s sailboat” so as to get the feel of being one with the boat. Even though those were the days when net worth ruled the waves and included bridle paths, going horse-first does make good sense. Getting the feel of the boat.

I believe that watching Ted Hood at a helm, any helm, is like watching Sir Edmond Hillary on a mountain, or Pablo Picasso before a canvas, or Larry Bird on the parquet. Ted’s eyes are up and out. He is completely silent, gesturing for sheet trim rather than barking for it. His helm-hand barely moves and gently so, even steering in a heavy chop. Ted doesn’t believe in cranking the helm up on a beat in a gust but in using the quick thrust for power, never to cause the luff to lift when the prevailing breeze returns. He intuitively knows that every small swing of the rudder slows momentum.

I once watched Ted hand the helm to a new owner during a sea trial for one of his designs. This owner babbled on, bragged of his racing successes and critiqued the windward performance of his new boat. There was frantic action to his helm tending, wheel a foot over one way, then back, then forth, then back and forth in short strokes. The boat dropped a knot in the minute after Ted handed him his boat.

Murray G. Peterson, the famed naval architect of traditional craft, including my two schooners, sailed a boat like Hood. He would get 90 degrees true on a weather tack and get it from an old gaffer carrying tired sails. He once said that you should be able to sail and tack with your helm hand taped to one spoke. He told me once to learn how a helm is handled by watching Fenwick Williams on it. He noted that Fenwick, a lifelong associate of Murray’s most known for his elegant cat boat designs, could not see anything more than six inches from his nose so felt the boat and wind deeply and holistically. He used the least helm possible, as if the rudder was only something that could get in the way of the sailing.

I wonder if these sailors learned their steering technique because they preferred heavier displacement boats. The current trend towards light and lighter may well encourage more jackrabbit helm action. As Hood claimed, the heavy boat is faster in light airs and the light boat faster in heavy airs. The light boat accelerates faster and slows faster; the heavy boat holds better. The light boat planes in big wind; the heavy boat reaches hull speed soon and stays there, ghosting through the lulls.

The two may be very different breeds of horses, but it is worth noting. Competing sailors could never really explain why Ted would out-foot them sailing his decades-old Robin. Sailors of modern sloops were puzzled when Murray sailed by them in a design out of past centuries. Guys hiking out would head scratch when Fenwick would hang there on their beam in his old and abused Fishers Island sloop. Perhaps we can understand why.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.