Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power

Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power

Forward, Reversing, and Pivot Turns under Power

The “kiss of death” when maneuvering a keel sailboat is getting too slow for the prevailing (wind) conditions. If you don’t keep the boat moving, water is not flowing past the keel or the rudder and you are at the mercy of the wind. Unlike maneuvering strictly under sail, when you are maneuvering a sailboat under power, you now have the added effect of the propeller.

On the first day of sailing school, we demonstrate to students what the wind does to the bow of the boat as you get slow and stop. We pick a point for them to aim at, so that the wind is about 45 degrees to the bow, and have the student put the boat in neutral. We have them keep the boat pointed at the object as long as they can. Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power

This maneuver also demonstrates the principal of inertia, which varies with the weight of the boat, showing how far the boat will coast. Eventually, the wheel is hard over and the bow is being blown off to leeward. It can be a little unnerving the first time this happens so we like to have our students do it on purpose while there is plenty of room to play.

Going Forward

When you put the boat in forward, the propeller is ‘blowing’ water right across the rudder. The rudder becomes effective IMMEDIATELY. In the above demonstration, when the student has lost steering and the rudder is hard over, we tell everyone to hold on while we then advance the throttle aggressively all the way forward, and then right back to neutral. The bow will make a quick turn in the direction of the wheel, without the boat moving too far forward. Nice to know if you need to get that bow pointed somewhere in a hurry.

No Two Sailboats Are Alike

It is interesting to notice how different sailboats will react during the above maneuver. Some boats lose their steering at higher speeds than others. It is nice to get to know how the boat you are
currently on will handle as you stop, and how it will eventually drift with the wind if you allow it to remain stopped. With bare poles will it drift with the wind on the beam or more across the stern quarter?

Reverse! Reverse!

The effect of the prop in reverse is totally different. When in reverse, the propeller throws water UP at the hull and towards the keel. If the boat is stopped, THERE IS NO WATER PASSING THE RUDDER and you are now at the mercy of the wind AND what we call “prop walk”. The standard rotation for a sailboat prop is right handed (or clockwise, looking at the prop from behind the boat when in forward gear). Therefore it rotates counter-clockwise when in reverse. When a boat is stopped while trying to reverse, the propeller “digs” or “screws” its way to port, thus taking the stern with it, and the bow, since it is SUPPOSED TO BE attached to the boat, will move to starboard. Again, it is interesting to see how different models of boats behave while transitioning to reverse.

Making a Quick Turn: Pivot Turn

Once we know how a particular boat responds to propwalk, we can use this information to help us maneuver in tight spots. When needing to make a tight 180 degree turn (wind and current not being a factor) plan the maneuver to starboard.

  • Start the turn while moving forward and throwing the wheel hard to starboard, remembering to leave room to port for the stern to swing out.
  • At the same time, shift the engine to neutral.
  • As you approach the 90 degree point, shift to reverse and apply power.
  • The rudder remains hard over throughout the entire maneuver as the boat is still moving forward through the water.
  • The boat will begin to slow, and as it does the propwalk effect will begin to assist you by pulling the stern to port (bow to starboard).
  •  Before the boat stops completely, smoothly shift back to neutral and then into forward.
  • If the bow hasn’t made it far enough around, goose the throttle in forward to force water over that hard over rudder to complete the turn.


Norton Yachts suggest that you only attempt sailing when you have had a proper education. The most important thing when sailing is safety. Remember to always have an informed crew that communicates well with each other. Safe boating requires knowledge of the fundamentals. When you receive ASA certification, you are one step closer to keeping yourself and others out of harm’s way. Always practice safe boating! This message comes to you in part from Captain Brad Sindle, a sailing instructor at Norton’s.



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