The placement of you and your sail rig in the canoe
is part science and part of the art of sailing well. In order to sail
safely and under control, it is essential to obey the physical laws of
balance. In order to sail with aplomb under challenging weather
conditions, it is essential to understand how to balance your rig. The
best part about sailing a canoe is that you learn about the harmony of
the elements inside the canoe with those elements outside the canoe.
One note of warning: it is not quick and not as easy as it looks!
Balancing the Rig
When you use a regular sailboat, the rig is already balanced
and ready to sail. When you install a rig on a canoe, it is necessary
to determine where to install the rig so that it will be balanced and
safe. Balance is the ability to steer the boat in a straight direction
and in a stable, controlled manner with minimal stress under varying
conditions of speed and weather.
Let's say you have a complete rig and a canoe. Find the
center of the canoe and sit there. With your legs facing forward, the
leeboard thwart goes approximately over your knees. When sailing, it is
easiest to control the boat if you sit near the leeboard thwart.
Mast Step and Leeboard Thwart Placement
The mast step should be placed in relation to the location
of the leeboard thwart and vice-versa for a balanced rig. It is
recommended that you start by using secure clamps to attach the
leeboard thwart to the gunwales so that you can make adjustments.
Find the center of effort
(CE) of the sail. Mark the spot with tape. The center of effort of
the sail should be over the leeboard thwart and then move it a little
aft. If you cannot move the sail aft, move the leeboard thwart forward.
(You can find the optimal position when you sail by fine tuning through
trial and error.) The leeboard provides the center of lateral
resistance or the CLR. An instructional book on sailing will explain
how the vertical relationship of the CE and the CLR provides the
driving force to make the sailboat move forward.
The location of the mast step goes forward according to the
dimensions, or the width, of the sail. If you are using your canoe with
the seats in it, the back thwart of the bow seat may be a good location
for the mast step. The greater the distance from the CE to the CLR, the
harder it is to control, or steer. Some people who use a 44 square foot
lateen sail, depending on the width of the sail, set the mast thwart
about 26 or 27 inches from the leeboard thwart, or 24 inches when using
a Marconi sail.
Sailing the Canoe
With a thwart for a backrest, a nice day, and enough
flotation to fill about half the canoe, check it out! (Roughly, there
is an inverse relationship between the amount of flotation you have in
your canoe and the amount of flotation you may need.) Both pivoting the
leeboard up and down and moving your weight fore and aft are the
easiest ways to affect the balance of your sail rig. Fine tuning can
mean leaning forward or putting a leg on the gunwale. You may want to
use your foot to move the leeboard up and down slightly as you become
experienced in your boat. Sailing with the hull flat, sitting in the
bottom of the canoe, is more effective than heeling the canoe.
To bring the bow toward the wind move your weight forward.
It should not be necessary to paddle in order to turn the sailing canoe
around. Not only can you adjust your weight and the sail, one at a
time, but you can adjust the leeboard by pivoting it up and down. To go
into the wind, or tack, put the leeboard in a vertical position and
To sail before the wind, raise the leeboard to a diagonal
and lean your weight aft. If you still have trouble steering, then you
can move the leeboard thwart: towards the mast to get more windward
Warning! Obviously, it is important to be able to
control the steering for stability and safety. If it is hard to steer
or the boat is hard to control your rig may have lee helm. This
dangerous condition means you may zoom downwind mercilessly! Another
fortuitous result may be a broken rudder, capsize or collision. Lee
helm is the unbalanced state when the bow of the boat pushes to the
downwind side or to the lee. This happens when the center of effort of
the sail is forward of the center of lateral resistance, or leeboard.
To correct for this condition of lee helm, you need to move the
leeboard thwart slightly forward of the sail's CE, an inch at a time.
You want a slight windward helm, which means that the canoe will turn
into the wind and stop if you let go of the sail and steering. This is
how sailboats are supposed to be designed. Less this seems too
simplified, it is interesting to know that other variables which affect
balance include hull shape, size of the rudder, amount and placement of
weight inside the canoe, amount of sail trim, wind and many other
Fine Tuning In Light Air
On a fair day with steady winds, about 10 knots, the
leeboard straight down, try these maneuvers:
- Sail the canoe to turn into the wind and come about. If
your canoe is difficult to turn into the wind and moving your weight
forward is not enough, try readjusting the leeboard thwart further
forward, as soon as possible! This condition is known as lee helm and
can be dangerous. In strong wind, steering the canoe will be difficult
and out of control.
- Steer the canoe dead into the wind with the leeboard
down. Let go of the sail and helm. The canoe should stay dead into the
wind. If not, move your weight to find a good balance. If it steers
into the wind too easily and the tiller has a hard pull, you have too
much windward helm. It may be necessary to move the leeboard thwart
- Steer on a beam reach, let the sail out 45 degrees in
light air. The canoe should sail straight with only a light touch on
- Sailing downwind, in 10-15 knots, the canoe should steer
straight without resistance from the tiller.
- Sail the canoe with a paddle instead of a rudder.
- Sail the canoe without a rudder or a paddle by shifting
your weight: forward to go closer to the wind and leaning aft to go
away from the wind.
- At a later date, check the rig in heavier air for balance.
- If you add or subtract a passenger, this weight and its
placement affect the balance. Repeat these maneuvers. You may need to
change the location of the leeboard thwart.
Readjust the leeboard and position of the leeboard thwart
until you find the optimum sailing ease. If you need to move the
leeboard thwart, just one inch can make the difference!
Steering With a Paddle
This is a good way to test the balance of your canoe in a
light breeze. It is like learning to eat with chopsticks. Once you get
used to it, no problem! A shorter paddle than usual is recommended. Be
sure to carry a spare! A wood paddle is the least slippery; cord or a
leather piece wrapped and sewn around the shaft at the point of contact
Place the paddle on the lee side of the boat, or, the same
side as the sail. With one hand, rest the paddle shaft on the gunwale
and hook your thumb under the grip. In light winds, under 10 knots, it
should not be hard to hold the paddle down. If so, shift your weight.
Allow time for the boat to react.! To steer, hold the paddle blade in
the water just as much as you need to in order to go straight. If you
find it is too hard to hold the paddle down, it is either too windy or
your sailing canoe is not balanced.
To turn into the wind lean forward, shift the paddle to the
other side and hold it on the opposing gunwale.
For more information on balancing a rig, see Chapter Four
("Balancing the Rig of A Small Sailboat") in John Gardner's Classic
Small Craft You Can Build, published by Mystic Seaport Museum,
Mystic CT, 1993.