Jim Michalak's Boat Designs

1024 Merrill St, Lebanon, IL 62254

A page of boat designs and essays.

(1 March 2018) We discuss sailing trim. The 15 March issue will continue the subject.



is out now, written by me and edited by Garth Battista of Breakaway Books. You might find it at your bookstore. If not check it out at the....

REND LAKE 2018...

...will take place on June 8 and 9, always on the weekend before Father's Day weekend. WE HAVE ALREADY NAILED SITES 25 THROUGH 29 SO THE END OF THE LOOP IS OURS. THANKS TO ALL WHO HELPED NAIL THEM DOWN.


...which can now be found at Duckworks Magazine. You order with a shopping cart set up and pay with credit cards or by Paypal. Then Duckworks sends me an email about the order and then I send the plans right from me to you.


A photo from the past. Marc Smith brought his 12 year old daughter and her friend to one of the first Rend Lake messabouts with these two new Totos which were built by the girls (with Marc's help). I am thinking this would have been in the early 1990's. I am going to bug Marc to write an essay about the adventure.



Contact info:


Jim Michalak
1024 Merrill St,
Lebanon, IL 62254

Send $1 for info on 20 boats.



Sail Rig Trim 1

I've been putting this essay off for a long time. Sometimes I think other writers have put it off for ever.

I get letters regularly about how a boat won't sail right even if it is built to plans. The problem is almost always one of balance although it might not appear that way at first glance. The usual comment is that "it won't go to windward", or "it won't tack".

Designing a boat is something of a fuzzy experience. It would be nice if you could really pin down things like weight and sail shape and then build from experience to improve and trim the boat to perfection. Almost all builders do a decent job of building to the plans but in a do-it-yourself hobby there are lots of variations. I don't see anything wrong with that and in a way the variations are what make it interesting and in the long run result in improvement. Like evolution. So even if you designed the perfect boat, which I will never do, it might never get built just so and you would never know it. Conversly, you might design a sow's ear and the builder makes some critical changes that turn it into a silk purse. But he doesn't tell you what they are and you can't figure out why all the later boats were dogs.

I'm not the only one who has this problem and I'll present a personal experience showing how the fuzz works. Back in 1989 when I built my Bolger Birdwatcher I was working to the original plans, the very same plans that Ron Meuller use to built the first prototype. We also made sails using Sailrite materials shaped to the same chapter in Sailrites book. As I was nearly complete, I wrote to Bolger about one thing or another and he replied that something was "fixed in the revisions sheet". Revision sheet?! I had no revision sheet (and still have never seen it). Anyway, Ron's prototype had experienced weather helm so strong that the rudder force had bent his rudder fittings. The rake and location of the mast was changed to fix the situation. But I had missed out on that knowledge and decided to go ahead and launch my Birdwatcher unchanged. I should also have excessive weather helm, right? If anything, I had lee helm! I never figured it out. Birdwatcher was maybe four years past on Bolger's thoughts and he let the subject pass. (Never forget that even if you are building a prototype, the designer may have drawn dozens of boats since he did yours and may not have it on his mind at all.) Sometimes all you can say is "stuff happens".


Here is the basic picture of my normal first cut at "sail balance" where the center of the sail area is right above the center of the leeboard area. See the essay about "sail area math" to refresh your memory. There are lots of variations that designers use when making this balance but this is the one I prefer because it is the simplest, and all of them are approximations. Might as well stick with a simple approximation.

Here is what we would like it to look like from straight above a boat that is not heeling for a boat with neutral balance:

The thrust and side forces of the sail are perfectly aligned and in balance with the side and drag forces on the hull. Here I've shown the boat sailing to windward such that the side force is about three times the thrust force which can happen quite easily in a real boat. So there is no rotational force on the boat. You would not need a rudder in this case, or if you had one it would be centered. (By the way, if you had a rudder in this case and left it down it is not true that you could let the tiller go and expect the boat to stay on course because usually every little rock and roll of the boat will cause the tiller and rudder to twitch and the boat will respond. So you would have to lash it centered or lift it out of the water.)

Now let us look at the picture same as above but with the sail forces moved slightly forward, for example if you hoisted a jib on a rig that was balanced without it.

Now there is a rotational force trying to turn this boat to the right, away from the wind. You can hold the boat straight by applying a rudder force to the left (tiller right) to balance it. That rudder force must be balanced by the leeboard force adding to the board's side force. This situation is called "lee helm".

But if the sail forces were moved aft of the leeboard then you would have this situation.

Now there is a rotational force trying to turn the boat to the left, into the wind. You can hold the boat straight by applying a rudder force to the right (tiller left) to balance it. In order to keep it all in balance that rudder force will subtract from the force on the leeboard. This situation is called "weather helm".

Lee helm is considered to be bad because it generates more total force (and thus drag) on the leeboard. And it is considered to be dangerous because if you fall off a boat with lee helm it will take off downwind without you.

Weather helm is considered to be good because it reduces the total force on the leeboard. And it is considered to be a safety factor because if you fall off a boat with weather helm it might swing into the wind, stall out and stop sailing and wait for you (but don't count on it).

(You flyers out there might take note that this "stability" of the sail rig is the opposite of an airplane's. Here we want the sail to stall if unattended where on an airplane the unattended wing is suppose to glide downward (downwind if you will).)

There is a handling issue involved here too in that a boat with lee helm will be more reluctant to steer into the wind and tack through the wind. Thus if you have a boat that tacks poorly the first thing I would check for is the helm, weather or lee?

Here is a simple way to check the helm. You need a boat with a tiller that swings free on the hinges and has nothing (such as sheet lines) connected to it. Get your boat sailing smoothly on a course and let go of the tiller. If the boat swings into the wind you have weather helm. If it takes off downwind you have lee helm. If it stays on course you have neutral helm. If you have a boat with a steering wheel you may not be able to do this test since many wheel systems have no feedback.

Sounds pretty simple, right? But the helm forces can change all the time as the boat balance changes.


Let's say the captain builds that boat in the first figure perfectly. He goes for a sail sitting in the stern along with his gal and their beer and the stereo and maybe a 20hp motor. The boat squats down in the stern because of the weight there. The bow is way up in the air. She still floats fine but with that stern way down and the bow way up, when she turns into the wind, the the bow is trying to get blown backward. The skipper corrects by adding rudder to turn it into the wind, giving him lee helm under the situation. The opposite situation would be to have all the weight in the bow to give the boat more weather helm but that hardly ever happens because the tiller is in the stern. But there have been boats that were steered by changing trim this way. John Gardner in one of his books describes racing with fleets of skiffs (in New York, I think) that had spritsails and no rudders. All steering was done by skippers running fore and aft in their boats.

Next, let us say that you don't have a symmetric boat, as is the case of a boat with a single leeboard (as with almost all my sailboats). Now the view of forces might be like this:

Remember that the side force on the leeboard can be considerable and with that side force goes drag. I would think that when sailing hard to windward the drag of the leeboard might be a good portion of the total drag. So imagine dipping a paddle down one side of a canoe - the boat will turn in that direction. And so it is with leeboards - the boat will try to curl towards the side of the boat with the leeboard. It should have weather helm all the time but there might be situations where it has weather helm on one tack and lee helm on the other tack. How critical is it? Not very, at least not in a boat of normal proportions where the beam is no more than one fourth of the length. The first time I noticed this was on my old Bolger Jinni which had many asymmetries. The leeboard was on one side, the mizzen sail was off to one side, and both sails used sprit booms which cannot be symmetric. I could tell after a season that it was sailing with slightly different helm on each tack but thought it was due to the offset mizzen mast. That might be true to some degree, but after a few seasons I was convinced that the majority of it was due to the leeboard drag always being on one side.

Next there is sail trim. The more the sail is boomed out, the more weather helm you will have since the now the sail's forces are swinging off to one side. The extreme will be when you have it boomed out 90 degrees and all of the force is trying to rotate the hull to windward. On boats with long booms and shallow rudders, as with traditional catboats, this can be a limiting factor on your control in that the rudder may not be able to counteract the sail force and she will swing into the wind no matter what. You may have to tack downwind.

But another subtle effect comes when going to windward. As you haul the sheet inward, you will get less and less weather helm. This was very obvious on the Jinni and it would not be unusual to have lee helm when the sail was pinched all the way inward. You can in some situations steer the boat quite well by pulling the sail in and out, changing the helm from lee to weather. But if you pinch the sail in so much that you have lee helm you are most likely in a situation where you won't be getting anywhere fast.

However, I think the most important cause in variations of helm is in the heeling of the boat. Let us look at the top view of the boat as before but now she is heeled over in the wind:

Looking straight down from above, now the force of the sail is way off to one side. The sail's thrust is trying to rotate the hull into the wind on the heeled boat. The effect is usually quite powerful, sometimes to the point where the skipper or the rudder can't hold the boat on course. The more she heels, the greater the rotational force and the greater the rudder forces needed to hold it.

This would always be weather helm since the effect of sail thrust on a heeled boat is always to turn the boat into the wind.

So there is the builder's dilemma. Design you boat for weather helm in light winds (when she will sail upright) and you might get excessive weather helm in strong winds. Unless the helm of a boat is totally out of whack, I try to not make any judgement until I've sailed the boat over a wide range of conditions. Lee helm in light winds may not be a problem. Strong weather helm in strong winds might be OK. After a few times out you may decide you aren't happy with it. You think it could be better in an all around way. What to do?

Next time... we'll look at what to do.




Bruce Given of Virginia Beach, Virginia, did a perfect job on the AF4B prototype shown above. He said he didn't have the shop space to build the 18' AF4 and when I saw the photo of him working I believed him. So I scrunched the 18' AF4 down to 15.5'. I took 1' out of the cabin shortening it to 7', 1' out of the cockpit shortening it to 5', and 6" out of the motor well. I'm pretty sure everything is still acceptable, although the longer AF4 might still be preferred if you can live with the length. The width and depth of the cabin and transom are tha same as AF4's.

To a certain extent you could build the shorter boat without new plans by scrunching up the length dimensions. That method would be a lot more reliable for a simple flat iron skiff like this one. For more complex shapes where all the panels are expansions, including sides, bottom and bilge panels, it would not be so reliable. Bill Wainright built the original Smoar rowboat by scrunching up the Roar2 drawings but he is a sculptor and did the job with a model. Later I drew Smoar from scratch. Also the bevels shown on the long boat drawings will not be correct. That might be no problem with a taped seam hull.


So AF4B is a totally new set of drawings. There are two changes made besides the scrunching. I made the bottom 1/2" thick instead of 3/8" as I built into my AF4. Most folks would prefer the extra stiffness. On AF4 I think of the bottom flexing only when running hard into chop. The extra thickness finds its way into a lot of other parts since they are made from the off fall of the bottom panels. You could make the bottom from 3/8" ply and save about 50 pounds on the total weight. The second change adds a bottom to the bow well which lifts the well bottom up about 18". It is more complex to build but the original deeper well is hard to reach all the way into. The area below the new well is accessible from the cabin for an iota more storage.

Still suggesting 10 horse power max.


AF4B is simple nail and glue construction with four sheets of 1/4" plywood and four sheets of 1/2" plywood.

Plans for AF4B are $30.


Prototype News

Some of you may know that in addition to the one buck catalog which now contains 20 "done" boats, I offer another catalog of 20 unbuilt prototypes. The buck catalog has on its last page a list and brief description of the boats currently in the Catalog of Prototypes. That catalog also contains some articles that I wrote for Messing About In Boats and Boatbuilder magazines. The Catalog of Prototypes costs $3. The both together amount to 50 pages for $4, an offer you may have seen in Woodenboat ads. Payment must be in US funds. The banks here won't accept anything else. (I've got a little stash of foreign currency that I can admire but not spend.) I'm way too small for credit cards.

We have a Picara finished by Ken Giles, past Mayfly16 master, and into its trials. The hull was built by Vincent Lavender in Massachusetts. There have been other Picaras finished in the past but I never got a sailing report for them...

And the Vole in New York is Garth Battista's of www.breakawaybooks.com, printer of my book and Max's old outboard book and many other fine sports books. Beautiful job! Garth is using a small lug rig for sail, not the sharpie sprit sail shown on the plans, so I will continue to carry the design as a prototype boat. But he has used it extensively on his Bahamas trip towed behind his Cormorant. Sort of like having a compact car towed behind an RV.

And a Deansbox seen in Texas:

Another prototype Twister is well along:

A brave soul has started a Robbsboat. He has a builder's blog at http://tomsrobbsboat.blogspot.com. (OOPS! He found a mistake in the side bevels of bulkhead5, says 20 degrees but should be 10 degrees.) This boat has been sailed and is being tested. He has found the sail area a bit much for his area and is putting in serious reef points.






15mar17, Underwater Board Shape, Harmonica

1apr17, Capsize Lesson, RiverRunner

15apr17, Measuring Leeway, Mayfly16

1may17, Scarfing Lumber, Blobster

15may17, Rigging Lugsails, QT Skiff

1jun17, Rowing1, Mayfly14

15jun17, Rend Lake 2017, Mixer

1jul17, Rowing2, Viola14

15jul17, Rowing3, Vamp

1aug17, RowingSetup, Oracle

15aug17, Taped Seams, Cormorant

1sep17, OliveOly Capsize Test, OliveOly

15sep17, Plywood Butt Joints, Philsboat

1oct17, Sailing OliveOyl, Larsboat

15oct17, Water Ballast, Jonsboat

1nov17, Water Ballast Details, Piccup Pram

15nov17, Scram Pram Capsize, Harmonica

1dec17, Sail Area Math, Ladybug

15dec17, Cartopping, Sportdory

1jan18, Trailering, Normsboat

15jan18, AF3 Capsize Test, Robote

1feb18, Bulkhead Bevels, Toto

15feb18, Sail Rig Spars, IMB


Mother of All Boat Links

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Duckworks Magazine

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Dave Carnell

Rich builds AF2

JB Builds AF4

JB Builds Sportdory

Hullform Download

Puddle Duck Website

Brian builds Roar2

Herb builds AF3

Herb builds RB42

Barry Builds Toto

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