Huntingford Helm Impeder

What could this be? As I haven’t done a boating blog post for a while, and I usually share my technological improvements, here is my newest one.

The problem is the oldest one in the book. When you are sailing a boat, you have to hold the helm and steer your boat on the course you have chosen. You can’t let go of the tiller to go forward in the boat to sort out your rig or just to have a pee. You have to hold the damned thing all the time, otherwise the boat will go out of control and perhaps capsize. In the history of seafaring, there has always been the option of lashing the helm. This involves tying the wheel or tiller of the vessel with rope so that the rudder stays in a fixed position. Jushua Slocum could lash his helm (no fancy self-steering gear) and set his sails in such a way as the boat would sail an arrow-straight course for hundreds of miles, allowing a man to get a nap between watches. That being said, a thirty-seven foot ketch handles differently from a light ten-foot dinghy.

On my little dinghy, I have experimented with a bit of string to tie the tiller pushed hard over to lee for heaving-to. It was quite fiddly, so then I tried a length of elastic bungee cord from one side of the boat to the other. I would just decide what position I would leave the tiller in and wrap the bungee around a couple of times. I needed an easier way to lash and free the tiller.

helm-impeder01I didn’t need to invent anything new, but the solution came from a dinghy sailor by the name of John Huntingford. He explains the device on a page of the Dinghy Cruising Association website. Here is a photo of the device installed on a boat to help conceptualise it.

helm-impeder02For the technical details, I’ll leave the dinghy-cruising reader to see the link above and this pdf, Helm Impeder. I’ll give some impressions on the device as I installed it on my boat. To set it up, I needed to work out the proportions between the amount of rope going through the fairlead on the tiller and taken by the snap hook, the length of the piece of elastic and the rope going from the elastic, through the aft pulley and forward to its cleat on the tiller. I got it right by trail and error, given that my tiller is rather short.

I took my boat out yesterday in very calm conditions, though the wind did manage to give me seven to eight knots. I would handle the boat normally, and I set the sails for sailing windward against the tide. I then pulled the rope on the tiller to fix the helm and experimented with the mainsail and jib, adjusting my weather helm and lee helm. I still need to be able to cleat the mainsail. That is my next project. In calm to moderate conditions, the boat sails itself – well, almost. If the sails are not very precisely set, the boat will veer off course and either luff up into the wind or go to lee. The system is designed so that you can give yourself both hands free just for the time it takes to reef the mainsail, take down the jib, free a fouled line or just to take a leak, take a swig from your water (or something stronger) bottle or eat something, anything. You can release the helm impeder at any time, just with one hand and then steer the boat normally.

This device involves friction, so I don’t know how long the crosswise rope is going to last before it wears out. When the device isn’t needed, it can be unhooked from under the tiller, and there will be no friction on the rope, which then just flops into the bottom of the boat.

Dinghy cruisers sometime tend to over-equip their boats, and one fellow I know calls his hobby Mirror Mods (1 and 2), meaning that he “tunes” his Mirror dinghy like young people in the 1960’s embellished their motorcycles with chrome and extra headlights and rear-view mirrors. It becomes a hobby in itself, and one is never satisfied. On the other hand, Mr Sumner has given me the ideas I needed for my reefing sail, the most important modification to my boat after the adoption of the Mirror rig. I esteem him and his long sailing experience greatly, even though his presentations bring a smile to my face. Each boat has its limits, and it is perfectly possible to ruin something that worked well before. There is a balance between having what you need, whether it is a long cruise for several days involving bivouacking or just a couple of hours in the bay. My boat is too small for a full camping package, so I tend to trailer-sail and be land-based, taking the boat out for limited trips. A new book has been published on this fascinating hobby – The Dinghy Cruising Companion by Roger Barnes. This book brought me to discover the Huntingford helm preventer and many other useful tips about anchoring, trailers, coastal navigation and all sorts of things. His description of sailing in Brittany, including the trip from Loctudy to the Glénans, is exquisitely written. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys sailing for the sake of discovering a different kind of life than what is found on land.

I have often sung the praises of cruising as opposed to racing “round the cans”. The sea is a space of freedom and spirituality, but doesn’t give a damn about breaking a boat and drowning its skipper. If we approach with modesty and humility, knowing our own limits, it is possible to escape the cares of “real life” even if only for a few brief hours. Roger Barnes is someone I would like to meet, and that might happen at the two events I intend to attend next year, the Semaine du Golfe (my humble boat has been accepted) and the Route du Sable. He writes about his boat, the Ilur, which is a wooden lug rig vessel, fourteen feet long and very beamy, designed by the French boat builder François Vivier. I must say that such a boat would tempt me in the future for its seaworthiness and simplicity. We’ll see… It is true that an Ilur would expand my horizons, enabling me to camp in the boat, and therefore no longer be limited by where my road vehicle and trailer can go.

I know there are some sailors who read this blog, especially my Spanish friend Juan de la Fuente who has my sister ship. There may be others who are bitten by the bug!

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14 Responses to Huntingford Helm Impeder

  1. Juan de la Fuente says:

    This is a very interesting idea, and I,ll look into it, for I can imagine instances in which being able to let go the tiller would be nice. Besides, what else would we do to have fun with our boats but imagine improvements and modifications while on shore? It is, after all, part of our hobby.

    Yet, I guess heaving to would have to remain first choice for safest manouvering on smaller dinghies like ours.

    On my last sailing trip I got hit suddlenly by a wild thermal gale which gave me the chance to test my reefing system under preassure, and I managed very well while heaving to, except for the lacing of the 2 reef bands nearer the outhaul end of the boom, -which on hove to- had to be paralel to the wind and away from leeboard gunwhale and hand reach.
    Once reefed and having taken the jib down, I faced an upwind course again, and now that I think of it, I see indeed the Helm Impeder being ideal to have two free hands for final reef lacing and tidying up while momentarily retainig course and speed.

    Future Mods on my Mirror rigged Tabur 320 would also have to mean adapting oar locks, because at the moment I remain equiped with Kayak style double paddle, which is not very efficient on any rowing of a long distance or against the weather.

    I hope one day we´ll have the chance to cruise along together in our sister ships. Would be great fun! I,m really loving the Mirror rig on the Tabur, they suit each other and the craft behaves very versatile in all sailing conditions.


    • I have been surprised by my helm impeder in calm conditions. The boat will sail itself for a few minutes with little deviation from course. You just have to be attentive to the set of the sails and your weight and position in the boat as per normal sailing. In conditions when you need to reef the sail and take the jib down, you push the helm to lee and heave-to. You need both hands for reefing and tying up the mainsail. I also found when I reefed in a real situation that I was unable to tie the sail near the end of the boom. It is not really essential, though it looks untidy.

      This boat does not row well, but does so better with oars than a kayak paddle. Another use for the helm impeder is to use the rudder as a skeg. It stops the lateral movement of the stern which absorbs some of the rowing energy. I also leave the centreboard down to preserve the forward movement as when sailing. The Tabur 320 is a very light boat and the hull catches the wind. That is something I learned with river sailing in Brittany this summer.

      Experiment carefully with positions of things on your tiller when fitting your helm impeder.

      I also look forward to our finding ourselves on the same bit of water. I know of no other Tabur 320’s with a Mirror rig!

  2. John Huntingford says:

    Please excuse my intrusion, I have just stumbled on this site, but as I see the dialogue is recent, I thought my comments may be of interest.

    Depending on the boat and conditions, it may well be possible to stay hands-off for a protracted period, moving about the boat almost freely, but shifting one’s weight a little to leeward to steer up wind, and shifting to windward to bear away.

    When tension is completely released, the Helm Impeder system can have a tendency to jam catastrophically. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, have a stopper knot in the tensioner* that will be stopped by the V jam cleat* before the system gets so slack that hook 1* fouls fairlead 1* (*refers to DCA diagram). Sadly, this rather vital addition never made it to the diagram.

    I preferred the old V-jammer to the Clamcleat. Either should have a built-in fairlead, but the V jam cleat allowed tension to be adjusted more comfortably in the line of the tiller. Also I favoured a fairlead rather than the pulley. I think that the added friction helped in setting the desired tension.

    It may well prove to be too difficult to mount Fairlead 1* crosswise under a narrow tiller. However, I did once find, on-line, a variation with the fairlead mounted in line with the tiller, with the two ends of the horse* passing through the fairlead from opposite sides. This seems a good solution for narrow tillers.

    Best of luck with it, John Huntingford

    • This is no intrusion. You are most welcome to this very eclectic blog that includes our common hobby.

      I have seen many ingenious ideas for lashing the helm on ships and small boats. There are some manufactured products that do the job, but they seem out of proportion with a tiny dinghy such as mine. I was immediately convinced by your invention when I saw it in Roger Barnes’ book, and then I looked it up on the Internet, the Dinghy Cruising Association site in particular. I was immediately convinced by its plausibility and simplicity.

      I anticipated the problem you mention, through having always tied stop knots to the ends of just about everything since my sailing school days. I also have a V jam cleat for the line than holds my rudder in the down position. I found I had another one in my workshop and just right for the 4 mm line I was using. I anticipated that I would need to limit the movement on releasing the line. I have sailed boats with clam cleats on the tiller, and they always come undone, the rudder comes out of the water, and then the boat broaches and capsizes.

      For the fairlead on the underside of the tiller, I used a deck eye with the screw hole lugs bent to the shape of the tiller. My tiller is aluminium, so I used rivets to attach the eye. There are no sharp corners to wear out the cross-boat line. I find the system works well with a pulley on the tiller, also riveted on.

      I quite often send in sailing posts, and I rarely find cruising companions in France outside the big organised events like the Semaine du Golfe and the Route du Sable. I immediately sympathised with Roger Barnes, as we have had similar adventures and seen the same seascapes. Where do you sail? Of course, my favourite is north and south Brittany – I am far from alone. The English Channel can tend to be featureless, but the cliffs are majestic. Beaching a boat at high tide can be problematic with those “mast-breaker” waves!

  3. Juan de la Fuente says:

    Lovely to have your advice too Mr Huntingford!

    Anthony, I found there is a piece of gear which is very useful when beaching the boat, specially on pebbles, to avoid scratching the underside of the boat.

    It is a 1,50 m long, 7 cm cross section polyurethane type flexible cylinder, like the ones you see small children using as flotation toy on the beach or swimming pool. I place it tight round the inner edge of the Tabur black bonnet to store. It is featherweight and actually adds a tiny bit of flotation to the craft.

    When beaching, you just roll it as a log under the boat while pulling ashore. It helps to “wheel” it out of the water and prevents unnecessary scratches. Won’t cost you more than a quid on a Chinese hardware store. I find it very useful also for rolling on short distances like on a ramp. or even as a fender if need be.

    The Helm Impeder must be helpful too for keeping course while rowing I see now.

    • The beaching I was talking about is being pushed by a wave onto the beach. The bow digs into the shingles and the kinetic energy of the wave continues to push the stern forwards. As the boat can no longer move forwards, the stern is swung to one side and the continuing energy of the wave rolls the boat over onto the mast. This breaks the mast and / or the rigging, and can also tear the sails. The person sailing the boat is thrown out or gets the boat on top of him. The boat becomes a complete mess. You also lose everything in the boat that was not attached. I have had this happen three times. The first time, I was lucky to get my rudder back – it was found on the beach 3 days later at quite a considerable distance and returned to my club! The lesson is not to beach at high tide when there is a sea swell.

      For rolling the boat on a concrete surface without the launching trolley, I use a fender or two of them.

      The helm impeder can also be used to get the boat away from the beach to sea when there is a head wind perpendicular to the beach preventing sailing. Fix the rudder amidships and have the centreboard in its well ready to push it down. That will allow using one oar with both hands as a paddle to get beyond the breaking waves. If the waves are very big, you don’t launch from a beach but from a port. That is the downside of sailing on the sea.

      At low tide, there is no problem, because the beach is flatter and the waves are smaller as the water becomes very shallow. Keep your weight well astern as you take the waves from behind. Also the breaking waves will “poop” you and fill your boat with water. This gives additional weight and stability for beaching.

  4. Juan de la Fuente says:

    Helm Impeder.

    Instead of a fairlead for the horse line to loop through, I have installed a double cheek block. So the horse line coming from – say – starboard, runs through the first of the double blocks and back astern on the tiller underside to a pulley attached to the tension bungee. Then back forth to the second of double cheek blocks and out to the port side gunwale.

    The bungee runs to a fairlead at the astern end of the tiller and back forth to a V jammer.

    A knot at the bungee end holds just enough tension to keep everything tidy, without friction, and a single pull jams the tiller on position, yet still I can force movement on it if need be without having to release first.

    I’ll send you photos and account when I try it on water.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Juan de la Fuente says:

    Here is a video that shows how I have configured a Helm Impeder on my Mirror rigged Tabur 320. It is based on Huntingford’s system, but it is a little further engineered using a double cheek block instead of a fairlead to run the horse line. I saw a guy doing this: and as I happened to have a spare double block, I gave it a try.

    I’ll see how it works in the water, and what adjustments and modifications need to be done.

    What I like about it is the lack of friction on the horse line plus the fact that even under tension, the tiller position can be readjusted without needing to un-cleat anything before hand, so corrections on course can be done at a fraction of a second, which on small dinghies is vital.

    The video also shows my simple but super efficient hove to cleat system.

    Thanks Anthony for article and threads, and thanks Mr Huntingford for your feedback.

    • Many thanks. As I thought over Mr Huntingford’s invention, I was concerned for simplicity and ease in dismantling when the rudder is removed on beaching the boat or just before landing, depending on the conditions. I can see that Juan’s system avoids any friction when the elastic is not pulled tight. I have a small amount of friction, but the system is not so loose as to run the risk of parts getting tangled and jamming the helm. I need to see in time whether the “horse line” will wear out. On my boat, the horse line is attached by plastic hooks to the stern gunwales – a second way of undoing everything if necessary. On my boat, friction is also reduced by having the horse line straight across at the point of the forward fairlead (double pulley on Juan’s tiller).

      With my system, the helm can be moved even when the impeder is tight (the reason for using a piece of elastic) – but it is just as easy to uncleat the line in order to revert to normal steering.

  6. Juan de la Fuente says:

    Anthony, could you show me how did you do for your oarlocks? What type you think best? and what do you use for a bench when rowing? If you have any close up photos of your rowing configuration I,d love to see. I still have to find some oarlocks on ebay, but your advice would be welcome as on everything else.

  7. Juan de la Fuente says:

    Tried out the new Helm Impeder, and I found it absolutely wonderful. No longer obliged to keep one hand on the tiller at all times, it makes life on board much easier, and a much more pleasant experience. The pulley system works smoothly and without any friction.

    Thanks Anthony again for your advice.


  8. Juan de la Fuente says:

    Hi once again on this blog post about steering.

    I have adapted the possibility of using a small storm jib as an alternative configuration while sailing with a reefed mainsail and found this video that explains how the storm jib can be used to self steer the boat.

    Not that we need much of this on our dinghies, but I found this to be nevertheless an interesting idea related to the steering of a sailing boat.

    Here is the link:

    Wish you Anthony a happy 2015 full of unforgettable sailing experiences.


    • The usual self-steering gear on a yacht is an electronic device running from the 12v battery or mechanical, using a wind vane and a mini-rudder. The advantage of this is obvious on a long voyage. The dinghy only sails for a few hours at a time, and I find the helm impeder enough to have both hands free for a short time. This device is interesting, and very simple.

      Our Mirror-rigged dinghies don’t need a jib when the mainsail is reefed. That is if you tack with a dry and quick movement. The jib is useful for sailing downwind without the mainsail. Much less can be done on a dinghy at sea than a yacht. A furling jib is a good idea, but I have heard it works badly with the Mirror cut of the jib.

      Thank you for the heads-up about this steering device.

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