Long-keelers are known for having a mind of their own when going astern, so how do you let them know who’s boss? David Harding offers some suggestions

If you own a long keel sailboat, chances are that you don’t particularly relish the prospect of entering an unfamiliar marina – or even the one where you’re normally berthed.

Then there’s always the question of getting out again.

Of course, there are long keelers and long keelers. Some are more nimble and predictable than others.

Many long keel sailboats live in marinas, some in berths chosen to accommodate their idiosyncrasies and allow their skippers to get in and out without too many dramas.

A Voyager 30 bilge keel yacht

Mike Farquharson-Roberts’ Voyager 30 Carisbrooke Lady. Credit: David Harding

Others occupy slots that really don’t make life easy.

Whatever the situation with your home berth, when the cheery tones of the berthing master in a marina that you’re visiting come wafting over the VHF radio offering you ‘F17, port side to’, you often have little idea what to expect.

So, if your comfortable, steady, predictable and much-loved long-keeled cruiser becomes an uncooperative, pig-headed beast as soon as you engage reverse, what can you do about it?

Fundamentals of the breed

Any type of boat is prone to the effects of prop-walk – the tendency of the propeller to pull the stern one way or the other – but long-keelers are often the worst afflicted.

Some kick hard to port or to starboard and it’s the devil’s own job to change direction once they’re off one way, let alone to go in a straight line.

If they can be persuaded to obey, it often takes more room than you’ll have in a marina.

In such instances, the best solution is not to go astern unless you have to.

As one long keel sailboat owner puts it, ‘I use reverse only as a brake.’

Do everything you can in ahead, practice ‘winding ship’ (turning end-for-end using warps), get good at three-point (or multi-point) turns – whatever it takes to avoid going backwards for more than half a boat-length.

Try as you might, however, it’s almost impossible to avoid the need to reverse altogether, which is why we’re going to take a look at what can be done.

Establishing the basics

Owners of a long keel sailboat will generally be well aware which way their boats kick in astern.

A right-handed prop should induce a kick to port, whereas a boat with a left-handed prop should kick to starboard.

A right-handed prop will tend to kick the stern to port in reverse...

A right-handed prop will tend to kick the stern to port in reverse…

Because prop-walk often pulls the boat one way or the other almost immediately, and the long keel makes it reluctant to change direction, it can seem as though you’re trying to fight the inevitable.

One trick, applicable to boats of any underwater configuration, is to build up speed in astern and then knock the engine out of gear.

A diagram showing prop walk

….whereas a left-handed prop will induce a kick to starboard

The rudder is then no longer fighting the prop-walk and, with sufficient water flow over it, will start to have an effect.

Long- keelers often respond to this technique, though again in a marina there isn’t always enough space to make use of it.

Multi-point turns with a long keel sailboat

Another approach is to use reverse gear simply as a means of going astern, and to do your steering in ahead.

Engage reverse, go astern as far as space allows in whichever direction the boat pulls, and then use full lock and a burst of ahead to bring the bow round using prop-wash over the rudder.

A diagram showing prop walk on a long keel sailboat

Prop-walk will often overrule the rudder when a boat starts to turn (top)…..but if the engine is put into neutral or the revs are cut back once speed is built-up (centre)……many boats will respond to the rudder (bottom)

With the stern pointing in the right direction again (or offset to allow for the prop-walk), go astern again and repeat the process.

We will look at how this works a little later.

No matter what you do, there will be situations in which the boat simply won’t respond. Long keels mean limitations.

A long keel sailboat owner’s challenge

While some boats kick, others don’t but are still reluctant to cooperate – such as Carisbrooke Lady, a Voyager 30 owned by Mike Farquharson-Roberts.

Mike contacted PBO to suggest a feature on handling long-keelers in astern, on the basis that plenty of owners like him face recalcitrance every time they engage reverse.

Rather than simply producing a feature about the generalities of long-keelers in astern, however, we thought we should go along to see the challenges faced by Mike in his marina.

Continues below…

While this combination of berth and boat would be particular to his situation, we reckoned that some of the factors would be familiar to other owners and that performing a few manoeuvres would help to put them into context.

It had had become clear from discussions before we met that Mike is a highly experienced sailor who had tried all the usual techniques to gain the cooperation of Carisbrooke Lady, yet more often than not she still refuses to let him have the upper hand.

Whether we would be able to come up with any ideas to help was another question altogether.

We picked a day when there wasn’t too much wind on the basis that, from what Mike had said, we would have enough of a challenge as it was. Introducing any avoidable variables wouldn’t help.

Getting out of the marina berth

In Mike’s home marina there are no finger berths: where he keeps Carisbrooke Lady the boats live up to two abreast on two long pontoons, with a gap in between of about two boat-lengths.

Mike comes in forwards because that’s the only sensible option. To get out, he turns the boat around.

If he’s on the inside berth he will ‘wind ship’, with the boats still attached to each other, so he ends up on the outside and facing the right way.

A diagram showing how to go forward in a long keel sailboat

1. Going ahead on starboard lock turns the boat sharply
2. A few seconds in astern stops the forward motion but she’s still turning. The helm is kept hard to starboard because the boat never establishes sternway
3. Another burst of ahead completes the turn

If he has come into the outside berth, he will drop warps, motor off and perform a three-point turn.

That sounds like a challenge, but Mike manages it even if it’s not always easy or comfortable.

Carisbrooke Lady responds well to prop-wash, turning sharply in ahead without moving forward significantly.

Every boat that’s awkward to manoeuvre needs a redeeming feature.

Turning and going out forwards

Alternating between bursts of ahead and astern while keeping the rudder hard over the same way is often a good way to turn a long-keeler through 180°.

Going out astern

Wanting to see why Mike prefers to turn around and go out forwards, I asked him to try reversing.

I was aboard with him and soon saw the problem.

A diagram showing how to go out astern in a long keel sailboat

Carisbrooke Lady’s apparent unpredictability in reverse meant she would reverse in whichever direction she chose.

It took two ‘shunts’ to realign her and get her out of the marina.

Assessing behaviour of the long keel sailboat

Having explored the two most obvious ways to get out of the berth, we took Carisbrooke Lady into open water.

I wanted Mike to put her through a few tests to establish what she would and wouldn’t do.

Mike told me there was no consistency when it came to the direction she would choose to go in astern: it was anyone’s guess.

I asked him to bring her to a standstill, then engage reverse with the wheel central.

As he had said, first she went one way and the next time she went the other.

Even putting the rudder on full lock (only about 40°) had no effect for some distance: she would often go in the opposite direction.

With her right-handed prop she should, in theory, pull to port in astern, yet there was no detectable kick.

With space in which to play, we established that she would respond to the rudder in whichever direction we asked if we built up speed and then knocked the engine out of gear.

It took time, however and, having started to steer one way, she would not be persuaded to change direction.

I also wanted to see the effects of wind on the bow.

The keel is cut away at the forefoot, which is why she responds so positively in ahead, but it means that the bow is prone to being blown off by the wind.

In one experiment, I asked Mike to start with the light wind just off the starboard bow.

We gained sternway with the rudder over to port but the stern still swung to starboard and carried on swinging until we had turned through almost 180°.

Things were not looking good.

Here was a boat with no pronounced kick in astern but whose behaviour seemed impossible to predict when there was no wind.

When there was even the lightest of breezes, it took charge.

Exerting authority

The challenge was on. Could we find a way to gain and maintain control in astern?

That the boat exhibited no significant kick and did begin to respond once she had built up speed were factors that guided our next move.

We gave her more revs and took her astern faster than before. She responded.

If she started to swing one way and we wanted to change course, the answer was to increase the revs again, pick up speed and then cut the revs.

Rudders become more effective at higher speeds and, when there’s a long keel making life difficult, they need all the help they can get – especially if wind is a factor too.

Here’s a summary of what we established:

  • A good burst of reverse was needed initially to get the boat moving. Being too gentle with the throttle didn’t work.
  • Maintaining a minimum speed was critical. As well as turning the wheel to correct a swing, we needed to increase the revs to gain speed, then reduce them or go into neutral to let the rudder work without hindrance.
  • Keeping the speed up doesn’t mean charging astern at an alarming pace. Speed could be reduced when she was running straight, and increased when a swing needed to be initiated or corrected.
  • Frequent small corrections of the wheel were essential. If the bow was allowed to swing too far, the momentum would sometimes carry her through 90° or more.
  • It was essential to anticipate the swing of the boat, and be ready to steer the other way.
  • Facing forward makes it much easier to see the bow swinging. More on this later!

Making this work in open water was one thing. What about reversing between the pontoons past Mike’s berth?

That would be a good test. It would be made more challenging by the wind being from the south-east, on our starboard bow.

We built up speed (about 2.5 knots) in clear water outside the marina, then reversed all the way up the run – a couple of hundred yards.

As soon as I saw the bow beginning to swing to port, I increased the revs, steered the stern to port to counter the swing and then reduced the revs, keeping an eye on the bow and correcting straight away if it began to swing to starboard.

Reversing safely along a confined channel with a long keel sailboat: step by step

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

1. Mike brings Carisbrooke Lady to a stop with the bow angled to starboard, slightly into the breeze. In a marina, the wind can often not be seen on the water but still be felt at deck level and above.

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

2. We have just begun to go astern and already the bow is swinging to port, so the stern is pointing straight up the run between the pontoons.

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

3. The swing continues and the blue-hulled Vancouver is getting close.

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

4. Mike uses a burst of ahead on starboard lock to swing the bow to starboard and line up again.

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

5. The bow isn’t angled into the wind this time, so as soon as the boat goes astern she’s heading for the starboard side again and needs another correction in ahead.

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

6. A further corrective shunt or two later, we’re in the middle and ready for another go.

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

7. We have drawn close to the Konsort on the starboard side, but this time Mike is using more revs. More speed means the boat responds to the wheel and the stern swings into line…

A man wearing a hat reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

8…so we carry on straight up the run. Success!

A stiffer challenge

So far, so good: we had proved that a Voyager 30 could be reversed for some distance up a relatively narrow gap.

Dozens of owners might be reading this and shouting ‘we know that already!’, but we were on a learning curve and it was welcome progress.

I was conscious that we had made life easy for ourselves, however.

A diagram showing how to move a long keel sailboat from forward to astern

Going from forward to astern, angle the bow into the wind before engaging reverse. The same principle applies if you need to offset the effects of prop-walk

Building up speed to establish steerage way outside a confined space isn’t always possible.

What would happen if we were coming out forward and then had to stop and reverse because, for example, another boat was heading in? There was one way to find out… Thankfully it worked.

These were our conclusions:

  • Don’t linger between forward and reverse. A boat that’s dead in the water is at the mercy of the elements. If the wind has started to blow the bow round only a few degrees it will make life difficult once you start going astern.
  • As you stop going ahead, angle the bow slightly into the wind to offset its effect when you start reversing. (see diagram below)
  • A sharper gust of wind can still swing the boat further than you would like once you’re going astern. If this happens and you find yourself heading towards a yacht on either side, you need to make a judgement: do you have enough space to increase the revs and correct the swing? It can seem counter-intuitive to speed up in this situation, and too much speed in confined areas is never a good idea. If it’s not looking good, there’s always the bail-out option: a burst of ahead on opposite lock to realign the boat, then into reverse again.

Practical applications

We were encouraged by the progress we made during our experiments. Mike reckons he will still do everything he can in ahead and use reverse only when strictly necessary, but his options are now increased.

When conditions are suitably light he could, for example, reverse up between the pontoons and then go forward into his berth.

We ran out of time to try this or reversing around corners – two other manoeuvres that would have been interesting. I did, however, persuade Mike to reverse out of his berth. This is what happened:

A man reversing a long keel sailboat in a marina

Credit: David Harding

1. Warps dropped, stern swung out far enough to clear the boats in the next berth, and a good bit of throttle to get the boat moving. Note the prop-wash under the starboard bow from the right-handed propeller.

A long keel sailboat being reversed in a marina

Credit: David Harding

2. Carisbrooke Lady is running straight. It’s looking good…

A boat being reversed in a marina

Credit: David Harding

3…and she continues all the way into open water. Not something to attempt in a strong south-westerly, but this is a first!

Which way to face – forward or back?

At the wheel I gave no thought to which way I was facing but was, in fact, facing forward and glancing frequently astern.

A man on a boat

Facing aft when going astern is sometimes encouraging….

Mike started facing aft – as he had been taught years ago in powerboats and as still encouraged by some instructors in sailing yachts too.

The deck of a yacht

… but only by looking forward can you see when the bow is starting to swing. Credit: David Harding

The trouble with facing aft is that you can’t see the tiny swings of the bow that indicate when a correction is needed. But there’s no hard and fast rule – you need to face whichever way works for you.

PBO Verdict

Unless you fit a bow thruster, there’s a limit to the obedience you can instil in a long keel sailboat in astern.

Certain fundamental principles apply to long-keelers as a breed, but boats vary widely. There’s no rule book.

We just experimented, observed, formulated some ideas and put them into practice to see what would happen.

As with sailing, feel and instinct have a large part to play. Often you do it frst and fgure out why it worked afterwards.

What works with Carisbrooke Lady will not work with every long keel sailboat – especially those with a pronounced kick.

You don’t have to look very far to fnd comments like this: ‘My own experience shows that gunning the engine to get moving creates more walk, and that if I take it slower, the prop is actually more efficient and kicks the stern less’.

Some owners will employ different techniques because their boats are different or because they have better ways of achieving what we were trying to achieve – in which case we’d be delighted to hear.

Enjoyed reading Going astern in a long keel sailboat?

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