Steering A Sailboat In Reverse: Two Simple Tricks To Getting It Straight!

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Mind Bending Backwards

It’s hard enough figuring out which way to move the tiller when steering the sailboat in forward motion, now you’re asked to get her out of the slip in reverse?! Left, right, port, starboard, which way is the bow going? Which way is the stern going to end up going? Do you ever feel like it’s a coin toss? You say to yourself, “I’ll just move the tiller and see, and if it’s going the wrong way, I’ll just do the opposite!”

This ad-hoc approach may not be appreciated by your fellow boaters especially in areas where “Mediterranean Mooring” is the preferred method of packing sailboats in a Marina like sardines in a can. image below from The Log

Mediterranean Mooring

The first thing to remember is your rudder is useless at steering the boat if it does not have water flowing over it.  On my sailboat, I have an outboard engine, so water flows over the rudder immediately when in reverse because the prop is aft of the rudder.  But, with an inboard engine where the prop is forward of the rudder, water will only start flowing over the rudder once the boat is actually making way through the water.  In this configuration, with your engine in reverse, you and your tiller are going to be fighting each other like a married couple deciding what Netflix show to watch. It’s a tug-of war for control, so you gotta hang on and show the tiller who’s boss. 

Stern Becomes Bow - Bow Becomes Stern

Okay, let’s use getting out of your boat slip as a practice example to steering in reverse.

Trick number oneTurn your body so your front body is facing the stern.

With a tiller, stand facing the stern. Now think of your stern as “the new front of the boat”.  If you have a wheel, then actually stand on the “wrong side” of the wheel. That may mean forward of the binnacle for you.

You want to drive / steer the “new front of the boat” in the direction you want. Forget about the bow! Except for checking to see if it is clear of the docks.

CENTER THE TILLER / WHEEL (rudder)!! We want to get water flowing over the rudder with the rudder at the boat’s centerline. If you don’t know if the rudder is center, go in reverse against your docklines to test it.

Note: With my outboard motor, I always test all reverse and forward gears while attached to the docklines just to make sure they work!

Detach all but one stern dock line. Which one you choose will depend on which direction you want to exit your slip and which one is most easily let go when the time comes. 

Put the engine in reverse (still facing the stern) and allow the boat to act against that one dock line briefly and even use that line to edge your “new bow / stern” to the side you want to eventually go. 

Tiller as Rifle

going in reverse with a tiller

Trick Number 2:  Imagine your Tiller is a riffle and aim your rifle to the spot you want to go.

As you exit your slip nice and straight, and you are sure you have control of the tiller that may be fighting you, look down the barrel of the rifle/tiller and aim.

If you aim to the left (boat’s starboard side) the stern will go to the left (bow will swing to the boat’s port).

Point the rifle/tiller to the right (boat’s port side), the stern will go to the right (bow will swing to the starboard).

ONLY THINK OF THE “NEW BOW”! The stern. Where do you want IT to go? Point your rifle where you want to go.

going in reverse with a wheel

Standing at the wheel on “the wrong side”, facing your stern, with your stern as the “new bow”, if you turn the wheel to the right, the stern/new bow will go to the right. If you turn the wheel to the left, the stern will go to the left.

Watch My Video Demo Below!

On a calm day, solo, I demo how I get my Coronado 25 out of her slip. She has an outboard and tiller. Hope you find this useful!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. ian J arroyo-hopper

    An excellent, simple yet thorough explanation! Somehow you were able to communicate the process without condescending overtones, also much appreciated since most of the”how to boating info” I find online is lots of old salty man-splaning

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