Averting a Death Roll

Averting a death roll is very satisfying, and knowing you can do it will also give you the confidence to learn to sail fast downwind



What the Experts Say

The worst thing you can do is sheet out or alter course as this makes the boat unstable and uncontrollable
Paul Goodison, Laser Handbook

If you pull it (the tiller) towards you, the rudder becomes a lowering plane and drives the boat deeper ‘by the lee’ and forces the boat upright
Steve Cockerill in The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing (by Ben Tan)

…keep your hands in front of your body. When you start to roll to windward trim the mainsheet in while reaching across with your tiller extension in hand and, trying to head the boat up at the same time, grab the leeward rail to pull your body to the leeward side
Ed Baird, Laser Racing

…push the tiller away, sheet in slightly and (if you have all your weight on your legs) move slowly into the cockpit.
Ben Ainslie, The Laser Campaign Manual

…lower the centreboard…5 to 10 inches. If you’re still rolling, trim the mainsheet 1 or 2 feet
Dick Tillman, The Complete Book of Laser Sailing

  • learn to anticipate and feel the causes
  • take preventative action
  • don't be greedy - watching the speedo as you power down a wave is fun - but remember to head uo early and keep control

...(and) 'Keep the boat under the rig'
Mark Rushall - Yachts and Yachting, June 2011



Videos for Averting a Death Roll

A nice, concise video on how to avoid death rolling. The accompanying article is linked to in the links section, or can be found here.

Nice save! Watch this helm steer in to the death roll and avert disaster:

You can see this sailor signing their own death roll warrant as they push the tiller away sending the boat to its watery grave:

Proof that the death roll is timeless and that it can happen to people in big boats too



Books with Information on Averting a Death Roll

Ben Tan - Complete Introduction to Laser Racing, page 49

Dick Tillman - Complete Book of Laser Sailing, page 14 and page 155

Jon Emmett - Be Your Own Sailing Coach, page 182

DVDs with information on Averting a Death Roll

The Boat Whisperer Downwind DVD



Websites and online articles for Averting a Death Roll

A nice article on why death rolls happen and how to avoid them

This is a good post on avoiding death rolls in boats with spinnakers

This article on sailing by the lee has lots of help on how to avoid death rolls



What We Learned...

This is a little tricky, because the experts don’t all agree on how best to avert a death-roll. Not ideal for our purposes, but here is what we learned from reading and listening to the experts and from trial and error too.

Stayed Rigs

Stayed rig boats (boats with shrouds, etc.) are less liable to death-roll than un-stayed rigs. That said, it is still an issue in the upper wind range at times.

Generally, the advice is to avoid sailing too ‘deep’, i.e. don’t sail dead downwind, and don’t sail by the lee in high winds. This keeps the flow from mast to leech which stabilises the boat, and also means that if you go into a death roll then you are less likely to have a sudden gybe and capsize.

If a death-roll does start, then don’t react too dramatically to it, as your weight will act as a stabilising agent. Sheet in a bit (maybe 1 to 2 feet), and point up a little. Use your weight gently to act against the movement, but, as mentioned above, don’t leap about the boat.

If it is happening regularly then tighten your vang a little (which will take some of the twist out of the sail, stopping it pushing you in top windward), and put the centreboard down a few inches to make rocking motions more difficult for the boat to perform as it will have to drag more of the board through the water.

Boats with Spinnakers

If the boat suddenly rolls to windward then trim on the kite and the mainsheet. This stops the kite from pulling the boat in more to windward. Ease the kite again once the danger has passed.

Also, try not to be too greedy in sailing dead downwind. Broad reach more if the boat is unstable. And make sure that the kite is stable and not swinging around too much using the uphaul.

Un-stayed Rigs

This is where it all gets a little messy. The experts differ in opinion as to the best way to deal with death-roll situations, but there is some consensus, so let us start with where they all agree.

Firstly, sheet in a little. If the boat starts coming over on top of you, then sheeting in 1 to 2 feet should help counter the effect. It is important not to sheet in too much, because if a gust hits then the boat will want to point up. In a breeze this can cause sudden leeward heel, and if the boom hits the water then you’re in trouble. Be prepared to use the mainsheet to help counteract whatever is happening – ease if you’re heeling to leeward, sheet in if you’re heeling to windward.

Secondly, tighten the vang a little. It may be that the kicker is a little too loose, allowing the upper leech to get too far forward. This has the effect of pushing the mast forward and, critically, to windward – hence the death roll. Don’t tighten it loads, but add some tension to counter the effect.

Thirdly, lower the board a few inches. As described in the stayed rigs section, this makes it more difficult for the boat to oscillate quickly, buying you some time to react and making the situation less dramatic.

This is where the consensus ends.

There is some disagreement about what to do with the rudder. Some say head up a little (i.e. push the rudder away from you), and some say bear away (i.e. pull the tiller towards you). And some say don’t alter course!

So that is what we learned from the experts. What did we learn from putting all this into practice?

Firstly, all the points on which they agree are indeed helpful.

As for the rudder, I found bearing away far more stabilising than pointing up. The act of bearing away naturally flattens the boat due to the angle at which the water flows over the rudder when it is healed to windward, and, added to sheeting in a little, this can save even quite dramatic death-rolls. Also, the boat is heeling to windward for one or both of two reasons:

  1. The sheet is too far out, and the boat wants to bear away to bring itself into equilibrium. This is the same reason that we ease the sail quickly at the windward mark to bear away quickly and naturally.
  2. The vang is too loose, pushing the leech in front of the mast (as described above).

In either of these scenarios, bearing away helps the boat towards an equilibrium, stabilising it quickly.

Incidentally, bearing away in these situations has one more benefit. As you bear away you stabilise the flow of the sail to a leech-to-mast flow, a by-the lee flow. You also flatten the boat (often quite rapidly) from having been heeling to windward. This has the effect of a pump, actually accelerating the boat.

So that is what we found. I’m a little uncomfortable finding myself disagreeing with Ben Ainslie, Dick Tillman and Ed Baird, but I can only go on experience. Interestingly, Ben Ainslie also writes that “if the roll isn’t too dramatic you can sometimes use it to turn away and sail by the lee”, suggesting that he also uses the bearing away option useful. My recommendation would be to try both methods and see what works for you.

I’d be really interested to see what methods other people use to avert death-rolls, so feel free to let me know in the comments below or by email.

Blog Posts on Death Rolls

Learning not to Death Roll

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