A Real Killer

Most sailors know about Irons. And most know they want nothing to do with them. But I have seen so many model sailors struggle with this awful situation, that I thought I’d spill my guts on what to do – goodness knows, I’ve been there, done that!

Irons – what are they?

First, understand that the rudder on your boat functions because it is moving through the water. When you turn the rudder, the force of the water on the blade causes the rudder to move away from the pressure caused by the flow of water, thus turning the boat. So – if your boat stops, for any reason, the rudder also stops working because there is no flow of water.

When you sail into the wind and stop your forward motion (usually not on purpose), you are said to be “in Irons”. Your sails are flapping and so is your rudder. Nothing is working and you are on the shore thinking – “Why me?!@#”

What the big boys do

On a full-sized boat, the crew will quickly push out a sail into the flow of wind to develop some pressure to turn the stalled boat. Once the boat is turned, the sails can be properly trimmed and the boat will regain speed through the water – and the rudder will again function.

But guess what – you aren’t out there on your boat, so now what?!

Natural response (and the wrong response)

Most skippers that I have seen caught in Irons, begin nervously steering back and forth with their thumb. And what does this do? Absolutely n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Then they say a few choice words as the rest of the fleet sails away leaving them sitting there like a wounded duck.

OK, the Heimlich Maneuver

Since you can’t push out the sails, and they are luffing away (no power) – and you can’t turn using the rudder (no water flow), there is only one thing to do. Hold the rudder over full in one direction . . . and WAIT. Wait for what? A boat in Irons will eventually begin backing up. If you are holding the rudder over in one direction, it will turn out of its head-to-wind direction. At the same time, you should slack the sail. You want to use this back up to turn across the wind as much as you can. If you keep the sail trimmed in, it will drive the boat right back into the wind before you can regain steerage.

Here are the steps:

  1. Put the rudder hard over and HOLD IT!
  2. Slack the sail
  3. As soon as the boat has turned at least 60 degrees, then trim the sail slightly and reverse the direction of the rudder, but not to the full turn position. The boat will slowly move forward.
  4. As soon as you have control with the rudder, trim your sail slowly and you are back in business.

Oooooops Wrong Way

In this special maneuver, it is too difficult to think about which way you would like to back out of Irons. Just move the stick one way and hold it. If you see that the boat is turning in a direction you don’t like, don’t be sucker-punched into trying to turn the rudder in the other direction. Trust me. The important thing is to get under way – any way, even the wrong way!

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you race, you need to practice this maneuver! Yes, I know, “I never get in Irons!” Well, sometime, when you least expect it, it is going to happen. And it is usually when all the cards are on the table. If you have practiced your “back out” maneuver, you will be on your way quickly. Remember, boats handle differently in varying wind and sea conditions. So make a habit of practicing a couple of “Irons breaker” maneuvers every time you sail.

Patience, technique, patience, Ahhhhhh. Easily said, so hard to do.

This article was written by Steve Lang of