How to Steer Your Cruising Sailboat with Pinpoint Accuracy!

Tricks to make steering less tiring but more accurate
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Have you ever noticed how new sailing crew sometimes struggle to 'keep the course' after only two to three minutes at the wheel or tiller? Here John Jamieson (Captain John) shares the following sailing tips, guaranteed to make cruising, especially short-handed cruising, easier, more fun and less tiring:

Imagine driving your car down the highway with your eyes glued to the speedometer...

Apart from being dangerous, that would be a lot of work and cause eye strain and fatigue! Instead of driving like this, you use a natural, built-in 'judgment-meter' to know when to accelerate or decelerate. Once in a while, a quick glance at the speedometer gives you all the input you need to fine tune your progress along your land-course.

Apply this same principal when steering a sailing course. Instead of staring at a steering compass, you can use a simple technique called Pick-a-Point (P.A.P.) steering. This keeps your small cruising boat on a more accurate course, makes watches fun, and creates less eye strain and fatigue.

Follow one of these three methods based on whether you sail in inland waters, along the coast or across an ocean, or during nighttime sailing.

Inland P.A.P. Steering:

1. Steady up onto your compass course with the steering compass.

2. Glance ahead, pick a distant object, and steer on it. Superimpose the object against some fixed part of your small cruising boat (mast, stay, shroud, pulpit, stanchion).

3. Check your steering compass every 30-45 seconds. A quick glance should be enough. Repeat steps 1 and 2 to fine tune your heading.

Coastal or Ocean P.A.P. Steering:

1. Steady up onto your compass course with the steering compass. In seas, average your course above and below the sailing course (see related article link below). This causes less fatigue.

2. Pick a distant irregular land point if steering toward shore. This might be a hump, gap, or peak in a tree line,
group of hills, cliffs, or mountain range.

Line up a fixed object with a cloud at sea. Shift to a new cloud or group of clouds often. If clouds are absent, maintain a constant angle with wind-blown whitecaps, use shroud telltales, or feel the wind on your face. All of these methods help when you are out of sight of land.

3. Check your steering compass every 30-45 seconds. If you average your course, remember that you must keep an eye on your watch for accuracy.

Nighttime P.A.P. Steering:

1. Steady up on your compass course, or use the course averaging method described in the related article link below.

2. Pick a star high up off of the horizon. Select a celestial body near the top of its arc. These stars move slower than those closer to your horizon. The exceptions are stars near the equator; they rise and set in a vertical motion. Place the star along your boat's mast, stay or shroud.

3. Check your compass every 30 to 45 seconds. Take care not to get lulled into following a star across the ocean! Keep away from planets (they look like steady lights without the 'twinkle' that stars have). Planets move much too fast across the sky for steering accuracy.


As a sailing skipper, always be on the lookout for new ways to make your sailing crew's life easier. Add pick-a-point steering to your sailboat cruising chest of knowledge to save energy and reduce eye-strain fatigue.

Captain John teaches sailing skippers the specific sailing skills they need for safer cruising at Members receive instant access to 400+ sailing articles, sailing video tutorials, live discussion forums, sailing topic ebooks, and much more.