How To Get Started with RC Sailboats

By Terry Dunn

Terry dives into RC sailboats and finds plenty of technical and skill-oriented challenges that kept drawing him deeper.

I know what some of you are thinking: At a time when the RC hobby offers excitement such as speedy FPV racing quads, 20-pound gas-powered dune buggies, and even robots that fight to the death, how can anyone get jazzed about a silent sailboat meandering across a pond? I get it. I used to think the same thing. Although I've known about the existence of RC sailboats for decades, they never captured my attention enough to actually give one a try. I really should have known better after my similar experience with rock crawlers. I soon discovered that even though sailboats are not fast (relatively speaking), they offer abundant technical and skill-oriented challenges that keep drawing me in deeper.

RC sailing clubs are a great resource to get started in the hobby. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Diving In

Once I had decided to give RC sailing a try, I didn't think twice about going at it by myself. After all, I was fairly competent with the Sunfish sailboat that I had as a kid. Plus, RC sailboats only require 2 channels to control. So how hard could it possibly be? As I'm sure you've guessed by now, the reality of my introduction to RC sailing was much different. It involved a few missteps, some humble lessons, and plenty of help from experienced sailors.

One of the things I learned early on is that there is a lot is specific terminology used in sailing circles. I'm still learning the meaning of most of these foreign-sounding words. For any of you experienced sailors who may be reading this, I'll ask your forgiveness in advance since I'll endeavor to use layman's terms whenever possible here.

Even though I knew that RC sailboats were only 2-channel machines, I lacked a fundamental understanding of how the controls worked. The various rigging that I had seen on some sailboats caused me to envision their control systems to be much more complex than they actually are. It turns out that most of the visible rigging on a sailboat consists of static lines that only serve to stabilize the sail mast.

RC sailboats have simple control systems. But until I had one of my own, the various rigging had me convinced otherwise. (Lewis Dunn photo)

The two main controls of a RC sailboat are the rudder and sail trim. The rudder is used to control the direction of the boat in the water. A single servo actuates the rudder through direct linkages.

Sail trim refers to the angle of the sails in relation to the boat hull. Both sails can pivot side to side about their leading edge. Rather than a rigid connection, the sail servo is connected to a pair of rope-like lines that terminate near the midpoint of the booms along the bottom edge of each sail. The servo controls the length of these lines, which subsequently determine how far out the sails can swing. At its shortest length, the sails may only have a few degrees of sway. With the line fully relaxed, the sails could approach 90-degrees of travel. Based on the direction of the wind and the orientation of the boat hull, sail trim is adjusted to harness the wind and keep the boat moving forward.

Aquacraft Paradise

The Aquacraft Paradise is a factory-built sailboat that includes a radio. After a shaky start, it became responsive and fun to sail. (Lewis Dunn photo)

Like so many other RC vehicles, sailboats are available in a wide variety of sizes, styles, materials, and degrees of prefabrication. The boat that I used to begin my sailing education is the AquaCraft Paradise. This 26"-long boat has a fiberglass hull and is mostly prebuilt. The only required items are eight AA-size batteries. Four are used in the boat and four go in the radio transmitter. I used rechargeable 1800mAh NiMH cells, but alkaline batteries can also be used.

The Paradise has been on the market for about 10 years, but AquaCraft recently upgraded the boat with a 2.4GHz radio system. Most RC sailing enthusiasts use an airplane-style 2-stick transmitter like the Tactic TTX410 that is included with the Paradise. Sail trim is controlled by up and down movements of the left stick. The rudder is controlled using side to side movements of the right stick.

A small amount of assembly work is required to get the Paradise seaworthy and no tools are required. Aquacraft includes a handy stand that keeps the boat upright for storage and maintenance. The keel and rudder slide into place and are secured with thumb screws. All of the rigging for the mast and sails is attached with factory installed clips on the end of each line. The clips are numbered, as are the hard points where each clip is intended to attach.

With the radio hatch removed, you can see the rudder (left) and sail trim servos, as well as the batteries that power the onboard radio gear.

An Uncertain Start

I performed my testing of the Paradise while visiting family in Florida. Assembly took me less than an hour to complete, but it was already too dark to head to the local pond. I was eager to try things out, so I did the next best thing. I setup a box fan to provide a steady breeze across the screened-in pool where I was staying.

My initial experience in the pool was not very promising. Yes, the artificial breeze made the Paradise move across the pool, but I never felt like I was in complete control of the boat. I repeatedly became pinned against the edge of the pool when I thought that I should have been able to make headway. My only recourse was to walk around and physically push the Paradise back to the middle of the pool. I tempered my frustration by convincing myself that my sailing experience would improve once I had real wind on an actual lake.

RC sailing requires a balance of equipment and skill to harness the wind effectively. (Lewis Dunn photo)

My uncle and I hit the pond the next morning with a nice moderate breeze blowing. Both of us had a go at sailing the Paradise in these ideal conditions. Surprisingly, the results were not much better than my pool tests. Sometimes the wind would grab the sails and tip the boat nearly on its side. Other times, the boat would point itself directly into the wind and nothing we did would convince it to turn and catch the wind.

There were moments of full control and impressive wind-induced sprints, but we were unable to repeat these episodes with any consistency. I'll just say that it's a good thing that we brought along a kayak. We took turns paddling out to rescue the Paradise when we felt like we couldn't return to the shoreline through control inputs alone. After about an hour of fumbling, the sail servo began to act funny, so we called it a day. Clearly, I still had much to learn about this RC sailing business.

Subsequent trouble shooting revealed that some water had found its way inside the sail servo. I removed both servos, then disassembled and dried them thoroughly. Once I had the servos rebuilt and back in the boat, I sealed the hatches that provide access to the radio gear using strips of vinyl tape around each perimeter. I have not had any leakage problems since.

Helping Hands

On my next outing with the Paradise, I visited the South Daytona Model Yacht Club. Phil Ehlinger and other SDMYC boaters at the pond that day were extremely helpful and accommodating to this newb. None of them had any personal experience with the Paradise, but it passed their informal dockside smell test. Phil gave me a few initial sailing tips and had me launch my boat.

I did a little better with the Paradise under Phil's tutelage, but I was still having many of the same problems that I'd experienced before. I just couldn't seem to make the boat go where I wanted it to. As I floundered around the water, other sailboats were leaving me in their aquatic dust…effortlessly traveling around in all directions with utter disregard for which way the wind was blowing.

RC sailboats come in countless sizes and materials. Phil Ehlinger's 36/600-class ship seen here has a balsa hull with carbon fiber mast and booms.

At some point, Phil suggested that we trade transmitters. I took over the electronic helm of his boat while he sailed the Paradise. This was an eye opening moment. Phil's sailboat was different in many ways from the Paradise. It was a littler larger and its handmade hull was constructed of balsa wood. These differences were of little consequence for my purposes. The overall layout and control systems of Phil's boat were very similar to my prebuilt ship.

I immediately noticed a significant difference in controllability with Phil's ship. Even though I made a lot of rookie mistakes while sailing his boat, it always did what I expected it to do. It didn't tip over very easily and it had plenty of rudder authority to turn even at ultra-slow speeds. This is how I had originally expected the Paradise to perform.

I'll admit that I was a little happy to see Phil having some trouble with the Paradise. Oh sure, his experienced hands accomplished much more with my boat than I ever had. But there were clearly differences between what the boat was doing and what he wanted it to be doing. Now I understood that my lack of success with the Paradise was due to my own inexperience…as well as shortcomings with the boat. I soon discovered that those shortcomings were relatively easy to correct.

A Happy Ending

Phil gave me a short list of things to try and improve the controllability of the Paradise. These ranged from subtle adjustments of the sails and rigging, to adding more weight to the bottom of the keel. I initially plucked only the low hanging fruit. I implemented the simple rigging and sail adjustments and returned to the SDMYC pond. Frankly, I didn't notice much difference in performance.

My next step was to add more weight to the bulb at the bottom of the keel. The intent of this weight is to counteract the tendency of the boat to heel over when the wind pushes on the sails. I scavenged about 5 ounces of lead tire weights and I attached them to the outside of the bulb using JB Weld. The result is not very pretty or hydrodynamic, but it was the best I could do away from my workshop…and it was adequate for testing.

I added about 5 ounces of tire weights to the keel bulb to counter the tendency of the Paradise to heel over when wind hit the sails.

I also fabricated a new rudder that has more than twice the area of the stock unit. I cut the rudder from aluminum sheet with a jig saw. The rudder shaft is just a scrap bolt that has approximately the same diameter as the stock rudder shaft. The rudder and shaft are held together with JB Weld. Not counting the time necessary for the JB Weld to dry, both modifications took less than an hour to complete.

I am happy to say that the added keel weight and enlarged rudder have completely transformed the Paradise! I no longer feel like it has a mind of its own. As long as there is a breeze, I can cruise downwind or tack upwind. I'm still no expert, but I finally feel like I'm in control. I even went back to my box fan/pool set up as a sanity check. I can now navigate to any part of the pool with no rescue shoves required.

I fabricated a new, much larger rudder to improve the turning authority of the Paradise.

The larger rudder provides much improved turning authority. I don't get stuck facing directly into the wind anymore. If I really get into a tight spot, I've found that I can actually propel the Paradise gently forward by rocking the rudder back and forth like a fish's tail. I'm sure some sailing purists will call such a maneuver cheating, but I'm not too proud to use it.

Next Steps

Once I had a boat that was more obedient, I really started to get a feel for the nuances of sailing. Finding that ideal combination of direction and sail trim that makes the boat effortlessly accelerate across the water is deeply satisfying. The same can be said of nailing the control inputs that command the boat through a sharp turn with fluid, uninterrupted motion.

Like so many aspects of RC, sailing is contagious. My father-in-law accompanied me on several outings with the Paradise and he took a shine to it. I left the Paradise with him when I headed back to Texas. I'll pick up another sailboat for me to use here. And now that I have access to my workshop again, I'm planning to fabricate a more refined keel bulb and rudder to ship back to Florida. Those types of modification projects are really fun to me.

I have a long way to go before I'll be good at sailing. It will be even longer before I fully understand the rudimentary design and set-up aspects of sailboats. What has already become clear, however, is that I don't need a speedy vehicle to hold my interest. RC sailing offers the same kinds of technical pursuits and skill challenges that so often draw me to flying models. I look forward to my forthcoming sailing education.

My sincere thanks to Phil Ehlinger and the South Daytona Model Yacht Club for sharing their expertise, their lake, and their boats to give this sailing rookie a head start. If you are interested in trying RC sailing, see if there is a club in your area and pay them a visit.

Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.