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Trimming on a Reach

Quantum Annapolis’ David Flynn pulls from his extensive racing and cruising knowledge and recent race aboard the Carkeek 40 Meridian XI to discuss reaching trim. He lays out tips based on the different kinds of sails you might fly while reaching and emphasizes the importance of hiking and crew weight placement at any reaching angle.

Volumes have been written about trim and technique to optimize performance straight upwind and downwind. It’s the nature of our predominantly windward-leeward racing world. Far less is written about reaching angles. I had a lot of time to think about this a few weeks ago, about 85 miles of thought to be precise, as we jib-reached across the Gulf Stream on our way towards the Bahamas. The boat was Meridian XI, a Carkeek 40 owned by Sled Shelhorse, based in Hampton, VA, and well known on the Chesapeake.

It was pretty windy (high teens). The waves, as is usually the case in the stream, were significant, and we were hammering along at a good clip. Nothing to it, right? Just let the sails out till they luff and trim them in. This is a time honored technique when you are fortunate enough to be able to aim at the mark and go in a straight line, a feature of many a distance race. Not much to see here, or is there? It is true that it is much harder to make the big gains found upwind or down, but there are boat lengths and precious time to be gained with subtle technique and constant work. Here are a few thoughts to help as you prepare for your next distance race.

Which Sail? 

This is a function of exactly what reaching angle you are sailing, wind speed, and what sails you have in your inventory. On a modern, fractional-rigged boat with relatively small, non-overlapping jibs, angles greater than 70 degrees true wind angle (TWA) quickly find the boat underpowered unless there are more than 10-12 knots. Boats with overlapping genoas are much better in the wind range but will struggle as the TWA approaches 90. If the breeze is up in the teens, the angles at which a jib works will be much broader. 

On our romp across the stream our 70 degrees TWA was perfect. We could not have carried more sail. In under 12, though, 70-90 TWA is typically no man’s land. You can’t quite carry a spinnaker; you’re under-powered with a jib. The only option is to sail higher or lower than your desired course. This is the range of angles where the latest generation of specialty reaching sails is the weapon of choice. Traditional “code zero” sails with mid-girth minimums of a rule-prescribed 75 percent still struggled to get much inside 90 TWA. With the rules now opening up and allowing for smaller girth reaching sails, you may be lucky enough to be able to hit this sweet spot. No matter your inventory or how many specialty sails you have, you will still run into the conundrum of having to sail either high or low of where you want to go. In general terms, if the breeze is expected to build or head, the high road is best. If you anticipate that the wind will drop or go aft, sail low and fast.

Jib Reaching

The single most important key on a jib reach is setting up a proper outboard lead. You have to get the lead as far outboard as possible. Lead position may be a little forward of upwind as well. You have to have a padeye or track on the rail for this. It also takes a second outboard sheet. At closer angles both sheets may share the load. As the angle gets wider, all load will shift to the outboard sheet. In windier conditions a third sheet is often added to pull the clew straight back. A spinnaker sheet works well. The pull aft flattens the foot and lets the leech twist off at the top, de-powering the sail. If you are having to ease the mainsail to the point where it is flogging to keep the boat on its feet, this will open the slot up and balance the boat better.

In light air the sheet can be played to keep up with apparent wind angle changes in puffs and lulls. As it gets steadier and windier, weight on the rail becomes more important. If possible, cross-sheet the jib sheet to a weather winch. Once velocity is in the teens, set the jib sheet up for the angle and let the driver steer to the jib. This is where wind instruments are useful, particularly at night when the jib is hard to see. Trimmers can set the boat up for specific angles and the driver can use that number along with corresponding apparent wind angle to steer to the sail.

Play the mainsail constantly, sheeting in and out to control helm in the puffs, and bring the power back on by trimming in the lulls. The goal is a consistent angle of heel. If the instrument package has a heel indicator, all the better, as this can be another useful target. If the waves are at a good angle, some surfing may be possible. It is okay to bear off below course to catch the wave and wind it back up before the boat gets to the bottom of the wave. If the boat starts to plane, the mainsheet will have to be trimmed vigorously to keep up as the apparent wind shoots forward; just be ready with a big ease as the boat slows.

Code Zero/AWA - Specialty Reaching Sails 

The principles are similar to those you use with the jib. The sheet lead is already outboard since a spinnaker sheet is being used. The critical component to control the lead is the “twing,” a line with a block over the spinnaker sheet led to a winch or a system which can pull down. This controls the up/down of the clew. Sheet the twing in and bring the clew down for power, closing the leech and rounding the foot up. Ease the twing out and move the clew up to flatten the foot and let the sail twist. 

The power and load on these sails make it hard to play the sheet as you would with a downwind sail. The driver needs to pay attention and steer to the luff of the sail. The trimmer can give some help, but the driver really has to steer to the sail. Again, target true and apparent wind angles are helpful once base trim is established.

Specialty reaching sails are sensitive to luff tension. This is particularly true of the latest generation “structured luff” sails which have additional fiber to support luff loadings and do not rely on a torsional luff rope. Easing luff tension on a structured luff sail allows the fabric to relax, flattening the entry which helps with sailing higher. It also allows the luff to project forward of the straight line; a rope would normally limit the sail, too. The whole sail will actually twist and rotate forward, unloading the back of the sail, shifting the driving force forward. If you go too far, the sail will become unstable. It is a delicate balance that needs some experimentation by the trim team. Even conventional sails with torsional ropes can be adjusted to a limited degree. The logic that you just want to get the luff rope as tight as possible is not actually true. You can change tension through the wind range, using less in light air and gradually adding more as the breeze comes up.

Hike Like Fools 

Except for light conditions, recognize that reaching loads the keel up and emphasizes stability. The more weight up and the harder you hike, the faster you will go. Upwind you can feather to unload the boat; reaching you don’t want to let the boat head up. You want to go straight, turning every puff into speed. Weight will also be shifted aft. We want the fat part of the boat in the water for maximum stability and to extend the waterline as much as possible. Find the most uncomfortable position possible, and you are probably in the right place. This is brute force sailing where pain does equal gain!

Reaching may seem simple and rather boring, but there are minutes to be gained with good technique and hard work. 

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Get in touch with David Flynn with any questions regarding reaching trim or reaching sails.
Content originally published by SpinSheet.

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