The breeze freshens, temperatures are dropping, and it’s foulie season again. As many of us transition into fall sailing we can look forward to opportunities to practice technique, build sailing-specific muscle memory, and hone the skills that often set apart the podium from the fleet. Quantum's Dave Flynn outlines three major factors that go into mastering your manuevers, so you can make the most of your fall sailing!
It’s always a good time to get back to the basics. In sailboat racing there are four fundamentals you must master: tacking, jibing, spinnaker sets, and spinnaker douses. Until you have these down cold, you can’t really begin to focus on developing front row boat speed, and tactics and strategy will remain a strictly theoretical concept. So, let’s start with the seemingly simplest maneuver and break down the components of a great tack.
In Search of Perfect Tacks
There are two critical elements to a tack, and you guessed it, steering is number one. First, everyone has to be ready. If the helmsperson simply turns when they feel like it without communicating clearly, the rest of the crew will not have a chance of getting the timing right and executing the maneuver. “Ready about” should demand a response from the one person who is critical, the jib trimmer doing the release. If they aren’t ready, you can’t turn. A simple countdown, “3, 2, 1, turning the boat” also helps with coordination.
The next key is rate of turn. Wherever the expression “hard-alee” came from, it should be banned. The last thing you want to do is turn hard. The rudder is a brake. A slow smooth turn is the goal. Keep in mind one thing: In the middle of the turn, you’re going straight upwind, which is where you are trying to go ultimately. If you turn too slowly, you will come out of the tack with not enough speed. You will need to vary your rate of turn depending on breeze velocity and sea state. In light air you will have to turn faster. Likewise, in breezy, bumpy conditions you will have to be concerned about stopping the boat, so a faster rate of turn is required. A rough guideline is that you want to come out of the turn at about two thirds of your upwind target speed going into the tack. Going upwind at six knots, you probably don’t want to drop below four coming out.
The final key to steering through the tack is to come out at the perfect “build” angle. Turn too fast, and you will overshoot, coming out more on a reach. The boat will generate too much heel if there are more than eight-ten knots, and your trimmers will struggle to get the headsail in. Underbake the turn, and you will be too thin and unable to build speed. The sweet spot is just a hair below your close hauled course on the new tack, so you can accelerate. Heel is a great guideline. Start slowing the turn as you exit the tack so the boat straightens out just as you reach your optimum heel angle. Go too far, too much heel. Not far enough, the boat will be too flat. In light air you will need crew weight to generate the right amount of heel -more on that later. Executing this smooth, controlled turn that ends at just the right build angle is further complicated by the fact that there are usually bodies everywhere blocking your line of sight and generally being disruptive. Practice your footwork. You should use the same steps to cross the boat every time. Stand up, face forward, and keep an eye on the bow and the horizon. The wheel or tiller will not tell you how far to turn. Reference the horizon and your angle to the waves.
The second key is the release. I know a lot of furious effort goes into pulling in the headsail on the new side, but it really is all about the release. As the sail luffs 50 percent of the way aft, spin all the wraps off the winch and make sure it runs. On a boat with overlapping headsails it is harder. Don’t let the sail back against the spreader, and follow your release, pulling several handfuls of sheet from out in front of the block. On the new side take your time. If using non-overlapping headsails, your job is easy.
The moment the release is made, pull like mad. For those with a genoa, just take slack out until the clew is past the leeward shrouds, then pull like crazy. In light air, don’t over trim. Start with the sail eased from your normal upwind trim setting to help with acceleration, gradually trimming in as the boat gets going. In medium conditions you can trim in faster and hit the rail. In heavy air you may need to take your time. Heel will be your guide. If you trim and the boat gets knocked down, you are trimming too quickly.
The mainsail trimmer helps with the turn and is the key to acceleration. Into the turn, trim harder to encourage the boat to come up into the wind. As the bow passes head to wind, begin to ease out on the new tack to help build speed. How far you ease is a function of wind velocity and where the boat is relative to the build angle. In light air you will have to ease considerably (to get the top telltale flying), while at the same time pulling the traveler up to get the boom up to the centerline to create heel and give the driver something to lean against. In medium air the ease will be smaller, and the traveler will be moving through a much smaller range. In heavy air you are the one controlling heel. Ease whatever is necessary to keep the boat on her feet. I usually just nail the traveler down at pre-set positions for breeze on. Trim back in as the boat gets up to speed.
Last, but not least, is weight placement and movement. First, if you are hiking, “ready about” is not the command which signals a mass exodus from the rail. In fact, with the exception of the trimmer doing the release, no one has to move. The rest of the team should actually hike harder to flatten the boat going into the tack. Once everyone is hiking, the name of the game is staying on the rail as long as possible, and then, in one catlike move, scramble quickly to the opposite rail, hitting it just as the boat starts to heel on the new tack. And, you guessed it, hike like crazy to help with acceleration.
In light to medium air, crew weight is part of the turning impetus. Slide into the cockpit to create heel to help with the turn. Then, hike on the new leeward side to create heel out of the tack. In the lightest conditions, stay to leeward, gradually moving a body or two up as necessary to maintain consistent heel. If it is slightly windier, stay to leeward for a few seconds to create heel and then move all the weight at once up to weather to flatten. This maneuver is known as a roll tack. Always keep in mind that movement kills, especially in light air. So get to the right place and freeze.
It may look simple, but there are a lot of moving parts and variables to perfecting your tacks. It is worth the effort to get it right. Depending upon conditions, a good tack versus one that is “less than perfect” is probably somewhere between a half to one boat length of a difference at minimum. How many times did you tack in a race -five, six, maybe eight times? I’ll take four to eight boat lengths anytime. All it takes is practice!
Mastering the Jibe
For our next maneuver, we will look at jibing with symmetrical (I know there are still some of you out there) and asymmetrical spinnakers. Fortunately, most of the principles are the same.
As with tacks, there are two key elements: steering and trim. As usual, the pressure is on the helmsperson. There is often much animated discussion and focus concerning the efforts at the front of the boat, but if a jibe goes bad, the fault usually lies further aft. So take heart, bow men and women. Good steering can save a jibe with bad mechanics, but no amount of mechanical perfection can save a jibe from a poor turn.
As with tacks, the first issue is timing and preparation. If the team is not ready, and the spinnaker is not full and flying well with the boat at the appropriate angle for the conditions going into the gybe, the odds are good that things will go wrong. The same 3, 2, 1 countdown and “turning the boat” is a good habit to help with coordination. A smooth, consistent rate of turn is best. The real key is that the boat can be turned no faster than the spinnaker is rotated. More on this in a moment, but the visual cue for the helmsperson is the spinnaker. If the bow gets ahead of the spinnaker as it is eased out, it will collapse and blow back through the fore-triangle. With a symmetrical sail, just turn at a rate that keeps the sail flying. For asymmetrical, turn slowly as the sail is eased until the clew is past the headstay.
In light air, you can speed the turn up slightly once the clew has cleared the headstay and is being pulled onto the new side with an asymmetrical. In medium air, keep the turn slow and smooth; don’t hesitate in the middle. Symmetrical jibes may require a very slow rate of turn through dead downwind, while the pole is reconnected and pushed out to avoid heading up too fast and making it difficult to push out. Heavy air jibes with either spinnaker type require a committed turn. There can be no hesitation in the middle. You must turn aggressively (but smoothly) at a consistent rate from one jibe to the next. If the pole is not made on a symmetrical, or if the sheet is not fully trimmed and the sail is still luffing with an asymmetrical, no problem. You can sort that out later. Just don’t get caught dead downwind in a heavy air jibe.
As with a tack, finding the right angle to build speed out of a jibe is the trick. In light to moderate air, as long as the spinnaker is full, you can head up to an angle probably just a little bit higher than the angle you went into the jibe in. In heavy air, you will need to be careful and anticipate that as the sail fills on the new jibe, it will want to round you up (accentuating the turn you are already making). You may need to snap the helm back to keep the boat from rounding up. Reference the angle to the horizon and waves to judge if the boat is turning. The wheel or tiller will not tell you a thing. (Sound familiar?)
Another parallel to the tack: the key is not getting the new sheet in. It’s all about the ease and the release. The sail must be full and flying regardless of the type of spinnaker. For symmetricals, it is usually easiest to have a single trimmer take both sheets, easing one side while trimming the other as the boat turns. On a big boat this may take two people, but they need to work together as if they were one. A great drill is to put the pole on the deck and jibe eight or 10 times without the pole to practice keeping the spinnaker flying. (I told you the bow team really wasn’t all that important for this maneuver).
For asymmetricals, ease as the boat bears away, letting the clew float out away from the boat until it is at the headstay; then release completely, following the sheet to make sure it runs. On the new side, take the slack out as the old sheet is eased. Once the clew is past the headstay, pull like a mad man. The bow team can help pull the new sheet aft and down. As soon as the sail fills, it will need a big ease (three or four feet), since you will have had to over trim to fill the sail.
What about the mainsail? For symmetrical jibes, simply wait until the magic moment when the sail unloads as you pass dead downwind, grab all the sheet parts (on a smaller boat) and throw the sail across. On a big boat, this will take some fast hands pulling in the slack on a winch at the critical unloaded moment. What you would like to avoid is laboriously trimming in the mainsail as you are trying to bear away. This will steer that boat in the opposite direction you are trying to turn and make the helmsperson’s job much more difficult.
No matter what, as soon as the mainsail is across, make sure it is eased all the way. For asymmetrical jibes, the mainsail is treated the same way with one wrinkle. In light to moderate conditions, you can actually delay the boom crossing the boat, literally holding it on the wrong side until the spinnaker fills on the new side and then releasing. This is referred to as a “late main jibe.” It allows the spinnaker to fill quickly and easily because there is no blanketing effect of the mainsail. For a moment you will essentially be “wing and wing.” In heavy air don’t try this. Just get the mainsail across. You will not be able to dally in the bottom part of the turn getting the spinnaker to fill. Complete the turn, get both sails across, and sort it out later.
There is another type of asymmetrical jibe which has become the rage in small- to medium-sized high-performance boats, the “blow-through jibe.” This is an advanced technique and a little tricky. We’ll save it for a separate discussion.
In light air, hold the weight forward and to leeward, and move smoothly to the new side to create heel out of the jibe. The only ones who might have to move are the trimmers. Remember, movement kills speed, so keep it light and then freeze. In medium air, roll the boat a bit. Hike hard on the weather side to flatten the boat and help with the turn.
As the mainsail comes across, hold for a second until the boat starts to heel, and then as a group, head up to the new weather side “squashing” the boat flat to help it accelerate. In heavy air, just get to the high side as the mainsail crosses the boat, and hike!
Once again, a lot of moving pieces and subtlety go into mastering as opposed to merely jibing. But there are boat lengths to be had with good technique that are a lot more reliably produced than hooking onto the inside of a perfect 15-degree header—which is nice.