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Working Together - The Speed Team

Who keeps the boat going fast? The speed team of course. Quantum Sails’ Dave Flynn breaks down the different positions that make up the speed team and discusses the adjustments that can be made across changing conditions.

On a single-person dinghy, the speed team is you; with the mainsheet in hand, you have the control. Add another crew or two on a small boat, and you have to communicate about trim and setup, but it is still an intimate conversation. Things get trickier as the boat gets bigger. The skipper can no longer control the mainsail and steer at the same time. The mainsail trimmer becomes as much of a driver as the skipper, and the headsail trimmer needs to coordinate with the mainsail trimmer and the driver. And on a bigger, more sophisticated boat with running backstays, you need to add a runner trimmer to the mix. Getting everyone in sync can be tricky and demands a good, if quiet, dialogue among the team and an awareness of how each job affects the other crew. All have to be tuned in to the feel of the boat and guided by the same indicators of performance.

Let’s look at how the speed team works together as you go upwind through the breeze range.


In light conditions, the breeze is unstable in direction and velocity. Small puffs or lulls make a big difference in apparent wind angle. The driver’s primary task is to keep the telltales flowing straight aft for maximum power, but the constantly changing apparent wind angle may leave the driver chasing those telltales and oversteering. Since oversteering kills boat speed, the headsail trimmer has to help by being dynamic in trim to match the variable conditions. In a puff, the apparent wind will shift aft and the headsail can be eased so the driver doesn’t have to head up as much. Next, turn the puff into speed by cautiously heading up, being careful not to get greedy by heading up too much. In a lull, the apparent wind will go forward and the headsail will need to be sheeted harder to keep the sail from luffing. Gradually ease it out as the driver gently heads down. The boat will slow, and the apparent wind will shift aft as it does. You don’t want to bear off aggressively to chase the telltales or you will give away height. The trimmer and driver should have an ongoing conversation about what they’re doing. Boat speed and wind angle numbers are highly volatile and not particularly useful in light air.

The mainsail trimmer is mimicking the headsail trimmer, easing in the puffs, trimming, and then easing in the lulls. Both sails will be set up for maximum depth and power. The mainsail should have the traveler up, boom on the centerline, and sheet eased. The runners will barely be on. The runner trimmer won’t have much to do in this wind range, but will probably have moved forward where weight is needed. The game is to achieve a steady state with minimum turning, letting the sails do the steering.


Once everyone is on the rail hiking, the game changes. The headsail trimmer’s weight is needed on the rail, so they are limited to periodic changes. Fortunately, conditions in medium air are more stable, so fewer moment-to-moment adjustments are needed. However, communication is still necessary. The mainsail and headsail trimmers need to discuss the balance of trim between the two sails and check the other’s setup so neither setup is negatively affecting the other. For example, if the jib trimmer has their sail set up to perfection, but it is causing the mainsail to backwind and luff more than it should, the mainsail trimmer needs to ask the headsail trimmer to open up the jib. The trimmer will need to move the lead back, lead outboard, and ease trim to get the sails to match up.

The mainsail trimmer is now working full-time to control the helm and heel. Like the driver, they will focus on the telltales, angle of heel, boat speed, windspeed, and wind angle. In medium breeze conditions, there is typically a target boat speed and angle based on either observed performance (in one-design racing) or velocity prediction program (VPP) generated data. If the trimmer and driver both struggle to get to target speed, they might try a little less mainsheet or move the traveler down to allow the helm to press on the sail a little lower and faster without heeling over too much. If you’re always faster than the target speed, try sheeting harder to achieve a better angle, or take in the jib if the main is being trimmed in. The jib trimmer can also give information about the height and speed of the other boats from the rail. Once you find the mode where wind angle and boat speed can become the goal and focus of communication, it’s time to write down the settings so you can repeat them the next time conditions are the same. 

If the boat has runners, they should be played like the mainsail controls. Ease the runner off in the lulls to power up, and in the puffs trim on to depower. The driver will immediately feel the impact of more or less runner in the helm and needs to communicate about what feels right for the moment.


In heavy air you are starting to get overpowered on a regular basis with too much heel. Up until this point, your sails are as flat as you can make them. Now, it’s time to open things back up and keep the speed on. The mainsail and headsail trimmers need to discuss how much to open up the jib. The goal is to achieve a balanced luff so that both sails are luffing a little as opposed to having the jib trimmed in flat and the mainsail completely luffing. In the big puffs, the jib sheet can be “burped” or eased an inch or two to help with a balanced depowering if the trimming setup allows. The jib lead can be dropped outboard or let up in the puffs for a similar effect. 

The mainsail trimmer and driver should continue talking about how quickly the boat is getting up to speed. If the boat is too slow, ease the sail plan. If it’s too fast, trim harder. New target angles and speeds should be set for the conditions. You might find a faster, slightly lower mode works best, and waves will have an impact. The driver may need to sail lower to build speed for a set of waves, so the main trimmer must be ready with extra ease to prevent the boat from rolling over as it bears off. The mainsheet trim should be dynamic in these conditions. 

The runner trimmer’s contribution to the speed program is to hike like a fool in heavy air. The runner should be wound up to the point where the mainsail is just beginning to invert, indicated by diagonal wrinkles running from clew to mid mast.


Across all conditions, communication is an important theme. In most cases, what the trimmer is adjusting in the headsail directly impacts the trim of the mainsail, which conversely impacts helm and heel for the driver. The best teams learn how to anticipate the needed changes, discuss them in advance, and execute in unison like a well-oiled machine.


Have more questions about getting your team up to speed? Contact Dave Flynn to learn more and discuss the needs of your team.

This article was originally published by SpinSheet.

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