System Sailing 3.1 - Boat Handling

June 18, 2020

Success in sailboat racing is a combination of speed, boat handling, and decision-making.  We have already discussed how to sail fast. The next step is to create a process for boat handling. Boat handling includes anything related to maneuvering the boat on the racecourse. Boat handling with System Sailing uses numbers to both initiate the maneuver and to let the crew know what they should be doing throughout the maneuver. In each maneuver, we count down 3-2-1, and each number should trigger different actions by each crew member.


  • 3  
    • Heads in from life lines
    • Trimmer moves to release jib/genoa
    • All crew on alert for a tack
  • 2
    • Crew move to leeward if light or heavy, but stay put in medium winds
    • Trimmer ready to release and trim
    • Helmsperson ready to turn helm
    • Rate is relative to speed of turn (slower in light, faster in heavy)
  • 1
    • Helmsperson turns boat for new tack
    • Crew move together relative to wind speed
    • Trimmers release and trim

Flattening after tack

  • 3
    • In light air, crew ready to move together 
    • Helmsperson sailing the boat at proper angle
  • 2-1
    • At 1 in lighter wind, all crew move to windward to flatten the boat
    • Once boat is flattened on the high side, crew move back into the boat or remain on the rail to achieve the proper heel angle


  • 3
    • All crew move to windward to reduce helm
    • Helmsperson is ready to turn boat 
    • Trimmers ready to release and trim
  • 2
    • Crew stay to windward
    • Helmsperson on alert to change course
    • Trimmers ready to ease and trim
  • 1
    • Helmsperson turns the boat
    • Old sheet eased and new sheet trimmed

Flattening after gybe

  • 3
    • As the boom crosses, crew is ready to move together
  • 2-1
    • Crew move to windward to flatten boat

Numbers are used when tacking, gybing, and flattening as well as during mark roundings. The numbers used at marks relate to hoisting the spinnaker and the heel angle.

Rounding the windward mark

  • 3-2-1 Hike (flatten boat around mark to help boat turn down)

At offset mark or windward mark for spinnaker hoist

  • Once the boat rounds the windward mark or offset, the helmsperson should use the boat’s momentum to sail a course lower than the preferred angle with the spinnaker up 
  • As the boat turns down for the hoist, the headsail trimmer brings the headsail in to allow the spinnaker to hoist in a stalled breeze, which helps prevent twists in the spinnaker
  • The spinnaker halyard should have 3 marks (full hoist is 1, 6 feet down is 2, another 6 feet down is 3). The person hoisting the halyard should call out 3-2-1 as they’re hoisting to alert the rest of the crew how far up the kite is
    • At 3, the helmsperson starts slowly turning the boat up to the proper angle
    • At 2, the headsail is doused or furled 
    • At 1, the boat should be at the proper angle for performance downwind

Numbers allow the crew to work as a unit. As the boat sails downwind, numbers will again be used to drop the spinnaker as the boat rounds the bottom mark for another upwind leg.

At leeward or gate mark

  • Headsail hoisted or unfurled
  • Dousing in 3-2-1
  • Spinnaker douse into the boat

Rounding the leeward mark

  • Approach the mark at a wide angle and begin your turn early so that you can exit the mark at a tight angle on a close-hauled course 
  • Crew lean to leeward as the boat turns up. Leeward heel allows the boat to turn up faster, while also allowing the driver to use less helm
  • Hiking in 3-2-1, crew move to windward side together to flatten once on close hauled course


Numbers are also used while in the starting process. The starting system and boat handling during this time both rely on numbers.

  • Start at the boat end of the line on starboard tack at 5 minutes, and sail down the line toward the pin end
  • Tacking in 3-2-1 at 3 minutes to lead the fleet back toward the boat end on a port tack
  • Tacking in 3-2-1 at 1 minute to approach the boat third of the line on a starboard tack
  • Trim in relative to time and meters from the line, use a starting instrument to provide distance to line
  • Crew provide leeward heel to allow boat to turn up and then flatten in 3-2-1 at the start

Remember that however you choose to communicate while maneuvering around the racecourse, make sure each crew member is informed and can “speak the language.” Good speed and solid boat handling are the two most important ingredients for sailing success. If you have any questions or would like help developing a system for boat-handling communication while racing, please contact Quantum’s Wally Cross. Check out other episodes of System Sailing here, and click here for the full playbook.

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