At a recent Snipe regatta, Kim Couranz and I counted up the number of lines we each control. Her total? Sixteen (eight on port tack, eight on starboard). My total? One.
Giving Kim all the controls except the mainsheet allows me to concentrate on steering and trimming, without the distraction of the many other adjustments required to keep the boat going fast as wind and waves increase or decrease. Of course, that means I trust her completely.
So why is it still so hard to listen to her excellent advice about what to do next on the race course?
I’ve been dodging the answer for years, because the truth is a dirty word: ego. Even as a former crew with attitude, I have trouble taking input from the front of the boat.
Taking over the tiller gave me the same irrational belief in my own abilities that every skipper I’ve ever sailed with has. And that can wreak havoc with my listening skills.
In sailboat racing, change is continuous, you have puffs, lulls, lifts, headers, bad air, waves, tacks and so on.
It’s rare that you can set the boat up and sail for too long without changing something, to go fast you must constantly adjust the trim of your boat and sails. We actually use many different settings to cover the full range of conditions in which we sail and to change from one gear to another, we usually have to make multiple adjustments.
As an example, when you sail into a lull, you typically ease your mainsheet and bear off slightly and when the wind increases, you trim in and head up.
When you get a lull you don’t put a softer batten in the top pocket of your mainsail or change your mast rake, you might do these things when you set up on the beach when you expect light air, but they are not normally considered when changing gears.
A mistake I see out on the course more often than I should, is heads in the boat changing major settings; generally no change you will make on a beat will make you enough extra distance to make up for the distance lost whilst making the adjustment. It is worth noting that in a race of 60 minutes, with 4 upwind legs that you will only be on each upwind for about 8 -10 minutes.
An exception to this is of course if there has been a major change in the weather.
In sailing it’s relatively easy to set your boat up so it will go fast in one particular condition, as long as the wind and waves remain constant, it’s not hard to zero in on the sail shape and other variables that get you to optimum upwind speed.
The problem is that conditions almost never stay constant.
You may get your boat going fast in one condition, but if you don’t adjust things when conditions change, you will not be going as fast as possible, that’s why the ability to change gears is so important for boatspeed.
The best sailors might be in the right gear for 90% of a race whereas the sailors at the other end of the fleet might be in the right gear only 50% of the time, or less.
Clues for when to change gears –
Trust your sense of feel, indicators like pressure in the helm and angle of heel will tell you a lot about whether the boat needs more or less power
If your performance relative to the nearby competition is not great, there’s a good chance you are in the wrong gear.
Look for visual clues, many changes that require a gear change are things you can see before they reach you (e.g. puffs, lulls, waves) so keep your eyes open.
Most racing sailors are good at “shifting up” when they get an increase in wind pressure as puffs are generally easy to see and their effect on your boat is easy to feel.
The ability to change down is a different story, and this is where the best sailors make their biggest gains. It’s harder to detect decreases in the wind, so most sailors don’t downshift soon enough or far enough, as a result, they compound the negative effects of sailing into a lull.
Therefore, if you want to get better at changing gears and going faster for a greater percentage of the race, I recommend you work hard on shifting down.
Try to shift sooner, more quickly and further when you encounter lulls, bad air, waves or any other situation where you might slow down.
I have copied below, excerpts from an interview with Mike Holt, multiple 505 world champion who is renowned for getting awesome starts and having an uncanny knack of digging himself out if things go wrong during or just after a start.
Describe your overall start strategy
For me, whether it is a line or gate start I am focused on ensuring having a runway to leeward and being at full speed when I start. I then want to be able to climb when I can and foot when I need to. Getting to the next shift in good shape and aiming to control my destiny.
Tell me about your favourite tactical moves you use in the start sequence.
Generally, I will look to impose myself on the boat to windward, I will look for a boat that is a weaker link and use them as a buffer. Basically, invade their personal space.
What are the most common ways competitors get into trouble on the start line?
By being bullied by another boat and ending up without any leeward space. And or being caught too close to the wind with no steerage.
What is the crew’s role in the start sequence?
Feed information and make sure the boat can still move. Talk about time, where there are gaps, who may invade your space and attempting to work out time on distance to the start.
How do you hold your lane off the start line?
The key to this is in making sure you can get to full speed at or before the start. Once racing in a crowded area you have to keep moving between height and speed, too much of one over the other will get you in trouble. Height, height, speed. Repeat until the space around you is acceptable to sail your own race.
If you get baulked or get a far from satisfactory start, what do you do to recover.
It’s important to recognize this quickly and then stop the bleeding. Tack, take sterns and look at your options. Unless you are utterly convinced that left is the way to go, in that case, suck it up and sail fast, Better to go slow the right way than fast the wrong way.
Talk about risk-taking in a start, e.g balance that with the favoured end, clear air, favoured side of the course.
I don’t like taking any risks.
In general and not necessarily related to the start, what’s the single most important thing that a sailor looking to improve should concentrate on?
This is boat dependant and also individually related. For me and sailing performance boats, fitness and the ability to operate the boat at 100% for the entire race.