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Recognising, Evaluating and Calling Puffs

Looking at the water on light air days with little cloud cover, it’s easier to see a puff approaching because the extra wind causes the surface of the water to ripple and change to a darker colour plus it will be moving away from the source which will tell you whether it’s an approaching lift or knock.

It’s always a little more difficult as the wind increases in strength or it’s overcast but by continually observing the water whenever you are out sailing, you will get better at recognising puffs and their direction.

Upwind

When you see a puff approaching even if it’s not your job to call puffs, it’s always good practice to run through the motions in your head, it’ll help you stay sharp the next time puff calling is your job.

When you see a line of breeze rolling down the course, there are four important pieces of information about the approaching wind that will make a difference to your helmsman and trimmers.

  1. Is it a lifting or heading puff? If it approaches from 45 degrees or forward of your course, it’s a heading puff, from 45 to 60 degrees, it’s a median puff, and from aft of 60 degrees, it’s a lifting puff.
  2. How much more wind is it? This helps the helmsman and trimmer know how much to adjust their trim and angle for the new wind.
  3. How long will it last? This tells the helmsman and trimmer how long they’ll sail with the new trim.
  4. When will it hit? A countdown helps the helmsman and trimmer time the adjustments  they are making.

Downwind

Calling puffs downwind is just as, if not more important than spotting incoming breeze upwind as you have more flexibility to sail higher or lower to meet the approaching puff.

When calling puffs downwind, ask yourself the same questions as you would sailing upwind: (Lift or header? How much wind? How long will it last? When will it hit?).

Make sure to converse with your trimmer and/or driver beforehand to determine the language that will be most helpful for them.

You have to remember that while you are looking up course, your fellow crew trimming the sails will likely be looking down course, or up at the sails.

Saying “puff coming on the right” might be confusing – your right, my right, course right, downwind right?

A good general rule is to call the puffs where they fall over the shoulder of your forward-facing crew members. 

As an example, say”puff over your right shoulder,” this makes it easy for trimmers or helmsmen to look back over their shoulder to see the incoming breeze and react accordingly.

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Crew Assignments

On a single handed boat you steer, trim sails, watch the instruments, read the compass, track the fleet, call the tactics and attend to a myriad of other responsibilities to get you around the course as fast as possible.

When there are two or more crew on a boat it is important that each sailors roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and understood. 

On championship two-person boats, the driver steers and the crew does tactics. On a three-person crew, the forward crew and helmsman focus on trim, while the middle crew handles tactics and so the responsibilities get divided up as the team size grows.

Crew assignments should be based on the number, skill, experience, and interest of your crew. Each crew position should have clearly defined responsibilities during each maneuver, and maneuvers should be executed the same way each time.

In a perfect world you would have the same people in the same position for every race but unfortunately that is not always possible.  In larger crewed boats you should work toward a nucleus you can count on and then pair new or less experienced crew with a regular crew member.

The key to developing good crew work is practice, its simply impossible to train crew during a race and you must practice to win, there is no other way. Go through maneuvers one at a time: tacks, gybes, sets, douses, reefs, sail changes, plus straight line trim and speed and then debrief after each training session to answer any queries that crew mates may have. 

In a large fully crewed boat another effective practice tool is rotating crew positions. When you switch places, each will understand better what is going on and can anticipate the other’s needs during a race. Similarly, trimmers and drivers who trade places will better understand how they impact each other.

Don’t discount changing places occasionally in a one design, two or three person racing boat either, there is nothing like sailing in a different role on the boat occasionally to understand what is required or how easy or difficult the task of the other athlete is.

Find a tuning partner once you are happy that your crew roles and responsibilities are established. Sail parallel courses to work on boat speed, use cat-and-mouse drills to improve boat handling then engage in short match races to add competitive fervor. 

The difficulty of boat handling increases with increases in the wind speed, so keep practicing until you are confident in all conditions.

Try to refine your techniques to reduce crew movement but pay attention to weight placement, either fore and aft to reduce drag or across the boat which affects heel. In many designs, heel affects waterline length and thus boat speed. 

In most one design dinghies excessive heel creates drag and the boats must be sailed flat for optimum performance.

 

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Read Situations at the Leeward Mark

All the good work of the upwind leg can be undone at the leeward mark.

Leeward mark rounding in a competitive one-design fleet can be a daunting experience and when a mix of boats are arriving at different speeds and angles it can be even tougher to work out who’s going to get there and when.

Learning to read situations as they develop comes through practice and with some clear thinking you can  make big gains at the bottom end of the course.

  • Begin the leg with the end in mind –                                                                                                                                                                          What are the priorities for the next leg? Get in phase with the oscillating shifts? Hold a lane to the advantaged side? Get onto the ‘long tack’ as soon as possible? The answers to these questions should shape your positioning against other boats on the leeward mark approach.

    For an early tack, avoid being overlapped outside another boat at the mark: drop early, weave around if necessary to break the overlap and exit tight on the mark so following boats cannot pin you out.

    If you are making a charge for the left hand side (in a port hand rounding), a tight rounding is only necessary if there are boats close ahead: a smooth arc gives better VMG.
  • Understand Rule 18 –                                                                                                                                                                                              Sailing Rule 18 is by far the longest and wordiest of all Part 2 rules. Its main purpose is to state when one of a pair of boats must give mark-room to the other. The boats must both be required to leave the mark that they are near on the same side, and one of them must be in the three-length zone around the mark.

             An inside right of way boat can generally push for the classic ‘wide in, tight out’ rounding: a keep clear boat cannot if the  right of way boat is close outside. If there is doubt about whether there was an overlap at the zone, the protest                    committee will go back to the last point of certainty.

  • Choose the right Gate Mark

    If one mark appears favoured, ask yourself why. If it is due to an oscillation, the only way to bank any apparent gain would be to tack immediately; this may not be possible. The boats rounding the ‘unfavoured’ mark will get straight in phase, and cross you on the next shift.

    Depending on leg length, if you are three-quarters of the way down the run and you can’t tell which one is favoured, there is almost certainly something more important to think about. Go back to point 1 and chose the mark that is going to get you on the tack you want.

  • Think Ahead

    Hoist the jib part-way in plenty of time to avoid last-minute fumbles, check the conditions early and get everything onto its mark well before the rounding – nothing is more frustrating than a saggy jib luff or in-haulers that need adjusting at the most important part of the beat when weight on the rail is at its most critical.

  • Use the Angle

    A gybe drop inside the zone guarantees an overlap on any boats approaching on the other gybe. Aim to hit the zone directly to windward of the mark and be prepared to slow down by sailing extra deep to give a little extra time.

    Avoid overshooting the layline at the last gybe in. If a gust then forces you down to or below the layline on the final approach, the gybe drop will be almost un-achievable for the crew.