Using a Race Compass

You win sailboat races by sailing faster and less distance than your opponents and to sail less distance, you must have a good feel for the angles.

Many sailors develop this feel visually over time but not everyone retains this visual information.

A compass gives you a precise tool for the angles and there  are dramatic gains and losses due to wind shifts in various situations, even with small shifts. As an example, a 5° shift results gives the favoured side an advantage of 12% of the lateral separation.

On a 200 metre starting line this equates to a 24 metre advantage. If you sail a 5°  header for one minute you will lose at least four boat lengths to a boat on the lifted tack. 

A compass gives you a quick reference for decisions in the stressful moments, such as after starts and mark roundings. 

A compass helps you find marks, check the starting line, and sail the lifted tack.

A compass helps you find marks, check the starting line, and sail the lifted tack.

Many sailors say that using a race compass is just one more excuse to keep your head in the boat. You should be looking around constantly, integrating all the data about sailing angles, wind strength, and competitors.

You can train yourself to recognize slight headers and store a mental picture of the average wind direction in your head and remember that when a permanent shift occurs, your previous compass data on average wind is useless. 

The verdict

Use a compass, but learn to use it as one input, and keep your head out of the boat.

The compass has helped even on small  lakes opr bays, as the lake or bay gets bigger, a compass becomes more important, since there are fewer shore references to use as bearings. 



Before you round any mark, it’s essential to visually locate the next mark, not only is this critical for your next-leg strategy, it will have a massive impact on how you approach each mark rounding.

As an example, at the weather mark, you must ask yourself whether you should round inside other boats so you can do a gybe set, or outside so you can do a bear away set. Having visually sighted the next mark prior to rounding will determine which approach you’lll use immediately after rounding.

The worst thing you can do tactically is round the mark and then search for the next mark, you lose any tactical advantage you may have had and in fact run the very real chance of being smoked by the boats behind you.

A classic mistake is not realizing that you can lay the next mark on one tack or gybe so any distance you sail away from the proper course is time and distance wasted.

 If you go around the windward mark and do a bear-away set for example, you will lose a lot of boats if you later realize that your competitors are gybe-setting and laying the nextmark.

One team member must be given this specific responsibility every time you approach a mark, their job is to locate the next mark visually while there is still time to plan your upcoming rounding and strategy for the next leg.

Once they have the mark in sight they must describe that mark’s location to the rest of the crew. They can do this by identifying a visual reference point or unique geographic feature behind the mark.

If you are sailing a set course, such as a windward and return, you can calculate a compass bearing while still on the previous leg to give the helmsperson a bearing to the next mark once rounded, this is especially important if they can’t see that mark.

 Follow these mark-rounding principles and when the fleet converges at a mark you will be able to avoid the chaos that often ensues due to having a plan already mapped out.


Calling Puffs – Courtesy SailingWorld – November 2017


When you see a puff approaching: First off, 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. From aft of 60degrees, it’s a lifting puff.
  • 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.
  • How long will it last? This tells the helmsman and trimmer how long they’ll sail with the new trim.
  • When will it hit? A countdown helps the helmsman and trimmer time adjustments they’re making.


  • 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. 

For 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.


Preparing For A Big Event

We are coming to the time of the year when many classes and clubs have their State, National and World Championships. Quite often travel to events both locally and Internationally adds a layer of difficulty and preparing a packing list is an important part of being ready to race.

In every case, preparation is one of the key ingredients to your chances of a great result. Champions succeed because of the preparation made well ahead of time.

Selecting and training with the right people as crewmates is perhaps the single most important factor as part of your lead up preparation. They must bring skills that you may not possess, be ferocious competitors plus have tactical and boat handling skills.

For those with the luxury of time before an event, there is no substitute for time on the water, this improves physical fitness and gives you a psychological edge based on being at one with each other and the boat.

There is nothing worse than turning up at an event feeling as though you are “underdone” and it would have been better to have trained as hard as the teams that you will be competing against. In many cases, some competitors are  afraid of the competition because of their preparation and see their potential result being poor accordingly, as is often said, “where you aim is where you end up”

In one design racing, you will be pushing your boat to its limits so all the checks and tests you do with your gear prior to turning up to an event give you the confidence to reef on the extra inch of sidestay tension or other control knowing that everything can take the loads.

I have seen many teams turn up at an important event only to spend the first couple of days working on their boats whilst the better-prepared teams are out sailing, getting used to the local conditions, lining up against rivals, tweaking their boat and generally getting their head in the game so that when the first gun fires they are as good as they can be.

Fitness counts for more than most sailors realise, a current world champion once told me that his fitness was his main “secret weapon”. He said that he would be hiking just as hard on the last windward work as he was on the first, he also went on to say that his less fit rivals would be sitting up, no longer able to swing hard, the result of this was that he would be faster.

Great preparation guarantees you will be more relaxed, ensures a good result and as a bonus makes the regatta fun.




Steering well is an art, and particularly steering well across a wide range of conditions is something that only the best have mastered through countless hours on the water.

It’s important to have a steering position where you can see as much of the sails as possible and when sailing upwind you need to have your head as far outboard and forward as you can while still being able to steer comfortably.

You need to view the luff of the jib upwind and the edge of the spinnaker downwind.

In light airs, the telltales should be your primary focus and it’s imperative to keep them flowing constantly, wind shear (the wind twisting or changing direction vertically) is common in lighter airs and the telltales can behave quite differently as they go up the sail. This is where twist becomes very important so that the telltales all break at the same time for the full length of the sail.

As the wind builds and the boat is moving through the water more easily, we can begin to work more on height and VMG  toward the mark. The helmsman can now afford to let the windward telltales lift a little.

In heavier conditions, the helmsman must concentrate on the angle of heel, the flatter the boat the better, and easing the mainsail, lowering the traveller or pulling on the backstay if fitted will depower the boat.

The important point for the helmsman is to keep the water flowing over the foils and to not slow the boat by pinching. When a gust strikes many helmsmen feather the boat then ease the mainsail when the right response is to ease the mainsail in anticipation of the gust, gain speed then trim back on once the gust has passed.

Downwind it’s the helmsman’s job to work with the trimmers to keep the spinnaker, whether Symmetrical or asymmetrical, operating at the optimum angle for the best VMG.

It’s common for inexperienced helmsmen to pull away when they see a collapsing spinnaker when in actual fact the sail has collapsed from lack of pressure.

The key to good helming is concentration and to focus on telltales, sail shape and angle of heel. One excellent drill practised by many top flight coaches is to get their sailors to either practice without the rudder fitted and to sail the boat with balance and sail trim alone.

What we as sailors need to be always aware of is the fact that excessive rudder movement acts as a brake and the more manoeuvres we can do with a minimum of rudder movement will ensure that the highest possible speed is maintained throughout tacks and gybes and on the course in general.





Strive To Be Lucky

In memory of the great and eloquent Dr. Walker who died on Monday aged 95.

Luck, wrote longtime columnist Dr. Stuart Walker (1923 – 2018), is a fundamental, but a manageable element of every race.

When Paul Elvström raced with Aage Birch for the Dragon Gold Cup at Marstrand, Sweden, in 1958, he decided that Sergio Sorrentino, of Italy, was the fastest and that they were the next fastest. The Cup would be won by whoever won the final race, and on the final beat of that race, they alternately crossed each other until, “by pure luck,” according to Elvström, Sorrentino crossed the finish line ahead.

“When things go like that, and it is luck who would win, then we know that and we don’t have to be disappointed,” he said. Elvström’s confidence, his trust in himself, his remembrance of all the times he had won, assured him that he should have won, that only luck could enable a competitor to beat him!

The attribution of an outcome to luck is a means of expressing an unwillingness, on the one hand, to assume responsibility for a success or on the other hand to take the blame for a mistake. But it is also a means of retaining power. It’s not that I lost control and that you controlled me; it’s just that this time luck [a higher power, totally unrelated to me or you] usurped my usual control.

We give lip service to the fun of participating in a story filled with surprises and of accepting the role of luck in the outcome, although our actual purpose—disguised, deep down, hidden from view—is to control the entire game and to beat the hell out of our opponents. (Just don’t let anybody know.) We do not actually believe in luck, but we know that it’s better to have luck on our side than against us.

The confident feel lucky; they presume that things will go their way. And expecting the best, they assume that whatever has happened has happened for the best. They rig the past to make themselves look good and after a mistake or a failure, they proceed to get on with the race and the series without undue condemnation. Free of preoccupation with irrelevant matters, they are alert to what does matter.

Consider, for instance, the luck involved in the winning of the Olympic gold medal in the Dragon Class at Kiel, Germany, in 1972. After the racing was over, John Cuneo, wishing to show his appreciation, invited the team meteorologist to come aboard his boat to see how he had used the plastic overlays that the met man had provided. But the met man was horrified to find that Cuneo had won the gold medal by overlaying his daily wind predictions on a deck mounted chart, upside down!



Hailing for Mark – Room is Not Required

SS Rules Tip 1

Rule 18 (Mark-Room) begins to apply between two boats when the first one enters the zone at a mark, and it says the outside or clear astern boat must provide mark-room.

Note that rule 18 never requires an inside or clear ahead boat to make any kind of hail for mark-room.

There are only two rules in the rulebook that require a hail: 1) Rule 61.1(a) when you must hail ‘Protest’ to another boat, and 2) rule 20  when a boat must hail if she needs room to tack at an obstruction.

So a boat that is required to give mark-room must provide that room whether or not she hears a hail.

However, it can be helpful for the boat entitled to mark-room to make a hail to that effect.

Even though it is not required, a hail can remind the outside boat of her obligation to provide mark-room, and it can help avoid a messy situation where both boats think they may be entitled to mark-room.

Communication between competing boats is often helpful even when it’s not required, especially in tight situations such as mark roundings.

By proactively talking with nearby boats you can often clarify each boat’s rights and avoid risky situations.


Staying Out of Trouble

This one’s a classic: If you’re the outside boat of a group approaching the leeward mark and blindly carry on with pace, you’ll sail extra distance in bad air, carry wide around the mark, and then exit in a terrible lane.

This is one of the rare times when it pays to slow down and let other boats move ahead.

To kill speed, take your ­spinnaker down early and steer a little extra distance. If you’re slightly advanced on the group and they barely have room, you can slow down a lot by steering hard, swerving back and forth, and swinging wide to slow your boat and kill time.

Once you’ve slowed, let the pinwheel unfold, and watch as the boats swinging around the outside become pinned and stuck in bad air. These boats had room on you, but because they are now pinned wide from the mark, they can no longer make a tight ­rounding and close you out.

When you can round the mark tightly without fouling those boats (because you don’t have room), sail toward the mark, ideally reaching a little bit before rounding so you have speed.

You will now be on the inside track going upwind, no doubt passing a boat or two. More importantly, you’re setting yourself up on the inside track for a nice beat.

One cautionary note: When slowing down and waiting for your opportunity to round inside, there might be boats coming up from behind with no room who want to speed into the gap you’re ­shooting for.


They might not slow down and wait their turn, so be sure to communicate to them that they have no rights, thus saving yourself the drama of an ugly foul and big pileup.


SAILING PRINCIPLES divided into Tactical and Philosophical.

With Special thanks to Mike Hobson – J Boats, Chesapeake USA.


  • Sail on the tack or gybe that points closer to the next mark.
  • Sail in clean air.
  • Sail toward, and in, the most wind pressure.
  • Keep manoeuvres to a minimum.
  • Form a game plan where you want to be after the start and first leg. What is your goal?
  • Be flexible. Even though you have a game plan, be ready to change.
  • A general rule is to be up-current of the rhumb line.
  • Cross the pack when you can. Take the advantage when you get it.
  • Get a clean start; allow yourself the start so you can execute your game plan.
  • Avoid the lay lines too early in the leg.


  • Go fast, don’t let outside distractions interfere with your boat speed.
  • Sail fair, don’t break the rules. Like Elvstrom says.
  • Stay out of trouble with competitors. Focus on getting around the course the fastest.
  • Relax, and keep it fun.
  • Think ahead; be observant of what the fleet is going to do on the next wind shift.
  • Don’t panic, be patient, wait for opportunities to develop.
  • Be prepared; have weather, current, sailing instructions.
  • Don’t think too much, rely on your experience.
  • Don’t gamble or get greedy.



Boatspeed requires a combination of sail trim, accurate helming, and good balance and trim. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

The problem is that settings for a particular wind speed in flat water won’t work in big waves, nor in light airs.

Just like riding a bike you need to be able to change gear to suit the conditions.

Acceleration gear is used when sailing upwind in waves — each wave will tend to slow the boat — and after coming out of a tack it can take precious seconds to build up to target close-hauled speed and wind angle, depending on the boat.

Acceleration gear is also often needed in extreme conditions — either lots of wind or very little — when it’s difficult to get the boat moving.

This gear is achieved by sailing with bow down trim, with sheets eased to suit and with slightly fuller sails, with Cunningham and outhaul eased if the acceleration gear is to be used for any period of time.

Another aim should be to work on basic manoeuvres in light to moderate wind strengths — up to the strength at which moderate hiking is required.

Roll tacking and gybing are crucial skills for dinghy sailors, especially in light and moderate conditions — the boat should emerge from the tack faster than when entering it.

Mark rounding is also important — make sure you follow the ‘wide in, narrow out’ principle — it’s amazing how many otherwise relatively good sailors fail to do this.

Spinnaker hoists, drops and gybes are really crucial to clean mark roundings, yet few crews practice them outside of races.

Having done this, then aim to master the same skills for super light weather and for strong winds.