Read Your Helm

What you feel in your tiller or wheel gives you an indication as to what is right or wrong with your sails and the balance of the boat.

What the helmsman feels is dictated by sail trim, centreboard position, mast rake, heel and crew weight placement. With excessive helm, the steerer is working against the boats natural course.

By eliminating excessive helm you decrease rudder drag and thus increase boat speed.

Sail Trim

The jib pulls the bow down away from the wind and the mainsail when pulled in moves the bow up towards the wind.

On a boat that is mainsail driven like a 505 or Etchells, you should focus more on the mainsail as it contributes the most to the helm and constant adjustment will affect the helm you experience.

The mainsail should not be cleated or at least the cleat should be placed in such a way that it is hard to engage and easy to uncleat.

Have a mark on the mainsheet as a reference so you can repeat a setting when you tack or adjust for an increase or decrease in wind velocity.

The same goes for marks on your vang, fine-tune and traveller so that you can replicate settings when powering up and de-powering.

Heel and Balance

In a dinghy the rule is, always sail the boat flat because if you don’t, the rudder becomes a brake and an easy way to find if the boat is flat is where the helm goes from windward to leeward helm.

One exception, especially in lighter winds is where you might want to generate a little windward helm to gain hydrodynamic lift off the blades and a slight amount of heel will generate that.

When sailing slightly heeled and you feel an increase in the helm, flatten the boat to re-instate neutral helm and reduce drag.

Centreboard Position

Obviously, not all boats are the same, but if you pull the board up, this moves the centre of lateral resistance back, thus reducing helm.

Most classes have tuning guides which give you those settings and the centreboard is integral to the helm balance so mark it so that you know exactly where to set it for a given wind range.

Don’t slavishly follow the tuning guides though, merely use them as a starting point, there is no substitute for two boat testing to find out what works best for you.

Knowing where to have the board set in all conditions and then fine-tuning it from there is really important and in many one-designs, the centreboard is integral to helm balance and as an example, when sailing in waves, you might need a little more board up to free up the helm to drive around the waves.

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Your Fitness and Sailing


Most people sail to enjoy it and reach a level of fitness that allows them to race each weekend.                                                                      

On the other hand, if you are trying to get to the top whether it be in a dinghy, one design keel-boat or ocean racer, the long hours that you spend on the water honing your skills will demand additional physical training.

Full time sailing can be an excellent way to improve your physical fitness but you should not rely on this alone.

Additional on land training not only provides variety but it also allows you to work on aspects of your fitness that you need in an intense racing situation that may not be gained from a full year of sailing.

Exercise ashore can be made interesting, enjoyable and helps you to avoid too much time on the water for the wrong reasons. Exercises can be developed to make your body adapt in a very much more controlled and efficient manner than you could ever hope for on the water.

Fitness is a relative term and the type and level of fitness will vary depending on the type of boat and sailing that you do and it is important to strike a balance between the fitness and all other aspects of your sailing.

Fitness encompasses stamina, speed and skill and the mix and relative importance of each is essential for you to ascertain which aspect you need to work on for your particular type of sailing.

Think about weightlifting, sprinting and sailing, what do you think the mix would be for each of these for the roles you need to fulfill on your boat?

As with most things to do with achieving greatness in any pursuit I recommend that you find a coach or fitness professional to write you a program so that you can achieve your desired results. They will able to watch your progress and make adjustments to the program if necessary.

There are plenty of ex-Olympians and high achieving sailors who have made a profession in this space and who are more than qualified to guide you to get to where you want to be.

I remember once asking Mike Holt, a multiple world champion in the highly competitive International 505 class, what was the main factor that made him stand out from many of the other high achieving sailors in that fleet.

His answer was “fitness”, he went on to qualify that statement by saying that at the end of any race I am able to sail my boat as hard  as any one else in the fleet was able to at the start”






In my haste to send out my already late Blog, during the paring down to make the article short and easy to read I eliminated the essence of  “shifting Gears in a Lull” what should have been included follows in bold italics.

Bearing off to restore luff telltale flow in a lull is a bad habit. Frank Bethwaite recommends you consider trimming in and very slightly feathering down in a lull and unnecessary steering will slow you down. The boat will slow down due to the lull and moves the apparent wind back closer to its direction before the lull. If the lull persists, your final heading might be only a touch lower than your original heading. If you steer down initially, you will then need to steer up again as the apparent wind comes back to its original direction. 


Moose McClintock learned that twings down on a spinnaker sheet or guy is similar to applying vang tension on a mainsail; it closes the leech and stabilizes the kite. He taught this while sailing on Farr 40s with the kite up in big breeze and waves.

Jonathan McKee  The farther away the jib clew is from the lead, the more you have to move it to make a change. An Etchells jib clew almost touches its lead; therefore, small changes make a big difference. On the other hand, a Melges 20 jib clew and lead are much farther apart, so your range of jib-lead movement is greater from light to heavy air.

Dave Ullman explains that raking your mast forward will give you more power because the wind flows over your sails closer to a 90-degree angle. It also closes your leeches. Raking back generates more up-flow, from front to back, decreasing power.

It also twists the sails and effectively moves the jib lead aft (because your jib clew lowers toward the lead), which also decreases power.

Buddy Melges says to practice tacks and jibes because they can provide massive gains in short amounts of time especially if you are practising by yourself, spend a lot of time on both. 

Vince Brun’s lesson was that while sailing upwind in flat water you can pinch and get away with it because nothing is disturbing the flow over your sails and blades. But as the chop increases, you have to put the bow down to keep speed. The choppier it is, the lower you have to sail.

Chop throws the boat around and makes it pitch fore and aft, causing everything to easily stall, especially when you slam into waves. Make sure you ease your sails to increase the twist and decrease helm load this bow-down twisty mode is more forgiving and keeps the boat moving fast.

Skip Whyte, coach of the University of Rhode Island sailing team knows a lot about sailing dinghies. He preaches sitting upright with good posture so that you can better see the wind and the sails. When you need to scoot in, slide your butt and hips in first. Doing so keeps your head outboard, again helping visibility. Slouching in toward the boom is uncomfortable and less effective.

Ed Adams explains the importance of setting the foot of your jib — ideally, the majority of the foot — so that it kisses the deck. The seal formed between the sail and the deck forces wind aft rather than allowing it to escape underneath the sail. Capturing and accelerating the wind gives you increased power and lift.

Karl Anderson preaches the importance of delivering a positive message to the team, especially after a tough day, let them know the team is still in good shape and all is well. Make everyone feel like they’re still in the regatta. This goes a long way, especially if you are respected on the boat.

Larry Suter explained how, when the pin is favoured by 10 per cent, it takes about 10 per cent longer to get to the line compared to a square line from a given distance because your approach angle is more parallel to the line.

If the boat is favoured by 10 per cent, it takes about 10 per cent less time to reach the line from the same distance because you are sailing more directly at the line.

That’s why there are more on course sides and general recalls when the boat is favoured. It’s critical to factor in line bias when setting up for the start.

James Lyne, coach to many top teams, emphasizes the lifted tack. In an oscillating breeze, he says, if you sail a header out of the gate or off the starting line, you end up missing the first shift and often end up missing shifts later up the beat. As you sail a header early in the leg, you rapidly get near the layline.

If you get to the layline early in the beat you have painted yourself into the corner. Later up the leg, if you get headed, you don’t want to tack because you are already on an edge, with not much distance to sail the other way. You have a dilemma because you are still on the long tack, but you are also headed.

You end up sailing through a header or two later in the beat, compounding your losses. Those who sail the lifted tack more often are positioned in the middle of the course and don’t mind tacking on headers at the top of the beat.



Footing, Pointing and Shifting Gears

Shifting gears on your boat requires knowledge of your boat, the conditions, and plenty of practice. Gear changing is what separates those with adequate boat-speed from those who always seem to be higher and faster.

Many in your fleet start a race with a similar setup using a tuning guide or by following class accepted principles but the faster boats in your fleet are constantly making additional adjustments. and when conditions suddenly change these sailors shift gears smoothly.

Fix Pointing Problems:

Pointing problems are not only indicated by the angle that the boat is sailing relative to the boats around you but more by the fact that the boat is actually sliding to leeward.

Trying to pinch to maintain height is generally the problem and to solve this we must remember to foot, then point. Your boat needs to go fast so the underwater foils develop enough lift to hold their position in the water.

To regain pointing ability, ease the sails out, bear off slightly, and get back up to speed. Once your pointing has been re-established, re-trim your sails.

Fight the urge to heel the boat to aid pointing and keeping the boat as flat as possible will maintain a balanced helm and ensure the efficiency of your foils plus reduce the drag caused by the rudder.

Fix Footing Problems:

The simplest fix is easing the sails and more open leeches on both sails will help the boat sail lower and faster.

If this results in a pointing problem the first thing you must do is check your helm balance.

First, try to sail the boat flatter, if that doesn’t help, try flattening the main by bending the mast.

Next ease the traveller to balance the helm and lastly tighten the outhaul and apply Cunningham to the mainsail and tighten the jib halyard to move the draft forward in both sails which will open the leeches and remove drag.

Shifting Gears in a Lull:

Puffs feel like lifts and lulls usually appear as headers.

In a lull, it’s important to bear off as smoothly as possible making sure that the boat remains flat and resist the temptation to add heel to maintain “feel” in the helm.

To maintain speed in a lull, ease the main and allow the boat to heel to weather creating lee helm to steer the boat down then ease the jib, level the boat and pull the traveller up if the boom is below the centerline.

If it is a long lull, straighten the mast and ease the main Cunningham and jib halyard.



3 Tips For Staying Out Of Trouble

Even though we employ the best tactical foresight out on the racecourse, we can still often get ourselves into a jam and to that end, I have outlined below some tips to enable you to dig your way out.

Ducking a Competitor:

The main reason that you have to duck is to minimise a loss and a good duck generates extra speed when you bear off.

As a bonus, you also gain a little lift as you cross close behind the other boat, it’s important though, as you cross close behind to get back to closed hauled as quickly and smoothly as possible.

If you do this well, there is a good chance that next time you come together and you are on starboard tack, that you will have the advantage. This is especially powerful at the top of the course a few lengths under starboard tack-layline.

If it appears the other boat will leebow you, and for tactical reasons you want to continue and you are in a lightweight boat with good manoeuvrability, try a late duck, which will keep from giving away your intentions.

Avoid The Pinwheel Effect at a Mark Rounding:

As an outside boat in a group approaching the leeward mark, don’t carry on with pace, not only will you sail extra distance in bad air, you will get carried wide around the mark and you will end up in a terrible lane coming out the other side.

The remedy here is to slow down and let other boats move ahead, kill speed by taking your ­spinnaker down early and steer a little extra distance. 

If you’re advanced on the group, you can slow down a lot by steering hard, swerving back and forth, and swinging wide to slow your boat and kill time.

The advantage of falling in behind is that while the group in front push each other wide of the mark and sail in each others bad air, there is the opportunity for you to round the mark tightly without fouling those boats and be on the inside track going upwind ensuring that you pass a boat or two.

When slowing down and waiting for your opportunity to round inside, there could be boats coming up from behind with no room and who want to sail into the gap you’re ­shooting for,  be sure to communicate with them that they have no rights.

Recover from Overstanding:

If you find that you have overstood a mark, the key to recovery is to crack off and put the bow down to get to the mark as quickly as possible.

In medium and heavy air, cracking off causes heel, so depower the rig,  traveller down, backstay on, hike hard, and move your weight aft.

Set the sails to reduce helm but always keep a little in the bank by sailing slightly high of the mark especially if you’re sailing in current or just in case you get headed or a boat tacks on you.

If you have overstood while sailing downwind, sail high and fast toward the leeward mark, if sailing high puts you in the dirty air from boats ahead, sail low to keep your air clear as long as possible, then heat it up late near the mark. 

At all times, either upwind or downwind, keep the boat flat to avoid going sideways and keep the foils working efficiently.



Strategy For An Upwind Leg.


The wind has just shifted left so it has headed all boats around you on starboard tack – Should you keep sailing into the header, or take the instantaneous gain and tack? 

As always with sailing, the perfect answer begins with ‘It depends’

Possible scenarios for you to consider:

  • The wind has headed, but you are still certain there is more wind on the left-hand side of the course, and that is going to make more difference. You will keep heading towards the pressure, but revisit the decision if all the boats on your hip tack off before you get there.
  • You are still above your mean heading for starboard tack and you believe that the wind is still moving left. As soon as you are down to mean numbers you’ll tack onto port, and duck the boats on your hip if necessary.
  • You have no confidence in what the wind might do next, therefore positioning is your first priority. If you are getting closer to the port layline you need to look for an opportunity to head back to the centre of the leg.
  • The header has given you a gain on the boats to your right so you are going to tack to put that gain ‘in the bank’ right now.”

The Big Picture:

You should have an informed opinion gleaned from a practice beat before the start and that will usually narrow the basis for ‘staying’ or ‘going’ to one or two key factors.

Questions To Ask Yourself:

  • Can you see more pressure on either side of the course?
  • Is there tide or current affecting the course and the time of tide change?
  • Will there be a wind direction bend caused by land at either end of the course?
  • Is there a possibility of a persistent shift in wind direction?
  • Is the water less lumpy on one part of the course?
  • If the wind is shifty, are the shifts likely to be small or large?
  • Are the shifts oscillating, regular and repeating or completely random?
  • How many shifts do you expect per upwind leg?

Further Considerations:

  • Do you want to risk everything to win the race by a leg, or just be happy to arrive at the windward mark in touch with the leaders?
  • If you’ve spent most of the upwind leg chasing gains or tacking on the shifts, positioning rules should take over as the leg progresses.
  • If you are less willing to take a chance on a big gain on your own, the position of the next mark and the rest of the fleet must take a bigger part of your “tack or continue” considerations.

Tack or Continue:

  • Don’t get pushed around by the other boats, take every opportunity to work toward the favoured side of the course.
  • If there is a regular pattern and you are confident that there will be at least two cycles per beat, tack whenever you are headed below the average heading on that tack.
  • If you are not confident about what is going to happen next, start on the tack that takes you closest to the mark, keep away from the laylines and tack and cross or close gauge on boats to windward whenever the wind heads.



Twist – How Telltales Work To Get It Right.

Twist is when the top of the sail opens in comparison to the lower sections and twist gives us the ability to control the lift and drag created by our sails.

Twist is increased in light winds and progressively taken out as the wind increases, the reason for this is that fiction from the water slows the wind down on the lower parts of the sail relative to wind further up. 

In the lighter wind, the wind angles as you look up the sail vary greater than they do than when you are sailing in heavier winds so you need to twist your sails in light air to make sure they are trimmed correctly all the way up.

As the wind speed increases and the surface friction has less of an effect on the wind angle there ends up being less difference between the top and bottom of the sail so less twist is required.

How to Set Twist for the prevailing conditions.

Headsail:  The luff telltales tell you where the sail is in terms of power and car position, but, when sailing upwind, the leech telltales are absolutely crucial as they show how close you are to maximum trim.

You always want to be right on the edge, as close to stalling as possible and your leech telltales are the best indicator of this. Generally, the top leech telltale will stall first so trim the sheet until the top telltale stalls.

Once it stalls, ease the sheet slightly and in the case of the jib leech ribbons, the top one should flow 95% of the time.

As the wind drops the sheet should be eased and as it increases, the trim should come on.


Trimming the mainsail is virtually identical for all boats, fractional, masthead, racing or cruising and the cunningham, backstay, outhaul and running backstays (if fitted) are all used for the same purposes.

On a cat-rigged boat, telltales near the luff can help and are sometimes known as steering telltales.

Set the mainsail with the maximum depth it can carry but without stalling the leech and as with the jib different amounts of twist are needed depending on the prevailing wind conditions.

When sailing upwind twist should be controlled using mainsheet tension, and the correct twist is determined using the mainsail telltales.

A word of warning – If your vang pulled on hard you will not be able to add twist by easing the mainsheet.

When you sail into a lull and the mainsail begins to stall more twist is needed – the main sheet is eased until the telltales eventually fly.

For correct trim in lighter air, all mainsail leech ribbons should flow, in moderate conditions, the top leech telltale should flow about 50% of the time.



Using a Compass For Course Racing




When racing around a set or fixed marks course, a competitive sailor uses the compass to plan and then implement their race strategy.

If you are sailing in a crewed boat, one crew member should be responsible to watch the compass to establish what the wind is doing and strategise tactics, leaving the helmsman to concentrate on boatspeed.

The compass should be mounted where all on board can easily see it from their normal sailing positions. 

If you are using a non-electronic compass it is easier to work out tacking angles without having to resort to arithmetic but with an electronic compass, it is generally easier to write on the deck when you establish a median heading.

Generally with a  coloured and segmented compass remembering headings seems to be easier.

Whichever type of compass you use, paint or Magic marker on the boat near the compass a large – sign on the starboard side and a large + sign on the port side, these remind you that when upwind on Starboard tack if the heading is going down you are being headed and if on Port tack upwind the heading is going up, you are being headed. 

Communication is paramount and when sailing upwind, the crew should read aloud the variations away from the port or starboard mean either up or down as the breeze swings, the skipper will know ahead of time if he may need to tack or continue on. 

These calls need to be evenly spaced at about five to twenty seconds so that an accurate picture of the swings or oscillations is established and the skipper always knows whether the swing is on the way “up” or on the way “down”.

Only if there were a tactical or strategic reason for giving away some distance, would you sail on when the reading is bad, examples are, you may be heading towards a shore where a known lift occurs through bending of the breeze or you may decide to give away ten to gain twenty later or tacking may put you the wrong side of the fleet or in somebody’s bad air.

Where a compass is particularly handy, is if the wind increases suddenly and you don’t lift, this means the true wind has headed and you should seriously consider tacking.

It is vital once rounding the top mark that you look for the compass angle to the gate or wing mark depending on the type of course you are sailing.

When heading downwind you tack on lifts and carry on when knocked, of course, this is assuming that the shift does not take you closer to the mark which can happen when the course has not been set true.

Your compass is a major contributor towards eliminating “guesswork” and once you have mastered it you will wonder how you ever sailed without it.



Solo Training in these Unprecedented Times

Having a tuning partner is one of the best ways to get value from your on-water practice sessions but in these times of no racing, fewer boats out sailing and social distancing, keeping your skills sharp probably means solo training.

Before you head out, it’s important to have a plan but it is just as important to have a debrief when you hit the beach. The debrief is where you can go over what went right or wrong and what you need to do to get even better. Make notes and refer to them when you are planning further training.

Part of the planning process will be to analyse past races or regattas and to talk about problems that were encountered and then to prioritise what you will be practising and what will give you the biggest win.

If improving your downwind speed and maneuvers is your goal, put in a lot of gybes but make sure you have a few upwind goals as well so you can make good use of your time getting back uphill. 

The best practice sessions involve a variety of things but the majority of focus might be on,  sailing downwind where you concentrate on weight placement and the steps necessary to catch waves or practising sailing by the lee for those situations when you are in close proximity to another boat and need to stay clear or where you may want to lay a mark to avoid having to gybe twice.

If you are concentrating on upwind skills, shoot for a total of 10 to 20 minutes of really intense work for each skill you’re wanting to improve. If your tacks are normally around a minute apart, tack every 30 seconds, do that for 5 minutes, take a break and then do it again and again until you are comfortable with the result.

During your training session don’t be shy to stop sailing, take a rest having something to eat and drink before either going through the same practice again or if you are satisfied with what you have achieved thus far, go to the next drill you have planned.

Even though you may be practising tacks, gybes, powering up and down or something else, don’t lose sight of other skills such as keeping the boat flat, looking for pressure or watching the compass for shifts.

Another good way to cement the improvements is to keep in touch with fellow crewmates via email or text in the days following the practice. If you think of something afterwards that is related to what you were trying to achieve and was not covered off in the debrief, communicate immediately, as quite often by the time you get back to the boat it may be forgotten.

Other things that you can practice on your own could be time on distance for starting, mark rounding, timed spinnaker sets and drops, the list is endless and only you and your team know what it is that will give you the greatest gains for when we are allowed to race again.



Improve Your Sailing While in Lockdown

If you are like me, you have been spending time away from the boat getting all things computer and home office up to date and in order, especially those jobs that have been carried forward in your diary for what seems like years. 

While this has been great, one downside from all this “office” work has been the gradual decline of fitness and the rapid increase of waistline which is even more worrying for those of us in the older age bracket. Youth seems to regain fitness and “fighting weight” much easier once regular exercise (read sailing) is possible again.

I am going to cover below a couple of tips to get us all ready for the coming easing of isolation and back to on-water activity.


Fitness is one thing but Sailing fitness is especially important, just because Gyms are closed there is no excuse not to keep your fitness levels up at home. 

There are apps available online which will enable you to stay focussed by putting a daily routine in place or there are plenty of trainers who understand the needs of sailing athletes that can put together a training routine for you to carry out in your home.

Exercise at the start of the day. When exercising first thing in the morning, your body will be more energised for the day than having a daily dose of caffeine.


From the aforementioned computer or even your mobile phone, browse the internet and YouTube for videos or articles to improve your sailing.

Browse for articles that specifically look at areas of your sailing that you are weak in such as upwind speed, rules or the myriad of other things that go towards making our sport one of the most complicated there is.

There are sites such as  which have a wealth of tips and articles that are free to browse and download and a few minutes browsing Google results will give you a wealth of sites that will suit your needs.

Many of us have bookshelves full of books on sailing which we have promised ourselves that we will read someday.  That someday has arrived and there will certainly be better long term value to you in reading about sailing than reading the doom and gloom that is presented by the press every day.

If you don’t have a library or if there are holes in it covering subjects about your type of boat you sail, type of sailing that you do,  or skill you want to hone, go on the web to Australian site Boat Books,  or Google Amazon, Booktopia,  or one of the many sites on the web selling sailing books, many at a discount.

When we are finally allowed to get back on the water, you won’t be left flat-footed or get flogged out on the racecourse.