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Competitive Sailing Sailing To Win

Sailing Success Begins With a Solid Stool

 

By Malcolm Page, Australia’s most successful Olympic sailor

People often ask me what makes a winning sailor. I mostly get the impression that they are after some special Jedi “mind trick” that mentally makes someone a champion.

With the focus these days on sports psychology, people often forget that before you worry about your mind, you first need to worry about getting the basics right.

For me, success in sailing (well any sport actually) can be likened to a three-legged stool. You must have firm balanced legs before you can work on the seat.

Without each leg being equally attended to, your stool won’t be balanced. And without your stool, you don’t have anything to sit on and think!

For sailing, the three legs of the stool can be likened to:

  • Speed: Personal physique (height/weight), Fitness, Technique, Equipment, Technical tuning.
    Racing Ability: Tactics, Starting, Strategy, Fleet management.
    Environment: Geography, Current, Wind, Accommodation, Supermarket, Language, Regatta specifics.

A good example of this from my past was our preparation for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. My teammate and I worked very hard on our racing ability, but for some reason ignored the fact that we were slower in light wind.

We did not balance up our speed and our environment legs. Needless to say, it did not end terribly well for us.

It is important to remember to work on all three aspects of good sailing – how to sail well, how to sail well against others, and how to sail well at the regatta venue.

Then you can start to think about Jedi mind tricks.

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Competitive Sailing Sailing To Win

How To Improve Your Racing Skills

The best way to get started and build your initial skills is to get tuition either at club level or with a course provided by your National sailing body.

If your initial sailing was not in a club environment, joining a club is one of the most important steps to move your skills forward and it’s through a club network that people can improve and develop their sailing.

Many clubs and classes run coaching sessions for both adults and young sailors and these are a very effective way to kick your skills up a level as well as identify areas on which to focus afterwards. 

As a bonus, a serious approach to improving your skills will also boost the fun, enjoyment and satisfaction you get from races that you compete in.

Following that, a methodical approach to learning will see a rapid improvement in your performance, make notes after each race about things observed and learned including boat settings, weather, rules and fellow competitors. 

One way to avoid flattening your learning curve is to develop a mindset that makes analysing and learning from your performance in each race an automatic routine.

The old adage that ‘a good sailor is one who looks at the race they’ve just sailed and asks: “how could I have done that better?”

Sailing different boats in different places and with people whose experience is in excess of your own means, you’ll learn at a greater pace than by sailing your own boat at the same club and with the same crew.

If you can, spend up to half your time afloat practising and this will make a huge difference to your results. If you can’t manage this, even 10 minutes at either the beginning or end of every day’s sailing will make a big difference.

Concentrating on the core elements of boatspeed and basic manoeuvring will show the biggest rewards and provide a firm foundation on which to build further skills.

Start by fully understanding the way in which all sail controls including outhaul, vang, cunningham and so on change sail shape, particularly in terms of the full/flatness in different parts of the sail and twist.

A fundamental to understand is the steering effects of the sails and the way in which this contributes to the balance of the rig. At its simplest, power in the jib tends to turn the bow away from the wind and powering up the mainsail tends to turn the bow towards the wind.

Changing Gears: Boatspeed requires a combination of sail trim, accurate helming, good balance and settings for a particular wind speed and what works in flat water won’t work in big waves, nor in light airs. 

Learn and practice acceleration gear, which is sailing a little off the wind with sheets eased slightly and is used when sailing upwind in waves it is also used in extreme conditions with either a lot of wind or very little, these are times when it’s difficult to get the boat moving.

Understand the Racing Rules: you need to keep referring to and building your knowledge of the rules. Too many sailors, even those who are seasoned racers, are too complacent in this respect and don’t fully understand many of the basic rules.

It’s important to build a core of theoretical knowledge and reading is an important way of doing this, particularly where rules, tactics and sail trim are concerned.

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Competitive Sailing

Sailing Tactics To Be Better Than The Competition

 

Often too much significance is attributed to sailing tactics and tactics only become the most important factor if you are sailing at a very high level. 

For most of us, it’s better to invest in training time, concentrating on sailing technique and boat tuning. As a word of caution though, you can’t manage without tactics altogether.

I have jotted down below, a couple of rules, that if you follow, you’ll be better than 80% of the competition unless of course, you are sailing at World Cup level. 

  1. Read the Sailing Instructions – How often have you seen it that someone who doesn’t know the course, sails to the wrong mark, or doesn’t know what a penalty would be when a rule is infringed?
  2. Know the Rules – You don’t need to know the rules by heart but you should have an understanding of the main ones such as when boats meet. If fellow competitors know you aren’t sure of the rules they will  make the most of it, often screaming rules that don’t exist or have not been in effect for years.
  3. Get out to the course early – set your boat up for the conditions, get used to the wind and waves, observe whether tt is increasing or softening, are the shifts oscillating or persistent and what current is there across the course.
  4. Check the Start line – Look for line end bias and establish transits so you will be right on the line when the gun goes.
  5. Starting Strategy – Of course having your own starting strategy is best but if you are not yet confident, observe where the best sailors in your fleet are setting up and head in that direction but of course don’t start too close to them otherwise you may become their “marshmallow”.
  6. Start on the line in Clear Air – For a beginner, it is very difficult to calculate the distance to the line, that’s why you should orientate yourself with the boats immediately near you in the last minute before the start. Keep a constant lookout for boats coming in from above and below but above all try to have space to leeward so you can foot off to maintain clear air.
  7. Sail the long tack first – From your homework prior to the start you will have noticed whether the first mark is square to the start line. If not, where physically possible, sail the longer tack first, this means that you will have more options to play the shifts before arriving at the layline.
  8. Avoid arriving getting to the Layline until as late in the leg as possible – for the reasons mentioned above, once you are at the layline you have lost the ability to play any shifts. 
  9. Have a plan – From your time on the water prior to the start you will have established a plan for the race. While racing, have your head out of the boat watching your fleet and for changing conditions. Be prepared to change your plan should your observations tell you there is a permanent change occurring.

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Understanding and Controlling Upwind Sail Power

Upwind sail power comes from 3 sources:

  • The angle of attack.
  • Depth in the sail (draft)
  • Twist.

When trimming our sails we want to get our boat to full power and we must adjust for the sailing conditions by altering the three power sources listed above.

Sails are built so that they can perform in a variety of conditions but must be fine-tuned by the sail trimmer to achieve the designed shape of the sail.

The first source of power is the angle of attack.

At zero angle of attack, the sail is luffing. If the sail is luffing you need to trim in to increase power or the helmsman needs to bear off to increase power if the sail is already trimmed in as far as it can go. 

Power increases as the angle of attack increases up to the point of a stall. When the angle of attack is too great, flow stalls and power drops quickly.

The second source of power is sail depth.

Sail depth controls the power, acceleration, and drag of the sail. More depth creates more power and better acceleration while a flatter sail has less power and less drag.

As with angle of attack, power increases with depth up to the point where flow stalls and maximum power is achieved just short of a stall.

A flat sail is best when overpowered in heavy air and a flat shape is also fast in smooth water, as it creates less drag.

A deep sail is best to punch through waves and chop or to accelerate after tacking.

The twist is the third source of sail power.

Twist describes the relative trim of the sail high and low and a sail has lots of twist when the upper part of the sail is open.

Increasing twist reduces power and decreasing twist adds power.

Another reason that twist needs to be considered is that due to less surface friction, the wind is stronger at the top of the sail than at the surface and this is known as wind gradient.

The true wind and boat speed together create the apparent wind and a stronger true wind up high creates a wider apparent wind angle and stronger apparent wind the higher up the sail you go.

Sail twist is fine-tuned to match the sail shape to the prevailing wind gradient and we further fine-tune twist to wind and sea conditions.

The fine-tuning of twist is one of the most important and powerful trim adjustments we can make.

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