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.




Of course, there are some things you can do by yourself in areas such as boat preparation, sail shape and boat handling but it is almost impossible to improve your boatspeed very much by working alone.

For you to make substantial progress on speed development you need to line up with two boats side by side. The best way to judge your boat’s upwind or downwind performance is to compare it to the performance of a similar boat sailing in the same conditions.

As part of your pre-season, pre-regatta or championship preparation it is important to include another boat in your plan.

Ideally, you and your tuning partner should put together one or more training days to carry out a systematic test of various sail-trim and rig settings through a range of different wind conditions.

An important part of the training days is the keeping of notes to refer back to and then having a de-brief to discuss what each of you found to work and not work.

Prior to the start of individual races, it is essential for you and your tuning partner to sail part or all off the first leg of the course making sure that you each have the fastest settings for the conditions.

However, if time has beaten you or there has been a quick turnaround between races even a three-minute line-up before the start of the next race will be extremely helpful.




I recently re-read the following article by the late and great Paul Elvstrom and have reproduced it here because I believe that if we can internalise these points we will go a long way to overcoming our feelings of self-doubt and self-belief on the race track.

You must not believe that a fellow competitor is better than you. If he is currently sailing a little faster than you, you have to say to yourself that this is just happening at this moment, soon it will be my turn to be faster.”

“In a regatta it is important to sail in the practice races and to show your worth and always arrive at a regatta a number of days before the event, sail around the course and tune your boat. This will not go unnoticed by your adversaries.”

“When lining up against practice partners or other competitors sail your hardest and you can bet that your fellow competitors may get a complex about you.”

“You must always keep your spirits up and say you are hurting after a long beat just remember that so are your fellow competitors.”

“If you are behind in the fleet and you are tired and hurting, remember so are the guys in front of you.”

“If you get a bad start you must still go the way that is the fastest, you should not get flustered and start taking chances or going off on a flyer, never do the opposite of what the leading boats are doing in the hope that you may pick up a little advantage.”

“If you are sure the leading boats are going the right way then all you have to do is follow them. If you think they are going the wrong way, of course, you shouldn’t follow them.”

“It is really important to recognise the difference between good and bad luck and also skill and good fortune.”

“It is important that when you have a bit of good luck, recognise it for what it is because in the next race or leg you may not concentrate or think it through as thoroughly.”

“Don’t keep clear of the better sailors on a run for fear of interfering with them, compete hard and sail your own race taking all factors into account.”




You Can Win Without Natural Talent

What are you good at, what are you bad at? Ever looked out at a mill-pond day and told yourself “I hate light airs” or seen it blowing dogs off chains and muttered nervously: “I’m rubbish in strong winds.”

Maybe you’re just not talented enough, you tell yourself. 

First, ask yourself: 

What makes a great sailor? Talent or hard work? Probably both.

To win an Olympic gold medal though… surely that’s only within the grasp of the truly talented, right?

From Cart Horse to Racing Thoroughbred

Well, maybe not, if we’re to believe Tom King, who won an Olympic gold medal racing in the 470 for Australia on home waters in Sydney 2000. King and his crew Mark Turnbull won the gold after a spectacular season in the lead-up to the Games, winning the World Championships and a handful of other big regattas along the way.

The gold medal was certainly no fluke, and yet a year earlier, no one would have given King and Turnbull a hope of winning any kind of medal, let alone the gold. Yes, they’d been on the scene for a while, but this world-beating form seemed to come out of nowhere.

It wasn’t just the men either. The Aussie women, Belinda Stowell and Jenny Armstrong, also took gold on Sydney Harbour. And all this from a nation with a very poor record in the 470 class.

Not since Ian Brown and Ian Ruff had won a bronze at the 1976 Games in Montreal had Australia even had a sniff of a medal in the 470. In fact, they were so bad that the Aussie selectors refused to even send a team to the Games for one Olympiad, even though the sailors had qualified the nation.

At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the most successful 470 nation was Ukraine, with the men and women’s teams winning gold and bronze respectively. Both had been coached by Victor Kovalenko, a seemingly mild-mannered Ukrainian, yet famed and feared for his fierce work ethic.

 From a no-hope, 470 nation to kings of the 470 in less than four years – and Australia has continued to dominate this Olympic class ever since.

The helms and crews come and go, but in Olympic, World and other major regattas, it’s always the Australians who are setting the benchmark.


So, what was – and is – the secret?  Sheer, hard work. That’s what Tom King said was the secret. 

Relentless tacks, gybes, tuning runs, starts, breaking down every manoeuvre into the tiniest detail and working on each detail and the sailors could execute perfectly. “We trained, and trained until talent was no longer an issue,” said King.

“Until talent was no longer an issue.” What could YOU do, to make sure that talent is no longer an issue?


Keep a good record of notes about speed.

With Special thanks to David Dellenbaugh of “Speed and Smarts” Newsletter

Good boat speed is about consistency as much as anything else.

Of course, almost any sailor would welcome a flash of super speed, even if it’s short-lived. But that’s not what your goal should be.

If you really want to improve your speed (and therefore your race results) in the long run, you must have a systematic approach to learning everything about making your boat go fast.

In Grand Prix auto racing, does each team’s head mechanic keep a history of engine settings for every car? Of course! They’d be foolish to begin a race without a very good record of what has (and hasn’t) worked in the past.

The same is true for sailboat racing, another technical sport where speed is super important.

How many sailors keep a record of the tuning set-up and sail trim settings that they have found to be fastest over a wide range of wind conditions? A lot of top competitors have this, but I’m guessing many others do not.

There are several ways to keep track of accumulating speed information. My preference in the past has been a handwritten notebook but now it’s usually easier to keep all speed notes in some sort of electronic notebook.

This could be a text or Word file in a phone or tablet, or a document file online that all crewmembers can access, contribute to and study.

The important thing is simply having a system where it’s very easy to record, organize, add to and review your speed notes.


Start Before The Start

Start Before the Start

Get to the racecourse at least 45 minutes before the first gun, once you arrive, there are four essential things you must do.

  1. Gather your wind readings

Sail upwind and tweak sails and rig for speed, and figure out the wind pattern.

The key is to watch the compass and determine a range of headings on each tack.

If the wind is shifting through 20 degrees, you should also try to determine the timing of the shifts. Getting the feel for a pattern will help you make educated decisions while racing.

You should also be looking for other important tactical factors, such as current, potential geographic shifts, and varying wind conditions across the racecourse.

  1. Find your fast settings

Firstly, sail upwind. When tuning up with the good teams (or a designated tuning partner), compare your relative height and speed.

Make sure you’re set up according to your sailmaker’s tuning guide, experiment with different settings, and ask your tuning partners how they’re set up if they’re beating you.

While sailing downwind, try different angles and techniques to figure out what is fast for the conditions.

The benefit of tuning before the race is it allows you to gain confidence in your settings and boat speed, freeing you up to look around while racing.

  1. Research the starting line

It’s important to do more starting-line research than you think you should.

Sail to the committee boat end of the line and sight through the race committee flag, picking out an object on land that’s in line with both ends.

Then, run the line using this sight to get a feel for what it looks like to be right on the line.

The longer the line is, the greater the illusion you’re on the course side when you’re actually not.

During one of your runs, time how long it takes to sail from one end to the other, next put the bow into the wind a few times to check the line bias and to track the true-wind direction.

  1. Double-check before the countdown

Do a brief upwind sail again to see if anything has changed.

Check your compass again and make sure the boat still feels right for the conditions.

Visualize how the fleet will come off the line at that angle and factor that into your final game plan.



Why We Should Practice Our Starts


Former Olympic sprint champion Linford Christie used to say that winning the 100 Metres was all about starting on the B of BANG. In a 10-second running race, every millisecond counts.

We can’t claim that those last few milliseconds aren’t quite so crucial in sailboat racing, but they’re still mighty important.

If you can get the jump on your rivals even by a quarter or an eighth of a boat length, you stand a much better chance of getting out of the start cleanly and setting yourself up for a great first beat.

It’s no surprise to learn that 100 metres sprinters spend hours and hours practising their starting technique, not just pushing out of the blocks time and time again, but honing every relevant muscle in the gym to harness more of that explosive power that they so rely on.

Why is it then that so few of us do the same in sailing? Probably because starting practice is not nearly so much fun as going for a blast.

Maybe many of us don’t practise it because we think it’s either a skill you do or don’t have. But top RYA coach Harvey Hillary disagrees. “It’s just a matter of breaking it down into the different stages, working on each of them separately, and putting it all together at the end. It’s something that can be learned by anyone.”

Firstly, what are we looking for? The perfect start is about putting a number of desirable objectives together as the countdown reaches zero. Maximum speed, space around you, and bang on the line as the gun fires.

The reality is that there are other boats also trying to do the same thing, and some of them trying to stop you from achieving your objective. But let’s look at how we can help you win the battle.

Loading the chamber (2.00 min – 30 secs)

Before you pull the trigger, you’ve got to put a round in the chamber. The goal of the pre-start is to put yourself in a position to achieve those three desirables we mentioned just now – speed, space, and position.

This is all about being able to control your boat at slow speeds, and where 10 minutes of practice every time you go sailing will pay dividends in the longer term.

Notice how the best sailors in your fleet take up a position close to the line very early, sometimes a minute and a half or even two minutes before the gun.

Try doing the same on some practice starts during your training sessions, or in some races where you’re not too bothered about the outcome of your start, and get used to holding position for two minutes within two boat lengths of the line.

You might find that you need do very little to your boat or sail trim just to sit still.