In light air – steer to a higher luff telltale which will find you sailing a little lower, one of the biggest mistakes many helmsmen make in light airs is to pinch. It is important for the trimmer to use all the telltales both up the luff and on the leech to get the whole sail working efficiently.
Inheavier air – say over 15 knots, steer more to heel and not be so reliant on telltales. Being over-heeled means the keel is not working efficiently and the boat slips sideways. Sail a little higher in heavy air which helps with lessening the heel angle.
Scalloping – is the ability to be sailing upwind efficiently and then to take about a 5-degree luff up for a few seconds and then steer back to a normal angle without losing boat speed. Each scallop will gain you half a boat length or so to windward.
Marks on Wheel – you should have 3 marks on your wheel, one at the centralised position and one at 4 degrees either side. These marks will show your mainsheet trimmer if he needs to depower the mainsail because you are over trimmed which creates drag when the wheel is beyond the marks. A similar system should be set up on a tiller steered boat although this can be more difficult to do so the main trimmer should watch to see if the tiller is beyond the magic 4-degree angle and react accordingly.
Avoid turning the boat too far through a tack – Before you tack, look to windward about 80 – 90 degrees from where you are heading (depending on your boats tacking angle) and see if you locate a point on the land, or another yacht and set that as where you should be pointing after the tack. If you steer too far you risk over heeling and going sideways plus getting a heavy helm which indicates drag and slows you down. Another problem is that if you oversteer, it is harder and slower for the crew to get the genoa in.
Tacking isn’t just a matter of putting the helm over – In lighter airs, always come out a bit lower than your normal angle in order to build speed after the tack. In stronger air, when going into a tack, let the bow come up 5 or 10 degrees slowly which allows you to gain to windward, then steer to go head to wind and beyond fairly quickly, this also gives the crew a better chance of trimming the genoa in quickly on the new tack.
Wheel Steering – Wheels don’t have the same feel as a tiller. In strong wind and heavy seas, it is best to stand as this allows larger movements than you can make when sitting plus you are able to see over the crew to watch for waves and gusts.
The less you move the helm the better – Moving the helm causes drag and the less you move it, the faster you will be. In Strong winds with big seas though, you will need larger helm movement. In flatwater try to get the helm at 3-5 degrees of weather helm and you should use small slow movements of the helm. Try not to overwork the helm upwind which is a common weakness in helmsman. If you get a lift slowly push on the helm until you get to the right angle is all that is needed. Likewise, if your weather telltale if lifting showing you are too high, a slow bear off is needed, not a big quick pull.
Most boats should have 3-5 degrees of weather helm in medium winds – This allows the rudder to provide lift. If in light winds you are not achieving this, try moving the crew weight to leeward to get feeling back in the helm. As the wind increases, slowly move the weight to weather to keep the feel right.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Check the Start line – Look for line end bias and establish transits so you will be right on the line when the gun goes.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.