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Competitive Sailing Sailing Sailing To Win Yacht Racing

Useful Tips For Racing Sailors

 

Boat Preparation – To win you must be the best prepared, and a lack of attention in this area can mean gear or boat breakages and to be able to win you must be able to finish.

Beyond that, you must have competitive equipment, efficient systems and excellent hull finish. Carry spares for things that can be repaired on the course along with tools that are needed to effect those repairs.

Financing an Event – Look at your season and pick out the events that you would like to do. Work out whether you can attend each one and compete at the top level required with the finances you have available.

If you find that you are having to make the money stretch by scrimping on accomodation, food and equipment options, consider doing fewer events but dedicating more resources to those events.

You will find your stress levels will be reduced and the fun levels and your event success will greatly increase.

Mental Stamina –  Are you able to keep going when things get really tough or do you let frustration get the better of you? Sleep and diet are not only important for your physical well being but they are important for your mental state as well.

When you train, work as hard as you would if you were racing and eat and hydrate the same way as well. Many of us practice specific things but don’t push ourselves as hard as we would if we were racing.

If your class does 3 x 45 minutes races each day, some of your training sessions should be for the same amount of time, that way you build the necessary mental stamina to carry forward to race day.

Concentration – In sailing, because there are so many variables, you are not able to concentrate on every variable all the time.

The best sailors pick the variables that need the most attention given the current course and conditions and disregard the ones that won’t make much difference.

There are always plenty of distractions at your club, a regatta or around the boat park, try to concentrate on the days racing by thinking about the weather, the course and what you need to do to succeed.

Many top sailors I have spoken to use headphones prior to heading out on the water and play music suitable for the day to set the mood and block out unwanted distractions.

Keep a sailing Log – All of us have plenty going on outside sailing so trying to remember settings that worked in particular conditions. This becomes especially tricky when you may not encounter those exact conditions again for many weeks or even months.

The act of writing things down helps your memory. Keeping a sailing diary enables you to refer to it to when you encounter the same conditions again. 

Body Weight – Many boats and classes we sail have an upper crew weight limit or ideal weight for best performance and many competitors get involved in yo-yo dieting to meet those weight requirements.

Changes in weight need to be gradual and balanced otherwise it can affect your ability to perform at your peak.

An ideal situation in a class that has a particular weight range to be competitive is to be somewhere in the middle but of course this is dictated to a large extent by our physical size.

When choosing a class of boat to sail, it makes sense for sailors to select a boat matched to their natural size.

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How to Understand The Effects of Current in Sailboat Racing

Firstly you must understand what current is, how it acts on your boat and  its effect on windspeed and direction. 

Currents are driven by three main factors:
  • The rise and fall of the tides. Tides create a current in the oceans, which are strongest near the shore, and in bays and estuaries along the coast.
  • Wind. Winds drive currents that are at or near the ocean’s surface.
  • Thermohaline circulation. the movement of seawater in a pattern of flow dependent on variations in temperature, which give rise to changes in salt content and hence in density.

Current Characteristics and Causes:

Current is faster in deep water and slower in shallow water so sail out to deeper water when the current is with you and sail in shallower water when you are sailing against the current.

Sustained, strong breezes push water in the direction of the wind; when the wind subsides, the water flows in the opposite direction.
     

Pressure systems also create current and influence tidal flows. Lows increase the height of high tides and prolong flood currents; highs push the water away, which increases the strength and duration of low tides and ebb currents.

Current is strongest around prominent points and in narrow openings such as harbor mouths. There are usually back eddies on the down-current side of  islands, shoals and points. 

When a tidal-induced current begins to change direction, it changes first along the shore lines and later in mid- channel.

Working Out Current:

One way to predict what the current will be doing on the race course is to use published charts and tables. These give a fairly accurate guide to the velocity and direction of current that is caused by tides.

Another way is to look at fixed marks or buoys like the starting pin. Be careful not to confuse wave action with current and anchored boats will also give you a good idea about current flow.

Another important clue about current is the appearance of the water surface. When the current is flowing toward the wind, the water will be choppier than usual. When it’s flowing away from the wind, the water is smoother.

Look also for distinct lines of separation between different water surface textures.

Racing In Current: 

When starting a race in current, be sure you have a line sight to help you judge the position of the line. When the current and wind are going in opposite directions, you’re likely to end up with multiple recalls. This is a great time to start at the leeward end (assuming you want to go left) because it will be easy to make the pin.

However, don’t start right at the committee boat, because it’s too easy to get caught barging. And be careful not to be over early, since it will take a long time to get back against the current and re-start.

Current affects your course over the bottom and therefore changes the laylines to any windward or leeward mark. When the current is pushing you away from the layline, it’s easy to under lay the mark and lose distance by trying to pinch up to the mark. The safest route is to overstand slightly — this will keep you clear of the mess of other boats and eliminate the need to make extra tacks.


When the current is pushing you toward a layline, the biggest potential mistake is overstanding. Prevent this by approaching to leeward of the “normal” layline or by avoiding the starboard layline completely until you are almost at the mark.

On reaches and runs, current will usually cause you to sail a longer course than necessary. Stick to the rhumbline and gain valuable distance. The best way to do this is by using a land sight.

If you can see land behind the next mark, use this to set up a range so the mark stays in the same place against the land. In the absense of a land sight use a compass bearing to the mark and steer a course so this bearing remains constant..

Myths Regarding Current:

There is no such thing as the lee-bow effect, if you are sailing upwind directly into the current, you can’t gain by pinching to get the current on your lee bow.

Another Myth is the belief that the direction of the current favors one tack over the other. As long as the current stays the same for all boats, it doesn’t matter whether you take the up-current or down-current tack first or last.

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How Can You Recover From A Disastrous Start?

Its important to remember that a bad start is not the end of your day, patience and keeping a cool head will generally save you from a total disaster.

If your start has gone wrong, don’t panic and look for a clean exit sooner rather than later.

Be patient though, a hasty change to your pre-determined plan without considering all options may actually place you in an even worse situation.

Two things that are critical to an effective recovery are that the helmsperson must continue to sail the boat as fast as possible all the while deciding where to get clean air.

Depending on your situation though, sheets should be trimmed for footing or pointing, you need to make decisions based on what you are seeing up the track.

If you find yourself in the second row, you need power because there is less wind and more chop. The backstay needs to be eased, Cunningham released and jib leads moved forward to give you a fuller, more powerful headsail.

The most common escape starts with gentle pinching in an attempt to get above the boats to leeward , to do this, move the traveller up and sheet a tick or two tighter than the conditions require.

This cannot be maintained for too long though and the desired result is an escape to clean air with the goal being to find a lane which you can live in for at least two minutes.

If you need to tack for clearer air, make sure there is no one that will tack on your wind, watching the boats around you for crew movement that may indicate a change in their direction which will affect you.

Once you have a clear lane and are now going in the planned direction, look at the fleet to see if that plan is falling in to place and if not be prepared to alter the plan to suit.

If you have a bad start near the weather end it is easy to tack away to clear and then tack back again as soon as there is a lane if you are looking to go left.

A poor start in the middle of the line in more difficilt to extricate yourself from and generally occurs when you are late due to line sag or when a port tack boat tacks under you and establishes a lee bow.

Generally it is a mistake to foot off below the boat on your lee bow but conversely do not tack too early because you will then have to dip the boat to weather who then has a chance to tack on your air.

If you have to bail out at the leeward end there are few options as clearing out to the right is rarely an option as you will have the bulk of the fleet on starboard tack to deal with.

If you are at the pin end and your plan was to head left, crack off a little to get speed and get to clear air as soon as possible.

Cracking off for clear air, generally only works if there are a small number of boats below you otherwise it will take an eternity to reach clear air if in fact you ever do.

If you are forced to bail out, be patient and wait for the proper clear lane to get right, all the time keeping the boat moving fast.

Once on Port tack, you can look for another lane to tack back to the left.

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Olympic Gold Medallist Tips For Boatspeed and Changing Gears

Who better to get help with boatspeed issues than Mat Belcher, current Olympic Gold medallist in the 470 class from Tokyo 2021.

I have copied below excerpts from an interview that I did with Mat in 2017 while he was waiting at the airport to travel to yet another overseas regatta.

Brett: Where would you look to change gears, before or after a puff hits? If you can see a puff coming towards you, do you start to make a few changes before or wait until it gets there?
 
Mat: Yeah, we do, we’re constantly…and I don’t know whether, I guess, my experience in this kind of thing is so relevant across classes because we’re constantly changing gears.

Every five seconds we’re doing something, whether the gust is approaching, just before the gust, during the gust, after the gust, during the lull.

I think the gusts are very important, but equally important is also the lull.

 That’s quite a critical…and usually, that’s actually where you lose most of your opportunity to gain is actually during the lull and responding in time to make sure that you’re continuing your speed that you’ve harnessed, all the power, and really trying to get through that lighter period.
 
Brett: So how do you power up and power down with special reference to the order you do things in? What’s the best way to power up? 
 
Mat: It’s really quite boat-specific… 

I think you’ve got the usual basic controls. You’ve got your out haul, you’ll let your Cunningham off, you’ll let all the vang off, and you can put your center board down, you can put your jib track forward.

There’s so many different things, and depending on your boat if you can control your rake, you can maybe bring your rake up to match.

You can move forward a little bit in the boat.

You can also possibly move your main sheet bridle a little bit more to windward, depending on what type of class you’re sailing.

Brett: There’s a lot to remember, and I guess it all comes back to that time in the boat so that all becomes second nature, you don’t have to think about it.  The other thing is having a system that works properly…
 
Mat: Yeah, well, we talked about time, that’s a critical part, spending time in the boat, but it’s also your understanding.

So typical…for me, it’s typically that I sail a lot of different classes, and when we have discussions about what different controls do on the boat, it surprises me that a lot of people just don’t know.

They don’t know when they pull that rope, what’s the effect or what’s that going to do?

It’s very difficult if you’re in a racing environment or you’re trying to do it quickly, and the gust is very short, to do all these controls.

If you don’t know what it’s going to do, that’s quite a limitation.

Typically when you buy a new dishwasher, or you’re buying something, you don’t read the manual. I don’t read the manual at all.

My wife always tells me that “you got to read the manual, how do you know how to put it together?”

It’s the same with when you get a boat for the first time or you’re sailing a 505 for example.
 You’ve got to really know and have the feel and play around, and just use all the controls and see what they do, and then you’ve got a much better ability with your added understanding of them.

Practice, keep changing.

Brett: What are some of the common mistakes you see racing sailors make when they change gears?

Mat: Different people obviously make different mistakes, but I think trying to stick to the basics is critical, to make sure you’re doing things you know and know you can do well and quickly.

That would probably be depending on whatever level you are, it’s just making sure that you do the basics, and if the basics is just changing the vang tension or just then transitioning to your Cunningham and then maybe your center board.

If you have a two-person boat, then look at your weight control a little bit, fore and aft in the boat, and just really do the simple things right, you can’t really go wrong.

If you have the time and more experience, then you can really start to refine that to get that extra meter or extra half a meter, but the basics, from what I see most commonly, is that people just…they’re trying to look at the small details and over-complicate it without actually doing the simple things.

Brett: If you had to help somebody in middle or towards the back of the fleet most of the time, what is the one thing you would say to them that they need to do to start moving up the leaderboard?

Preparation.

So really focusing on your boat preparation or your crew preparation, the biggest thing for me, is that most of the time you come to an event, everything’s already done.

It’s the work that…I guess at our level, is done outside of the racing environment.

It’s preparation, it’s the sail testing, it’s the time in the gym, it’s where you staying in accommodation, it’s the training coming into it, the loading, and really looking at the detail.

Its usually things you can’t see that actually make the difference, and for me it’s just preparing, preparing well.

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How To Find More Speed

 

To find more speed is largely a matter of trial and error and getting to know your boat.

You can set your sails so that they look right but to get the last fraction of boat speed you must experiment with different settings and shapes to see which ones give you the best results.

Even when you are out having a pleasure sail or taking friends for a ride,  experiment with luff, outhaul and leech tension, sighting up the sail to see what the sails look like after each adjustment.

As always, make notes about what worked and what didn’t so that next time you encounter similar conditions you can replicate the fast settings.

It is important to have reference points marked on sheets and the boat to enable you to faithfully reproduce the fast settings.

Using your vision memory of what fast settings looked like is never enough.

Whenever you make an adjustment (depending on the conditions) remember that it can take a reasonable amount of time for the boat to speed up or slow down. 

Also, when a change has been made, it often takes the helmsman and crew a little time as well to settle in to the new setup so don’t be too hasty in assuming the changes have not worked and then adjust something else.

Take time to analyse what has occurred by watching the other boats in your fleet.

Given the vagaries of the wind and water it is very difficult to decide whether a change in speed relative to your competition is due to weather, a couple of short sharp waves, your steering or your sail trim.

There is no substitute for time on the water to make you a better sailor, to improve boat handling and to be able to make effective trim adjustments.

More often than not its the better sailor who wins.

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How To Be A Great Offshore Crewmate

I have just been following the Transpac online and that got me to thinking about how you could get invited to be a part of the crew on one of the competing boats.

Considering there are only 41 boats competing from a country with a population of some 325 million, it is a great privelige to be asked to participate as a crew.

If your ultimate ambition is to crew in the Transpac, Fastnet, Sydney to Hobart or any of the other great off shore races there are things that you can do to make sure that you are asked to participate.

Success in small boat racing is one is one of the most direct routes to getting noticed but another way to be asked is to build a reputation of being a good shipmate.

To do this you must be a contributing member of the crew, thinking before acting to avoid making a mistake, being able to follow instructions and not being too shy to ask questions if you don’t understand the job you have been given.

Always be prepared to volunteer for extra jobs,and if there is a sail change called for or there are other jobs afoot such as winding a coffee grinder, don’t hold back from offering to give someone a break even if it is not your job.

When it is time to go off watch, don’t be the first one down the hatch to your bunk and make sure that the new watch has settled in. Volunteer to make coffee and snacks for the new team prior to retiring.

When you are rail sitting, hike hard and long setting an example for the others to follow, being cheerful even though you may be cold and feeling seasick.

When you are below, space is at a premium with equipment and personal belongings taking up all available space. Help up by keeping all your gear stowed in your bag or locker and stow gear or things that aren’t yours or necessarily your responsibilty.

At the change of watch, be the first out of your bunk and frocked up ready to go upstairs. Make your watch mates a coffee or snack and start a dialogue with the retiring watch about what has been happening and what to expect for your period on deck.

When you arrive at the races destination, don’t abandon the boat for the party straight away but make sure everything is packed away and the boat is cleaned up as best as possible.

Now its time for catching up with fellow competitors and your team to relive the race over a few Bevvies.

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How To Sail Better In Light Winds

If you want to improve your results in light air you need to master the four things which are listed below.

Attitude: is the biggest hurdle to overcome, you should not fear light air just because you have sucked at it in the past.

Relish the opportunity to sail against light air specialists, those that have thrashed you in the past, and treat a light air race as an opportunity to learn from them.

In large fleets in light air there are often big shake ups throughout the day and with the right attitude you will often find that you are in a position to take advantage of shifts in direction and pressure as they occur.

Don’t worry about the fact that some boats are sailing faster. Victory in sailing races can come in many ways, with small improvements from race to race being an incentive to work harder.

Boat Improvements: in light winds, sail as light as you possibly can and leave everything that is not completely necessary on the beach or dock.

Ensure that the hull and foils are as smooth as possible and with a moored boat, clean the bottom by scrubbing before leaving for the course.

Whilst racing, continually check for weed on your blades.

In a one-design boat, tune up with a crew that is similar weight to your own plus one that is lighter or heavier so you can set your boat up to be sailing in the fastest groove.

Learn From The Competition: watch other boats to see what they are doing to see if you can change something to improve.

Look at the sail shapes they are using, the position of their travellers, sheet tensions that affect the luff and leech shape and other vital adjustments that have a bearing on boat performance.

One of the biggest mistakes that sailors make in light air is to pinch particularly in short, choppy waves. To keep your speed up in these conditions, you must foot off for speed.

Experiment: make one adjustment at a time and then leave it for a reasonable amount of time to see whether it improves your speed or not.

No matter the size of your boat, experiment with the position of the crew weight, once again look around your fleet and see where the fast teams sit.

As a generalisation in light air, you want the weight forward and with a slight heel to leeward. It is only with experimentation that will you find the fastest boat attitude.

Don’t be too shy to even try heeling to weather, as some highly accomplished sailors have been able to make that work for them.

Experiment with all adjustments available on your boat but only make one incremental change at a time, ensuring that after each, you let the boat settle down to give yourself a chance to properly evaluate the outcome. 

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Losing Your Touch? How To Get Out Of A Slump

If you feel as though you are losing your touch out on the race course sometimes you need to go back and start at the beginning.

If your performance is a shadow of your past, you need to go through each one of the potential problem areas.

First, check the finish of the boat and your equipment and make sure that it is up to racing standard.

Next, go sailing and work on your steering, your sails and adjustments. If you think the problem is something you are doing, work with your team to analyse and come up with a consensus.

Once you have an answer, go out for a full training session or two to work on and fix the problem that is causing your current “go slows”.

The most important point here is don’t go looking for excuses, go all the way back to the begining and recheck everything and then go sailing to see if your performance improves.

Be honest with yourself, you may find that you are not footing because the sails are not sheeted properly or you are not pointing because you have not bent the mast to suit the conditions.

A question often asked regarding a slump is “have we peaked too soon”. Sometimes coming up to a big event it does no harm to have an uncustomary poor result to bring you back to earth.

Treat it as a wake up call and go back to the basics to evaluate where you are really at. An overconfident sailor gets too relaxed  and does not concentrate on steering, keeping the boat flat & trimmed correctly or study the sails and equipment diligently enough.

When you have a bad day, during the debrief, list at least 10 things that you could have done better and this should include input from everyone on the team. 

Once the list is put together, use your practice sessions to work on each of the things that you have identified as issues and sharpen your skills so that next time you race these problems do not occur again.

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Competitive Sailing Sailing Sailing To Win Yacht Racing

Copying The Champions In Your Fleet – Is That Cheating?

To someone unfamiliar with our sport, two identical boats should sail at the same speed given equal crews, the same wind, and the same wave conditions.

What an outsider may not realise is that small changes in identical equipment can make big differences in boat speed and performance.

A couple of turns on a forestay turnbuckle can change the mast rake thus affect the helm load and balance or in the case of a side stay, it can affect mast bend characteristics and thus sail shape.

The adjustments available to a sailor are endless, ranging from the rig adjustments just mentioned through to sheet tension, outhaul, batten tension, Cunningham, and haliard tension to mention a few others.

Other than in boats with adjustable rigging systems (adjustments that can be done on the fly) most rigs are set up before you leave the beach or dock and cannot be changed once on the water.

These settings are based on your perception of what the day’s weather will be and once you are out there, you are stuck with those settings, so plenty of study of the weather patterns is important.

If you are sailing at a new venue, don’t be too shy to copy what the locals are doing to get the perfect tuning for that venue.

On the water, every change to a sail control will either give you a better or worse result and being able to ascertain the effect of these changes is incredibly difficult.

Select the most successful sailmaker in your class. They will have a tuning guide that will help you set up your mast rigging tension, fore and aft rake, and pre-bend for the various conditions.

If you are new to a class, not only follow the tuning guide but ask questions of the top sailors in the fleet and copy what they do. You will be surprised at how helpful they will be, it is just a case of plucking up the courage to ask.

Copying is not cheating and most champions appreciate being pushed harder and will be happy to help you get faster as this forces them to improve as well.

Quantifying the effect of a small tuning change is hard to do on the water and may not be apparent until many minutes after the change because of variables in the wind between boats across the course.

After establishing a baseline, it is important to experiment using your own tweaks and then learn what each adjustment does with reference to boat speed and handling.

When out racing, be honest with yourself when evaluating the changes that you made during a race and factor in a lucky wind shift that may have given you the improvement, not the adjustment.

Copying the best sailors in your fleet guarantees getting up to speed quickly and this should give you an easy jump on much of the competition. 

Therefore the answer to the question in the headline is a resounding no, if you don’t copy the fleet champions you are starting behind the 8 ball.

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How To Debrief After Every Race

A race or regatta should not be over for your team when you cross the finish line and there is plenty to be gained from the post-race debrief.

After a successful result, our self-confidence gets a boost but after a poor showing on the water, we have to deal with the psychological fallout. All is not lost though and the team de-brief can allow us to learn from what went wrong to ensure that next time you race you won’t make the same mistakes.

If you have a coach, make sure that they are part of the team meeting and this should take place immediately after the race either on the boat, in the boat park but more importantly away from the after-race festivities.

Initial points for discussion are where did you lose places unnecessarily, and why. Other things that need to be discussed are the start, your speed around the course, and the day’s tactics. 

The debrief is also a good time to constructively talk through the crew management on the boat remembering that these sessions are about how to improve not to lay blame.

Make sure that you talk about the positives that came out of the race as well as the negatives but importantly try to focus on the two biggest mistakes and talk through what went wrong adding solutions so that you can avoid them next time.

If possible have a whiteboard available and run through each individual part of the race and use a diary to make notes for future reference. Use the diary to note down information about the time of the day, wind speed, direction, sea state, current, and information about fellow competitors.

If you have model boats available, they can be very helpful in recreating on-water situations as part of the discussion. Many times observations from off the boat can vary from on the boat memories so all inputs need to be considered when arriving at a solution.

It’s amazing what a coach can see from off the boat and many things may not have been obvious to those on board so have them involved in the discussion. 

The importance of the de-brief is to learn so that next time you hit the water, you will not make the same mistakes and thus end up with a better result.

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