Key tactical tips on how to improve your sailing both upwind, downwind, and around the course.
When sailing downwind, use your masthead wind indicator to show your apparent wind and look at your nearby competitor’s indicator to see if they are shadowing you.
If you lose distance after crossing tacks or gybes, have the courage to shift sides of the course.
Always stay on the same side of the course as the majority of the fleet have chosen.
When making a manouvre, always work out the new course to steer first. Before you plan to tack or Gybe, look for an object on the shore to aim for, pick another boat or use the compass for a reference.
In most races, you can make a mistake but still do well. Your ultimate goal though should be to sail better in each subsequent race by eliminating little errors.
When approaching another boat, always accelerate for speed. If you are on Port tack, decide early whether to tack, lee bow or dip.
A good Rule of Thumb is, if two-thirds of your boat can cross, usually you can successfully tack to leeward.
When the crossing is close, lee-bowing another boat is risky.
When dipping another boat, start your manouvre three or four boat lengths away. Your goal in dipping is to be close-hauled and sailing the second that your bow passes the other boat’s stern.
Do not run directly downwind to the leeward mark, always approach on a reach.
Avoid tacking immediately after rounding a leeward mark, to avoid sailing in disturbed air and choppy water.
If you are going slow, make a change such as easing sails or bearing off a little for speed.
If you are well down in the fleet, don’t try to pass every boat in the fleet by taking a flyer, work on passing one boat at a time.
If you are being covered by a boat, the time to get out of phase is when you are faster, never tack when you are slower.
Major Mistakes to avoid:
(a) Being over the start line before the gun goes.
(b) Staying in disturbed air for long periods of time
(c) Sailing on the wrong side of the course after you have lost to the boats on the other side.
(d) Getting into a protest.
(e) Not communicating the next manouvre with your crew.
Many racing sailors talk themselves out of first-place finishes.
They convince themselves that they have poor boat speed or they tack out of a perfectly good spot on the course and blame it on a wind shift that they thought would come.
There’s always something external, beyond their control that seems to prevent them from collecting the silverware.
The real reason that these sailors are continually disappointed is that they are not mentally prepared to win.
They know that they haven’t done all the things they must do before they can be psychologically ready to succeed so they make up excuses.
When you are mentally prepared, you automatically become a much smarter sailor.
When it comes to trying something new, don’t rush into it, think about it for a while. Evaluate whether it is a legitimate step forward, and only then implement it.
Last-minute changes to your boat or how you tackle a manoeuvre will almost guarantee that you spend time with your head in the boat. Trying to work out the new system or discussing with your teammates what went wrong will ensure that you will be losing those boats around you.
In the lead-up to a race or regatta, practice with the new setup and practice the new manoeuvre so that in the race your head is where it should be.
A vital aspect of preparation is the crew’s physical conditioning and one of the best ways to get there is to sail yourself into shape, that is time on the water.
If heaps of time in the boat is not possible, get a professional to set up a program that you can easily follow. The program needs particular emphasis on exercises that take into account the type of boat you sail and the job that you do on that boat.
Often the boat that wins is crewed by the team that can hike harder for longer, especially on the beat to the finish, or can engage in more legal kinetics than their rivals without tiring.
Excerpts from an interview I did with Dr Gavin Dagley, Consulting Psychologist and Executive coach with a reputation for results and performance development. Gavin is a very accomplished sailor having won amongst many other titles, the World Laser Grand Masters Championship sailed in Nuevo, Mexico in 2016 .
Brett:Do you think that its psychology that defeats a sailor who can win a race in a world Championship and the next day finish 50th. What must have been going through his head and do you think that influenced his placing on day two?
Gavin: We often look at a top golfer who is brilliant, but can’t actually crack the world title. Or the example you gave a moment ago of a guy who can win a race of the Worlds, and then come in last in the next one.
I think that’s how people perceive where psychology is. Its how do we deal with the anxiety? And how do we get our heads right, so that we can win?
I think that’s the small part of the psychology of sailing. I think the really big part is…, that comment you made before about complexity?
Sailing is, I suspect I probably wouldn’t get much argument, the most cognitively complex sport there is. There are so, so many variables.
You think about a tennis player, for instance, a top flight tennis player. And they’re not just running, where they’ve got a fixed motion, like rowing or swimming.
They’ve got to respond to each flight of the ball from somebody who’s trying to beat them. But they don’t have 25 other guys hitting balls at one court. They don’t have to adjust the strings every time they hit the ball.
They don’t have to have one guy doing the grip, one guy doing the head speed and one guy doing the direction.
Sailing is orders of magnitude more complex than most sports you do.
And so one of the absolute keys to being, in my view anyway, both as a psychologist, and as a sailor, to being good at sailing, is the very best sailors I’ve seen are the best learners.
They are able to convert what happens to them into stuff they can use on the course. And that’s what makes them good.
Now that’s also what manages their anxiety. Because although the very best sailors, and, in fact, in working in sport psychology at various times, that the very best athletes absolutely have a fire in the belly to win.
Somehow they’re able to harness that in a way that allows them to focus upon performing, rather than winning.
There was a lovely quote from, well, it’s as near as I can remember it, but Ian Thorpe at the Athens games, so it’s going back a little bit and somebody stuck a microphone under his chin and said, “So how many medals are you going to win this games, Sunshine?”
He said, “I’m not there to win medals. I’m there to deliver performances. I can’t determine who’s going to turn up in the pool or how they’re going to swim, but I’ve got to deliver performances.
“For a guy like him to be able to sort of hmm, you know, that’s my orientation, that’s what I would call an orientation that’s going to produce somebody who can improve and win.
So being able to learn. That’s the secret. And being oriented to learning.
There are big bits to that. So, because this is such a complex sport, there’s a whole lot of knowledge that experts have put together over the years.
You’ve got to have access to that in your head somehow.
So some people do a lot of reading.
Some people do it by going to talks.
Some people do it by searching the web.
Some people do it by listening to lectures or whatever.
You’ve got to have a way of quite deliberately building up of that knowledge base.
So, but the second part is, because sailing is a performance, rather than a science. There’s a whole lot of science behind it, but you’ve got to somehow turn that science into performance.
The very central piece of that is feel. The very best sailors can feel what’s going on. And that’s a very conscious…Well, for some it’s a very conscious thing. For some it’s not.
Every single top sailor can feel. They’ve got exquisitely accurate feel.
To do this in Sailing, you need to have the experience to prioritise what you should be working on.
You need the resources to travel to where the best competition is and to have the best possible equipment that you can afford.
You must also be prepared to put in the extra training time necessary so that you are just a little more prepared than the other teams.
When you are planning a season or leading up to a championship, you must prioritise and set realistic goals and work gradually but inexorably towards them.
The important thing here is staying on track, not panic if you are not progressing as quickly as you had hoped, and not making drastic changes.
Importantly, work with your team to set a training schedule that will not see you burn out or put stress on your theirs work or personal relationships.
Make a list of your weaknesses and prioritise those, that when mastered, will give you the greatest gains. These may be the things you enjoy doing the least but will see your greatest overall improvement.
An example may be gybing in heavy air which in the past has seen more than your fair share of swimming. To fix this would be the difference between a tail end result and a personal best in a heavy air series.
Another habit to develop is arriving for the days sailing early so your boat preparation is perfect, you can relax and get your head into sailing mode, observe and plan for the day’s weather and then being the first boat out on the course.
Excerpts from an interview with highly accomplished Dinghy through to Maxi Yacht sailor and North Sails sailmaker Michael Coxon.
What’s the most important sail control and how does that vary from class to class?
“The most important sail control for any boat is the sheet tension. Where the sheet tension will tend to control the twist of the sail and the general drive of it, you can actually then use the subtler controls. Those controls include the outhaul and the Cunningham eye.
One very important thing depending on the boat is mast bend and how you achieve the mast bend. If the mast bend is achieved through having a backstay, it makes the exercise fairly easy.
If it’s a non-backstay boat it will depend on things such as boom vang, again, sheet tension; it will depend on if you’ve got control of the mast at the deck. In other words, can you control the pre-bend in the mast whether through a lever or a chocking system?
Another big variable is rig tension. By increasing rig tension you’ll put more compression through your rig and increase, obviously the tension, but also the pre-bend in the rig.”
How often during a race do you adjust your settings and what indicators tip you off to make the changes?
“Depending on how you’re going is how often you’re going to adjust it.
If you feel comfortable, you’ll tend to not play with things that much. You might make subtle adjustments for conditions. I find that if I feel that I’m off the pace, that’s when I’ll get more aggressive in what I do.
My golden rule in one design, it doesn’t matter who the boat near you is, sail yourself boat relative.
I don’t care if that boat is regarded as one of the front markers or one of the back markers. If he’s got an edge on you, use your eyes. See where his traveler is. See where his pre-bend is. How much forestay sag does he have?
The other rule I always have is that most races have two or three beats in them.
So many times I’ll come back to the club afterward, and someone will say, “Ah, I was really slow off the starting line.” And I’ll go, “Okay, so you were slow off the starting, so how were you up the second beat?” “Oh, really slow still up the second beat.” I’ll say to them, “Well, what did you change?” “I didn’t change anything.” I’m back here asking you now. I say, “Well, what you need to do is whether you change something for the better or the worse, if you made a change you would have learned.”
Once you are comfortable and well-positioned on the run as a team, you need to debrief the beat. If you do identify you had a problem, for instance, you might say, “I think we had a height problem. We were good through the water, but we had a height problem.”
If I was on my Etchells, the first thing I’d say, “Hey guys, we’ve got to look at whether we have to control the forestay sag a bit more, so perhaps we should straighten the mast up a little bit with the mast lever and that will instantly give me more forestay tension.” We also might want to take the rig tension up a little bit.
While you calmly think about that down the run before you get to the bottom mark and the action starts again, you’ve made some adjustments. You’re ready to round the bottom mark. You’re in a new boat and you restart again.
You are unlikely to win every race you enter but you can learn something new every time you go out on the water. For the champions of our sport, learning is one of the most rewarding aspects of competition.
Race as many different boats and classes as possible. Different boats react differently concerning changes in sail trim, boat handling, and reaction to waves. Sailing in a large variety of boats will deepen your understanding of what controls do, steering outcomes, and crew requirements.
Watch Races. You will learn plenty from watching races from a coach boat or reviewing videos of sailing events. Sometimes you will learn more than you would have learned if you were actually competing.
Champions are happy to share their knowledge so don’t be too shy to ask questions in the boat park after a race or in the bar.
Two boat training with predetermined exercises and outcomes is a great way to learn quickly about what you need to do to get as fast as possible. This is especially useful in one-design boats but can also work with two different types of boats with known performance parameters.
There are plenty of seminars, webinars, and Zoom meetings that you can attend and many have interactive Q&A sessions where you can ask for further clarification of concepts that you may not have fully grasped.
Discuss a race from start to finish with your crew or even reconstruct it in your head and note down details and learnings for future reference.
Keep a journal that you enter after each race or regatta. Things to record include the boat set up, conditions at the venue including wind speed, sea state, current, size of the fleet, and the sails you used. Record other factors relevant that will help you analyze and remember what worked and what didn’t.
One of the easiest ways to get faster in your chosen class is to copy the top performers in your fleet. Watch how they prepare, how they set their boat up, when they leave the beach and what they do before the start.
Sail with the best sailors from your fleet on their boats and occasionally get them to sail on your boat with you. Any feedback they give you about your boat’s setup will be invaluable.
As part of your journal, keep photos of great ideas and layouts on other boats. Keep a video library to study sail trim and sailing techniques. This does not need to be restricted to your class and a lot can be learned from other types of boats.
Save articles from magazines and read them again and again, join relevant sailing websites and forums and be proactive in commenting and asking questions.
Get involved in your clubs learn to sail program and share your knowledge. It is often said that “you don’t really know something until you can explain it to someone else”
Interview with Glenn Bourke to give us some insight into championship and regatta strategy. Glenn is currently the CEO of the wildly successful Hamilton Island home of Hamilton Island race week. Not only is Glenn a successful businessman but he is a high achieving competitive sailor with multiple Olympic, World and National championship successes to his name.
Brett –Do you approach a regatta differently in big or small fleets?
Glenn – A little bit. I guess I’ve predominately done most of my sailing career in big fleets. And I certainly have a system that I employ in big fleets, and some of it’s applicable to small fleets, and some it’s not so applicable.
For example, before technology in boats, I used to start maybe a third or a quarter down from the favoured end of the line, or a quarter up from the favoured end of the line if it was for the pin.
The reason for that was that usually there’s a bulge at the top end of the line or the bottom end of the line if it’s favoured quite a bit.
You can generally get yourself clear air and away off the line and not be seen by the committee boat if you start a little bit away from that mad pack that generally goes over the line early.
So you might call it a conservative start, it’s probably not the Hail Mary start, but it’s one whereby you tuck yourself away and if the whole fleet goes, you’re probably not seen from an OCS or maybe you’re not an OCS because you’re behind the line, but they’re bulged out underneath you.
You’re still clear and going, but you’re not in the ruckus of the chaos at the end of the big fleet.
In smaller fleets, I think you can have the opportunity to be a bit more aggressive and to take the favoured end of the line because there’s not as much carnage there, and you can pre-manoeuvre and do whatever else you need to do.
Some of it depends on who is your main competition, if it’s a small fleet and everybody’s even, then you want to get the best start. You want to get into the first shift first.
If it’s a small fleet, and there’s one other competitor that’s tough, you want to make sure that you get a slightly better start than that person so that you can control them up the first beat and take advantage of getting off the line a little bit better.
Brett – What are some big fleet basic strategies? If you’re sailing in a regatta, obviously, it’s going to be a number of races.
Glenn – There’s a number of them. First of all, you’ve got to be fast. In a big fleet, if you want to get to the front end of the fleet, you have to be fast.
If you can jump out of the start and clear yourself, tack across a group of boats and get into a really clear position, you ought to take that opportunity and do it straight away.
It depends where you end up at the first mark as to what your strategy might be after that.
You can’t compete in a big fleet unless you’re fast because you’re going to get spat out and then you are just going to be looking for crumbs on the table rather than being assertive in your strategy or where you’re putting the boat compared to the fleet.
It also changes from the beginning of the regatta to the end of the regatta.
At the end of the regatta, you’ve got to be more perfect. At the end of the regatta, you’ve got to watch your opposition.
You make a transitional strategy from being very fast, off the line well, getting to the first shift and trying to get around the top mark in good order.
At the beginning of the regatta, you are watching where your competitors are, being generally in the right place, being generally a bit more conservative and covering their moves rather than necessarily trying to get the perfect regatta or the perfect race under your belt.
Getting a great start in clear air can be the most important part of your race and knowing the favoured end and determining how much it is favoured will help you settle on your starting strategy.
Some of the many considerations to ensure a great start are current, where other boats are congregating, the size of the fleet, wind speed and any anticipated shifts.
Of course, there are many other factors to take into account as well so a lot of thought and preparation needs to be given in the lead up to the gun going off.
Instruments to ping the line (if legal in your class) can be of enormous benefit but I believe that you should also be able to use your compass only to work out the line and a couple of methods are set out below.
Going Head to Wind on the Middle of the Line: To carry this out, sail down the line from the boat end about a couple of boat lengths to leeward, when you get to the middle of the line, ease the sails and point directly into the wind. Once you are on the line and at right angles to it, see which end the bow is pointing to, that will be the favoured end.
A variation of this is to carry out the same procedure but a number of lengths below the line. Doing this will make it easier to determine which end the bow is pointing to and will also keep you clear of heavy traffic on the line in large fleets. A disadvantage here is that there may be boats above you feeding back bad air making it harder to get an accurate reading.
Going Head To Wind On the Line But at an End:
The leeward end is probably the easiest end to carry out this check as generally there is less traffic there. Go head to wind beside the pin and use the angle of your transom to the line to determine the favoured end. If the imaginary line at right angles to your heading is above the start boat the pin is favoured and vice versa if the line is behind the start boat.
This will also give you an idea about how favoured one end is from the other and if the bias is not that great you may decide to start a little away from the favoured end where the chances of a clear air start are greater.
Using Your Compass:
Sail accurately down and on the line from the boat end noting the compass heading, then add 90 degrees to that.
The angle of the line must be compared with your measured True Wind Direction which you have ascertained by getting a head to wind reading.
One clear way of demonstrating this is if you have a shifty wind, with the line laid to be approximately on the average wind direction.
Say that the wind is periodically shifting ca. 10 degrees on either side of this mean direction.
When the wind is on its maximum left shift of 10 degrees, clearly the port end of the line is now favoured by that 10 degrees. Conversely, when the wind is on its maximum right shift of 10 degrees, the starboard end of the line is now favoured by that 10 degrees.
Obviously, in a shifty wind, the wind direction measurement must be repeated at intervals, so that the changes in the line bias can be monitored and from this, a good attempt can be made to evaluate the best starting approach.
A Method to Use if You Don’t Have a Compass:
Often referred to as the Sheet and Cleat method. Once again, sail down the line from the start boat end and set your sails until they just start to luff. Either cleat them or take a note of exactly where the sheet is through the turning block. When you reach the other end of the line, tack or Gybe and head up the line in the opposite direction without adjusting the sheets. If the sails are luffing, the start boat end is favoured and if you need to let the sails out to get the telltales flying, the pin is favoured.