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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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HOW TO BE EFFECTIVE – STEERING OFF THE WIND

On reaches and runs it is essential that the helmsman and trimmer communicate and co-ordinate their actions.

As the helmsman, you must also respond to input from the tactician and changing sailing conditions plus the trimmer’s input based on sheet load and boat speed. The problem here is that there may be conflicting voices advising the steerer thus unsettling his concentration.

Since your tactics won’t succeed without good trim, it makes sense that the tactician talks to the trimmer who then gives feedback to the helmsman so the trimmer is the only one who communicates with the helmsman.

Steering on Reaches –

  1. Light to Moderate Air

On a reach, the fastest way between two points is a straight line and you should plan the reaches with that in mind only varying this based on changes in the sailing conditions or tactics.

In fluctuating wind conditions, work up in the lulls and down in the puffs as necessary to maintain speed, while holding a good average course. The trimmer will indicate when the sheet load is light head up, and when the spinnaker sheet is fully loaded bear off. The amount of course change required depends on wind speed.

When you must head up to pass another boat or defend your position let the trimmer know before making an abrupt change of course, to ensure that the manoeuvre is successful.

2. Heavy air

In heavy air, the helmsman is at the mercy of the trimmers.

The vang, main sheet, and spinnaker sheet must be eased when the boat is overpowered or it will round up and broach but it is fast to carry as much power as you can as long as you can control it.

Carrying some weather helm is OK as long as the rudder doesn’t stall, leading to a round up, this is once again a time when communication between the helmsman and trimmer is essential.

Steering on Runs –

  1. Light air (3 to 9 knots)

In light winds, the best sailing angle is about 140° true wind angle (40° above dead downwind). The angle changes very little as the wind speed fluctuates, so don’t head up in the lulls and off in the puffs except for tactical reasons. The fastest way to the next mark is to tack downwind and keeping the apparent wind forward is fast. A word of caution here though, this is boat dependant so it pays to practice to find out what is true for your particular class or boat.

2. Moderate air (10 to 15 knots)

The optimum speed and sailing angle change dramatically with every change in wind speed. For every knot of wind the optimum course shifts five degrees. In ten knots of wind, the optimum angle is 140° true wind angle and fifteen knots a 165° true wind angle is fastest. Do your best to respond to every change in wind speed, driving off with the puffs and heading up in the lulls.

3. Heavy Air (over 15 knots)

Aim for the mark, sail fast and keep control using the waves to surf wherever possible. Use crew weight to balance the helm, avoid sailing dead downwind and trim the spinnaker directly in front of the boat. Crew weight should also be moved aft to promote planing and to avoid the bow burying.

The helmsman should be forceful to keep control but also be mindful that smooth is fast, jerking the helm creates drag and slows you down.

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Sailing Wind Velocity and it’s Importance

 

In all sailboat races, you must sail toward better pressure as more wind velocity almost always means more speed. 

On the course look for darker water as changes in wind velocity are a lot easier to see than changes in direction.

More wind creates more ripples on the water, and these appear darker because of how they reflect light.

Be careful though to consider variations in sunlight and clouds when assessing heading over to darker looking patches on the course.

Other boats around you are also a great source of information about velocity across the course and be sure to not only take into account their angle of heel but also their heading.

Changes in heading maybe a puff, lift or knock so continual observation should give you the answers you are looking for.

Generally, increases in wind velocity make more difference when the wind is light. An increase of a few knots in the wind when it is light may increase your boat speed by a knot or more whereas an increase of a couple of knots of windspeed in the higher wind ranges may see no increase in boat speed at all.

Once you have found yourself in better wind velocity, do your best to stay there and it may serve you better to stay in a puff longer by pinching up a little, footing off into it or tacking/gybing to stay in the puff longer.

Beware of velocity headers and when velocity changes it affects the wind you see and as an example, when you sail into a lull your apparent wind goes forward which feels as though you have been headed even though the wind direction stays the same.

The mistake a lot of sailors make is to tack on a velocity header and tack is not only slow in light air but you could well be sailing on a knock on the other tack.

When you experience a velocity header, change gears to keep your boat speed up and continually be on the lookout for the next puff or shift.

The amount of wind pressure also affects your ability to survive in another boat’s bad air. In light air, wind shadows are bigger and much more hurtful.

In heavy air, you can sail fairly close to leeward of another boat and go pretty much the same speed.

Wind pressure impacts what you do in different positions on the first beat.
Having more velocity means you will sail faster with narrower tacking angles, so you’ll get to a lay line sooner. In light air both tacks take more time, so you can afford to spend more time on the shorter tack.

A factor that can have a big effect on wind pressure is current. When you’re racing upwind, the choice is easy – head for the part of the course where there is stronger current flowing toward the wind or less current going with the wind.

This will not only help you make better progress over the bottom, but it will give you better wind pressure as well.  

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Your Fitness and Sailing

 

Most people sail to enjoy it and reach a level of fitness that allows them to race each weekend.                                                                      

On the other hand, if you are trying to get to the top whether it be in a dinghy, one design keel-boat or ocean racer, the long hours that you spend on the water honing your skills will demand additional physical training.

Full time sailing can be an excellent way to improve your physical fitness but you should not rely on this alone.

Additional on land training not only provides variety but it also allows you to work on aspects of your fitness that you need in an intense racing situation that may not be gained from a full year of sailing.

Exercise ashore can be made interesting, enjoyable and helps you to avoid too much time on the water for the wrong reasons. Exercises can be developed to make your body adapt in a very much more controlled and efficient manner than you could ever hope for on the water.

Fitness is a relative term and the type and level of fitness will vary depending on the type of boat and sailing that you do and it is important to strike a balance between the fitness and all other aspects of your sailing.

Fitness encompasses stamina, speed and skill and the mix and relative importance of each is essential for you to ascertain which aspect you need to work on for your particular type of sailing.

Think about weightlifting, sprinting and sailing, what do you think the mix would be for each of these for the roles you need to fulfill on your boat?

As with most things to do with achieving greatness in any pursuit I recommend that you find a coach or fitness professional to write you a program so that you can achieve your desired results. They will able to watch your progress and make adjustments to the program if necessary.

There are plenty of ex-Olympians and high achieving sailors who have made a profession in this space and who are more than qualified to guide you to get to where you want to be.

I remember once asking Mike Holt, a multiple world champion in the highly competitive International 505 class, what was the main factor that made him stand out from many of the other high achieving sailors in that fleet.

His answer was “fitness”, he went on to qualify that statement by saying that at the end of any race I am able to sail my boat as hard  as any one else in the fleet was able to at the start”

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3 Tips For Staying Out Of Trouble

Even though we employ the best tactical foresight out on the racecourse, we can still often get ourselves into a jam and to that end, I have outlined below some tips to enable you to dig your way out.

Ducking a Competitor:

The main reason that you have to duck is to minimise a loss and a good duck generates extra speed when you bear off.

As a bonus, you also gain a little lift as you cross close behind the other boat, it’s important though, as you cross close behind to get back to closed hauled as quickly and smoothly as possible.

If you do this well, there is a good chance that next time you come together and you are on starboard tack, that you will have the advantage. This is especially powerful at the top of the course a few lengths under starboard tack-layline.

If it appears the other boat will leebow you, and for tactical reasons you want to continue and you are in a lightweight boat with good manoeuvrability, try a late duck, which will keep from giving away your intentions.

Avoid The Pinwheel Effect at a Mark Rounding:

As an outside boat in a group approaching the leeward mark, don’t carry on with pace, not only will you sail extra distance in bad air, you will get carried wide around the mark and you will end up in a terrible lane coming out the other side.

The remedy here is to slow down and let other boats move ahead, kill speed by taking your ­spinnaker down early and steer a little extra distance. 

If you’re advanced on the group, you can slow down a lot by steering hard, swerving back and forth, and swinging wide to slow your boat and kill time.

The advantage of falling in behind is that while the group in front push each other wide of the mark and sail in each others bad air, there is the opportunity for you to round the mark tightly without fouling those boats and be on the inside track going upwind ensuring that you pass a boat or two.

When slowing down and waiting for your opportunity to round inside, there could be boats coming up from behind with no room and who want to sail into the gap you’re ­shooting for,  be sure to communicate with them that they have no rights.

Recover from Overstanding:

If you find that you have overstood a mark, the key to recovery is to crack off and put the bow down to get to the mark as quickly as possible.

In medium and heavy air, cracking off causes heel, so depower the rig,  traveller down, backstay on, hike hard, and move your weight aft.

Set the sails to reduce helm but always keep a little in the bank by sailing slightly high of the mark especially if you’re sailing in current or just in case you get headed or a boat tacks on you.

If you have overstood while sailing downwind, sail high and fast toward the leeward mark, if sailing high puts you in the dirty air from boats ahead, sail low to keep your air clear as long as possible, then heat it up late near the mark. 

At all times, either upwind or downwind, keep the boat flat to avoid going sideways and keep the foils working efficiently.

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Twist – How Telltales Work To Get It Right.

Twist is when the top of the sail opens in comparison to the lower sections and twist gives us the ability to control the lift and drag created by our sails.

Twist is increased in light winds and progressively taken out as the wind increases, the reason for this is that fiction from the water slows the wind down on the lower parts of the sail relative to wind further up. 

In the lighter wind, the wind angles as you look up the sail vary greater than they do than when you are sailing in heavier winds so you need to twist your sails in light air to make sure they are trimmed correctly all the way up.

As the wind speed increases and the surface friction has less of an effect on the wind angle there ends up being less difference between the top and bottom of the sail so less twist is required.

How to Set Twist for the prevailing conditions.

Headsail:  The luff telltales tell you where the sail is in terms of power and car position, but, when sailing upwind, the leech telltales are absolutely crucial as they show how close you are to maximum trim.

You always want to be right on the edge, as close to stalling as possible and your leech telltales are the best indicator of this. Generally, the top leech telltale will stall first so trim the sheet until the top telltale stalls.

Once it stalls, ease the sheet slightly and in the case of the jib leech ribbons, the top one should flow 95% of the time.

As the wind drops the sheet should be eased and as it increases, the trim should come on.

Mainsail:

Trimming the mainsail is virtually identical for all boats, fractional, masthead, racing or cruising and the cunningham, backstay, outhaul and running backstays (if fitted) are all used for the same purposes.

On a cat-rigged boat, telltales near the luff can help and are sometimes known as steering telltales.

Set the mainsail with the maximum depth it can carry but without stalling the leech and as with the jib different amounts of twist are needed depending on the prevailing wind conditions.

When sailing upwind twist should be controlled using mainsheet tension, and the correct twist is determined using the mainsail telltales.

A word of warning – If your vang pulled on hard you will not be able to add twist by easing the mainsheet.

When you sail into a lull and the mainsail begins to stall more twist is needed – the main sheet is eased until the telltales eventually fly.

For correct trim in lighter air, all mainsail leech ribbons should flow, in moderate conditions, the top leech telltale should flow about 50% of the time.

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5 Sailing Tips

Tip 1: Stay Focused

A lapse in concentration at a critical time in a race can cost you several places and although this sounds obvious it is impossible to give 100 percent concentration all the time. 

If sailing in a crewed boat don’t let conversations wander away from the race and this is just as important for the time on the water before the start.

A similar situation is relevant in a single hander, once you are on the water get in to race mode and avoid seeking out mates for a chat prior to the start.

This concentration on the job in hand is equally important as the race nears the finish line as it is prior to the start and those competitors who stay focused to the end are the ones that often pull a rabbit out of the hat in the closing stages of a race.

Tip 2: Nutrition and Hydration

Whether you are racing around the cans in a dinghy or one design keelboat or doing a Sydney to Hobart the correct food and fluid intake is essential to your performance.

Without the right type of energy in the form of carbohydrates to cope with the job in hand, you won’t be able to perform at your best.

After a period of intense effort and concentration followed by relative inactivity even the fittest sailor will feel tired and make poor decisions.

Remaining correctly hydrated is really difficult if you are working hard on the boat and quite often by the time you are thirsty you have generally been dehydrated for some time and dehydration affects your mental acuity.

If you have ever watched the Tour De France notice how often the riders take sips of fluid and have a snack. Our sport  is no different to the riders who tackle climbs and then downhills when they can rest a little.

Sailing also requires bursts of energy followed by periods of relatively less energy needed, so fuelling reularly throughout the race is essential for peak performance.

Tip 3: Develop Your Knowledge

Be a student of the rules and read articles and books on tactics, sail trim and class specific blogs and articles. 

To get better results in your sailing, learning should be incremental and ongoing, many of us get stuck and turn up each week expecting better results without having put in any effort to improve our knowledge.

Most of us have busy lives and have little free time for studying our sport so each week concentrate on one specific topic and work on that.

Tip 4: Mix It Up

Sail on different classes of boats, sail with different people, swap positions on the boat and sail at different clubs wherever possible.

You will be amazed at what you will learn and bad habits and weaknesses developed from sailing against the same people at the same club in the same waters will become obvious.

When you come back to your regular boat and crew you will re-evaluate many aspects of your sailing and the new found skills and knowledge will re-invigorate the whole crew.

Tip 5: The Blame Game

Sailing like many other sports is as much about mental preparation as it is about the physical and many wins, decent regatta places or potential miraculous recoveries have been thrown away by blame causing arguments in the boat which distract from concentrating on the race.

If you believe that your boat is slow, you aren’t fit enough, you are too heavy or too light or you or your crew is tactically weak and you have a bad result, it is easy to fall back on those reasons to justify what happened out on the water.

Blaming a member of your crew for a mistake that cost you places, through to anger at the sailor who barged you on the startline putting you at the back of the fleet is counterproductive and takes your focus away from the race, get over it quickly and get on with sailing.

In those situations, an after race de-brief away from the heat of the moment will prove to be an awesome learning  exercise and help to ensure that when a similar situation arises again that you will be mentally prepared to dig out and sail hard to negate the damage caused to your race.