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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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Secrets For Going Fast Upwind

These days, for those of us that race, we seem to be doing more and more short, windward leeward races.

Arguably the upwind leg, especially the first upwind is the most telling in where we end up at the finish.

Of course the start is very important but next it is how we perform getting to the first mark that gives us tha best chance of success.

To help us understand how to tackle the upwind legs, I interviewed Noel Drennan a hugely accomplished sailor with a number of round the world races under his belt plus a multitude of National, World and One Design championships with his name against them.

Noel is also a senior Sailmaker with North Sails in Sydney Australlia and I have copied part of that interview below.

  • What’s the most important trim adjustment when you’re going upwind with the velocity up and down?

Noel I think just as simple as it is, it’s just the main sheet, it does so much in all boats, dinghies to keel boats. The main sheet is the absolute key adjustment for the balance and trim.

  • I think you are the main sheet trimmer on the Alinghi RC 44?

Noel: Most of the boats I sail on, I’ve been somewhat pigeonholed into a main sheet trimmer position, essentially, I guess because I do a lot of steering. It’s quite often that if you’re steering and you don’t have a very good main sheet trimmer, the work with the balance of the boat more so than just the trim of the sail is key.

For me that’s the difference between the better main sheet trimmers and headsail trimmers. Main sheet trimmers essentially trim the boat to the overall balance more so than just looking at the mainsail and reporting“it looks good today.”

  • One of the things I’ve noticed with some keel boat crews is that they they feel after it happens, that they reactive rather than proactive.

Noel: I think that’s been a very important factor for my success that I have the dinghy feel, but I’ve sailed a lot on keel boats, so you’re feeling what’s happening with the boat, it’s loading up or unloading or the mainsheet’s too tight for acceleration, whatever it is.

On a keel boat you’ll have your instruments package that will quantify that, but if you have the feel from previous dinghy sailing you will be ahead of the instruments and that’s what you need to be.

  • You hear often that you should always sail towards the next shift, is there a reason why you should sail towards the next shift?

Noel: Not really, but it does work out usually as an advantage, it really depends if it’s more likely to be a header on one side of the course or not, but I don’t think it’s always a golden rule that you should sail towards the next shift because it might be a lift and you might end up being to leeward of everybody.

  • How do clouds influence your upwind strategy?

Noel: Pretty big part of it, I’ll always look up and look at the clouds, so if I was sailing in Melbourne, for sure I’d be looking for:

  1. The sea breeze clouds building on the land or
  2. If it’s any sort of southerly or westerly, just the cloud formations out to sea, because you’d better be going upwind to them.

Because I’ve done a reasonable amount of ocean racing, and in the Volvo ocean race you sail with really good navigators and when they come up on deck and tell you “look at the cloud, go to the right-hand side of it and you’ll be lifted, or stay away from that one”

You learn what to stay away from or if it’s safe to go towards it, which side of the clouds you’re going to be lifted and which side you’re going to be headed, so I think it’s a pretty important thing to do.

  • Should you sail for puffs or shifts?

Noel: Essentially it’s the little bit to do with the boat. If it’s a boat like in an Etchells, if you’re racing in six to eight knots, its windspeed. Over probably 10, it’s probably shift. Downwind in a planing boat I go for windspeed every time.

  • You’re going out for a training day, what should you practice uphill?

Noel: I like defining my practice time pretty clearly on what the goal is for that particular training period. Essentially, I like to go and say, practice starting and do nothing else but starting.

 I prefer to practice trying to hold off somebody just on the hip more so than just straight line sailing to see how fast you are. Essentially the more difficult things.

  • What do you look for when trimming up wind sails?

Noel: I’d probably just use the leech ribbons as a bit of a guide in certain conditions to make sure I’m not too over-trimmed. Look at the leech and the telltales in the middle of the sail to see, camber wise, if they’re lifting or they’re stuck or flowing, but also the back wind from the jib on the luff of the main,

If most of the back wind is starting down low in the main sail from the jib, the jib cars will be down too low or in too far, for example. Trying to work towards getting the even back wind across the luff of the main sail, as long as the main sail’s not ridiculously full.

There are things that I would talk to the jib trimmer about. “Hey, we’ve got a lot of back wind up high” a blowback from the headsail, so then those things create the environment for the two of you who are working together on the package more so than trimming the individual sails.

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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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Train Yourself To Use Your Eyes When Sailing

Using your eyes effectively whilst racing takes plenty of discipline and practice.

First, you need to ascertian what it is that you are looking for, is it a mark, a puff coming towards you and does that puff look like it is a lift or header.

It may just be simply a case of working out where you will be situated when you meet competitors coming together on opposite tacks. 

Whichever the case may be, you must learn how to visualise ways you can turn what you see into a offensive or defensive manouvre.

If you are back in the fleet, you need to analyse how you can work your way through the boats ahead.

Think about what staying on the lifted tack may do and what that may mean as you approach a mark, a small gain here may put you in a world of pain as boats come together further up the track.

Might the better tactic be to take a short dig on a knock but which will mean that you are in a better position approaching the mark compared to the boats you are racing.

The best way to train your eyes is to spend more time on the water and there is no substitute to having been in that situation before and to have the experience to interpret it and respond accordingly.

 A good pair of Sunglasses are essential because they heighten the contrast made by the ripples on the water of an approaching puff and they help you also see the direction that the puff is moving.

Get used to looking for all things that are coming at you no matter whether they are puffs, waves or other boats.

Be actively looking ahead and around the course and avoid simply staring at the bow as it goes through the water or the sails and telltales.

The simple message is keep your eyes out of the boat and be continually evaluating the ever changing chess board of wind, waves and boats on your racetrack.

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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 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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