Making Shorter Work of Your Beats - Especially the First

by Uncle Al (W3854)

(Al's note: these are my notes - slightly polished - for a discussion we had March 25, 2006 at one of the Mississauga SC's entertaining and enlightening Sailors' Gatherings - feel free to ask me to clear up anything that is too cryptic!!)

As we learned in high school with the formula d = vt and its corollary: time = distance divided by velocity, two factors affect the time it will take you to reach the windward mark, distance and velocity. To decrease the time, i.e. get there faster, we want to decrease the distance but increase the speed. So, how do we do this?

1. Sailing distance is affected by
  • shift playing (check what the wind is doing before the start) - on the subject of when to tack, note also
    • offshore winds usually oscillate > in any oscillating breeze, sail the lifted tack as much as possible > sail your own race
    • a persistent shift (a relatively permanent shift or curve in the wind direction that favours one side or the other) is relatively hard to predict - if in doubt, sail to minimize damage early, i.e. play the middle and go to the side where boats are doing better (see also First Leg Priorities below)
  • current: sometimes varies across the course - will make you sail more or less distance through the water for obvious reasons - Lake Ontario can have significant current (usually weather-related) > rarely varies much across a dinghy-racing course but worth being informed about > can be significant at start and other marks > PCYC Worlds example: light winds, whole fleet set down while line sitting > we were able to tack to port get back up to the RC boat and get a great start (except that Ian Porter followed our fine example and lee-bowed us into oblivion)
  • perhaps the most important distance factor is pointing which gets its own subsection below

suitable pointing
  is achieved by
  •  sail trim:
    • jib sheeted in until upper and lower jib tickers show luff simultaneously = jib sheeted in until jib leech ticker is on the edge of getting sucked behind the leech > never sheet tighter than this!!
    • jib halyard tension: more tension > flatter entry > higher pointing but too flat an entry (evidenced by jumpy jib tickers) is slow and creates excess leeway (when in doubt let it out!)
    • jib luff: use cunningham mainly to get the worst wrinkles from the jib luff but leave some "speed wrinkles" (small creases at right angles to the luff)
    • main luff: never overtension the main halyard > too much luff tension pulls draft forward and blocks slot (backwind in main) - main luff should have small "speed" wrinkles
    • vang: we use no upwind vang until overpowered, then use lots > no good pointing without tons of vang in a blow
    • shift gears: this is very important and its own subsection follows
  • shifting gears:
    • first gear: footing > sails eased as needed to get boat up to max. upwind speed (needed after slowing down due to tacking or sitting on start line or getting disturbed air
    • second gear: sails trimmed to keep jib luff tickers parallel and main leech tickers streaming (needed any time you've been in third gear and suspect your speed may be decreasing - could be due to adverse wave action, marginally disturbed air from any source, etc.)
    • third gear: once your boat is up to max. upwind speed for the wind strength, you can usually point higher by pulling the mainsheet in a few more inches such that the leech ticker only makes the occasional appearance to fly straight aft, while at the same time pinching up a few degrees such that the windward jib tickers flow at an up-angle of 45°
  • clear air: obviously, undisturbed wind flow gives best pointing potential
  • waves: make the boat bounce > third gear (sometimes even second!) usually becomes hard to achieve
  • gusts: especially in relatively flat water, it pays to let a heavier boat like a W or CL, round up 10 to 20° or even more for a few seconds (how many seconds depends on wave action among other things) in a gust that you can't hike down, rather than trying to fight the weather helm > before the boat loses appreciable speed, you must then bear away (no further than your pre-gust close-hauled course!!!!) while easing the main (and in extreme cases, the jib) to get the boat reasonably flat (and helm-free!!!) > then crank the main back in and repeat as necessary until the gust passes

2. Good speed makes centreboard and rudder work more efficiently. Speed is affected by

  • sail trim > never overtrim (except as mentioned in third gear above), especially in light winds
  • shifting gears > when in doubt, let it out (i.e. lower gear)
  • clear air: for obvious reasons
  • waves: which often come in groups > experiment with ways of luffing up and bearing away to minimize adverse effect on speed
  • better wind pressure: especially in light airs, look for and sail towards better wind pressure as revealed by water surface evidence (darkened by ripples, etc. - stand up for better view) - more important than sailing the lifted tack?!

First leg strategic priorities
  • minimize risk: with boats still bunched, a loss at the start or on the first leg likely costs you far more boats than later in the race when the fleet has usually spread out
  • keep options open: don't get near the lay line too early: the sooner you hit the lay line, the sooner you're out of useful options (which is lousy in any game!)
  • picking the favoured side of the course: perhaps try the Heider Funck method: sail a minute or so on each tack right after the start if possible - e.g. tack to port right after the gun, then tack back to starboard a minute later > one minute after that, you should be near the rhumb line and in a good position to see on which side the boats are gaining > then chase those boats
  • stay near other boats: going off on your own is always risky (the "I'm the only smart guy in this fleet" syndrome!) plus it deprives you of the ability to boatspeed test against neighbouring boats > seek out fast boats to speed test with (this may kill you in the short run but should, in the long haul, teach you how to sail better upwind: watch the fast guys' sail trim, boat handling, etc. and imitate it > eventually perhaps even improve on what they do
  • live and let live: there should be no need to sit on directly on someone's wind except near marks or the finish - remember "what goes around, comes around" - smart, experienced racers make friends not enemies on the water
  • at the windward mark, remember that Rule 18 (buoy room) does not apply between beating boats on opposite tacks, and that Rule 18.3 has been put in to discourage boats from completing tacks inside the (two-length) Zone by drastically curtailing the tacking boat's rights - my own approach is to avoid, if at all possible, the likelihood of having to tack that close to the mark if there is likely to be significant traffic