This past winter, when I returned to racing TP52s after sailing the high-octane AC45s and AC72s, I found myself rethinking the “speed loop” between the helmsman, trimmers, and tactician. On the catamarans we had plenty of discussions on speed, feelings, modes, etc., but the communication was much more difficult because of the radio systems we used and the blistering pace at which things were happening. A lot of the communication was small sound bites. Also, a mode change was normally a 5-knot change, not 0.1 knots. With this in mind, before I went sailing on the TP52 I had to dig into my notes and brush up on the best methods to communicate in a more “normal” environment.
The overall goal is to get everyone on the same page so the tactician can accomplish what he wants, and so the boat is sailed as close to optimum at all times. The mainsail trimmer will typically drive the loop because he has a really good view of the whole picture, he can see what is happening, can discuss with the helmsman what he is feeling, and also overhear the tactician’s conversation with the navigator or strategist.
The speed-loop personnel depends a lot on the boat, of course, and the configuration, but using a TP52 as a baseline we predominantly have the jib trimmer, main trimmer, helmsman, tactician, and backstay trimmer. The navigator can chime in regarding modes, and with any feedback on the data he sees on his tablet screen. Obviously, on a J/24 it’s a lot different, but there will be similarities.
A normal race involving the speed loop team will go somewhere along these lines:
Before the start, discuss with the team what’s expected for windspeed and rig-tune, select a jib for the expected conditions. At this point you also want to do some upwind work with another good team. This helps get everyone in the groove, confirms your settings, and gets your target speeds sorted. Depending on wind weight, sea state, wind shear, etc., the target can vary quite a bit from your windspeed target. This period also helps the tactician get a feel for favored side, from where the first shift might come, etc.
When the race starts, immediately assess your situation. The goal is to have a lane and be able to sail the target speed that was derived from your pre-race tuning. However, normally off the line it’s safer to sail a touch slower and higher to try and hold a lane. The tactician or trimmer will generally give a target based on relative performance of the boats to windward. The mainsail trimmer will also use this information and the proximity of leeward boats to give the helmsman a target for the situation. At this point the mainsail trimmer is also asking the tactician how long he wants to maintain the lane they’re currently in, especially if it’s less than ideal.
Hopefully, after a brilliant start, however, we can get into more normal “moding.” What I mean by this is the sails are locked in, and everyone’s hiking hard sailing the conditions they have. When it’s shifty, it’s really important to help the helmsman anticipate the shifts. This helps in two ways: firstly, if you’re slow on target but see a lift is coming, you keep the bow up in anticipation, and vice versa for a header, thus preventing a lot of over-steering.
Secondly, in general it’s good to sail a touch over target in a lift, and a touch slow in a heading phase. It’s the mainsheet trimmer’s role to keep the speed team informed of the current target. This, of course, is also dependent on what the tactician needs. For example, he may want to stay high to get to new pressure, even in a lift.
While this discussion is happening there might be a dialogue between the backstay trimmer, the jib trimmer, and wind spotter calling puffs from the rail. It’s important that the jib and main trimmer are in sync regarding any mode changes and keeping the boat in balance. There is no use having a perfectly trimmed jib and a flapping main, all you’ll have is lee helm, making it very difficult for the helmsman to steer—which we all know is slow.
When time comes to tack, trying to be at speed and at the right angle before the turn is important. Coming out of the tack, finding the angle is sometimes difficult for the helmsman, so it’s important that the jib trimmer and main trimmer help the helmsman find the right wind angle and the heel angle.
Depending on the situation, the rate of the speed build after the tack is critical. If you’re tacking on someone’s hip, it’s important to do a “high” build to try and hold the lane. In a seaway, it’s important to be patient, and all of this has to be communicated clearly through the maneuver.
For example, the dialogue from the main trimmer to the speed team could go something like this: “Good angle . . . speed is building . . . nice lift, so let’s do a fast build . . . runner coming up . . . trimming on main and jib . . . four-tenths to go . . . bringing it on the wind . . . on target . . . final trim on the main . . . nice tack guys.”
The jib trimmer also helps, again using the input from the rail on windspeed to find the target speed. It’s always important to know going into a tack whether it’s light or whether there’s a big puff out of the tack.
Once again, the afterguard plays a huge part in this, knowing that the plan is to tack slightly overlaid for the mark, for example, is very important and impacts the whole maneuver.
Coming into the top mark, the speed team will have communicated to the bow team the downwind sail call, and for example on a TP52 whether a staysail will be deployed. After the spinnaker/gennaker hoist and set it, is time to lock into finding the correct angle and speed. As it is in the first few minutes off the starting line, the boats around you might dictate the mode you have to sail. All of this has to be discussed with input from the tactician and continually evaluated. Normally, the downwind trimmer will also coordinate the crew kinetics to try and facilitate the mode—as you progress down the run, the downwind trimmer will talk directly to the helmsman about pressure in the sail and speed.
If it’s very windy, or you’re overlaying, the main trimmer must keep the downwind trimmer informed where he is on his trim, i.e., if he’s fully eased and the vang is off, the trimmer knows if things get a bit hairy it is all on sheet ease to keep things upright.
On the approach to the bottom mark the speed team will make a call on the jib for the next beat, and if allowed any rig changes. Finding the correct angle out of the bottom mark can be tough, but like the start, it’s important to find your angle quickly and assess the situation relative to other boats, what phase you’re in, and so forth.
All this may sound like a lot of talking, but you’ll be surprised to find with practice that it doesn’t take much at all. What’s most important, however, is that there’s no unnecessary talk—both within and outside of the speed loop. Also, choose the appropriate moment to talk or ask a question and always prioritize what is most important that very moment.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Sailing World.