Big Lines, Little Lines

There are a lot of controls on most raceboats, and while the temptation may be to use them all, all the time, consider a simpler way to adjust the big picture .

During an Olympic Tornado training camp in Miami many years ago, I was doing two-boat testing and I called over to our coach to ask about my mast rotation. He looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Big lines, Mike,” and then sped away in his RIB without any further explanation. We trained for the rest of the day with no idea what he was talking about. In our debrief that evening, however, we asked what it was he meant by “big lines.”

With the backstay on, the sail is much flatter, particularly up top where the mast is tapered and bendy. Note, too, that with backstay on, the top of the main opens up and falls to leeward considerably. In breeze, backstay is a big line.

“Your main was under trimmed and your jib was over trimmed,” he said, and then purposely left us again, with no definitive answer to our original question. He clearly was challenging us to come to our own conclusion. We eventually figured out that because the main and jib sheets were the only thick lines on the boat, they must be the “big” lines he was referring to. Unless they were trimmed correctly in the first place, fine-tuning anything else—i.e. our mast rotation—was inconsequential.

That lesson, and especially the phrase, stuck with me. The obvious big lines, both literally and figuratively, are the sheets, but my definition has grown to include anything I can adjust that has a significant impact on speed—even if it’s not a rope at all. I’ve since added “little line” as anything I can adjust with little impact on speed.


Collectively, big and little lines cover everything that effect speed: anything we can trim, adjust, or change in any way while sailing. Neither includes things we can’t adjust while sailing, such as fairing a bottom or reducing windage in the rig: even these do have an effect on speed. Big lines vary from boat to boat, but for the most part, this category includes the following:

Rig tune: Rigs are tuned with shroud-tension turnbuckles, blocks, shims, mast butts or other means. Without optimum rig tune, the rest of the big lines won’t be effective. Steering: The boat must be in the right groove. Pinch too much, and the boat stalls. Foot too much, you give up precious height.

Sheets: The main, jib, and spinnaker sheets are truly the big lines, and the origin of the term. When I coach, the single biggest improvement a team can make is sail trim, even with the most seasoned teams. On our boat, my trimmer and I are incessantly monitoring and adjusting the sheets. When underpowered, we spend considerable time looking at the leech telltales of both the main and jib. When overpowered, we are adjusting them to balance the helm.


Heel: In lighter winds, heel angle is adjusted by shifting body weight. As it gets windy the team is at full hike and the heel is regulated by the sheets and some controls. Either way, the amount of heel is kept at a constant optimum angle. Too heeled and the boat slips sideways, too flat may cause too much wetted surface area and gives up some writing moment of a keel.

Backstay: For boats that have one, this is the most important depowering tool. It has an immediate and significant impact on speed in a breeze. Pulling on the backstay bends the mast and tightens the forestay, depowering both main and jib. Easing it powers the sail plan. We downgrade use of the backstay to little-line status in lighter winds because we don’t use it.

The following are typically little lines with some rules of thumb to keep them simple: Main cunningham: Pull it on incrementally as the wind builds. Set it to have wrinkles in light air and firm in heavy air. Pulling it on pulls the draft forward and opens the leech, which is good as the wind increases.


Jib-halyard tension: You’re looking for luff scallops in light air, a hint of scallops in medium air, and a taught luff in strong winds. Mark the halyard for easy reproducibility. If a change is required, wait and adjust it during a tack.

Jib cunningham: Pull it on in puffs and ease it in lulls, in conjunction with the main cunningham.

Boom vang: Tighten it incrementally as the wind builds. Start off slack in light air and progress to a bent boom in heavy.


Outhaul: Adjust incrementally as the wind builds. In light air there should be a hint of a shelf, in heavy air, the shelf should be pulled out. We adjust the outhaul only for significant trends, rarely adjusting it during a race (upwind or down).

Traveler: When underpowered, set and readjust occasionally so the boom is centerline. Once overpowered, let it down some to help keep the boat balanced. In waves, the traveler will need to be higher than flat water because the sheet will be eased to twist open the top of the main.

Jib leads: Set them so the jib breaks top to bottom evenly before the race and only change them if there is a significant wind change. If a change is required, switch the windward one to take advantage of the change after a tack. A good time to double check them is when there’s been a jib halyard or cunningham adjustment because adjusting these will change the lead position, too.

Some boats have unique characteristics that require re-prioritizing little lines to big lines. If in doubt ask the question: Does it (insert control name here) make a significant enough impact on speed to displace any of the five big lines?

Typically the answer is “no,” but there are some exceptions worth noting:

Catamaran cunningham: With an 8-to-1 or greater purchase, a catamaran cunningham compression bends the mast, thereby depowering the main.

Traveler: When overpowered in flat water, some boats perform well with the mainsheet cleated and adjustment made with the traveler instead.

Vang: On some boats, such as the Laser, the vang significantly bends the mast, and keeps the leech tight, if the mainsheet has to be eased. This works best with boats that have a bendy spar and no backstay.

Although we would like to get every “line” perfect all the time, there’s just too much going on to make it a realistic goal. Now, when I say something like “Ease the outhaul”, someone on the crew inevitably snaps back with, “Big lines, Mike.” It’s said in a good humor, of course, but the message is serious, and it instantly refocuses my attention from the foot of the main to a more urgent big line.

We all know that small fractions of a knot are precious, so I don’t want to leave the impression that the little lines are unimportant. Instead, when there’s a significant wind speed change I should be making sure all my big lines are right, and then say something like, “It’s a lot lighter. Let’s power up.” This one simple statement empowers the team to ease the outhaul, as well as everything else required for the new condition.