From the Archives: Know Your Mode

Observing your speed and height relative to boats around you is only half the battle. The other half is knowing how to make adjustments as conditions change.
key west race week
Knowing your mode is only half the battle, make sure you identify the problem, and know what to do about it. Onne van der Wal

It’s easy to look smart tactically when you have great boatspeed, which allows you to work out of tight spots on the racecourse and hold a lane in steady conditions. But what happens when conditions change throughout the day? You find yourself fast in breezy conditions, but cannot seem to make the boat go when the pressure drops for a short period. Suddenly, you can’t hold that lane, or you are unable to stick the leebow tack that would have sawed off the boat on your weather hip. Instead of being a half boatlength ahead at the windward mark, you’re finding yourself a length behind and buried in the crowd.

More often than not, the boats at the front of the fleet have good baseline boatspeed, and more importantly, they have the ability to recognize their “relative mode” compared with the boats around them. They make appropriate changes to their sail trim, sail and rig controls, and rig tension to ensure the boat is moving as fast as possible for the conditions as they change. With a little bit of homework, and with consistent heads-up sailing, you can too. It all boils down to knowing your mode.

Recognizing this “relative mode” (relative to others, that is) is the starting point. From here, you’ll determine whether you’re in a good mode or a bad mode. Your relative mode is a gauge of your angle (height) and speed compared to the boats nearest to you on the racecourse. Recognizing this mode, and adjusting in and out of it effectively, will allow you to defend your lane when you need to sail a little bit higher to catch an edge of a puff, or put the bow down and go fast to get across the fleet on a lifted tack.


To have a good relative mode, you must establish a good baseline tune for your boat. For most one-design classes, comprehensive tuning guides can be obtained from sailmakers in your class who have spent a lot of time figuring out what makes your respective boat go in specific conditions. In scow classes, for example, most tuning guides are written by Harry Melges III, who has won just about every scow class championship and is a trusted source when it comes to tuning. Not only do these tuning guides have recommendations for good baseline tuning numbers, but also what to do with your tuning as conditions change. Most of the time this will involve a precise number of turns on or off the shrouds, which can be done on the fly, if your class rules allow. If you’re starting fresh and looking for a quick guide to good shroud tension, I’ve found that in almost every one-design class in which I’ve sailed, a good base tune means having the leeward shrouds just dancing when your sails are fully trimmed.

To maintain top boatspeed and preserve a “good” mode in changeable conditions, you must understand the tools and controls that are in your arsenal. Scows, for example, have numerous controls that can drastically change the mode of the boat in a given condition. In Lasers or Optis, however, it’s often a matter of weight movement or simply steering your boat higher or lower and changing your height-to-speed relationship depending on what the boats around you are doing. Generally speaking, your vang, backstay, traveler, outhaul, and cunningham are the tools you’ll use to depower the rig and sail plan when the breeze begins to build.

If you find yourself in a high-and-slow mode in a building breeze, tightening one of the above controls will help to flatten your sail profile and help ease the pressure on the foils, resulting in more speed and less height. Conversely, too much of one control in lighter conditions will result in the boat being lower and same speed or slower, relative to other boats. In general, for light air, the fewer controls, the better. There are times when changes to your mode can be made by simply adjusting sail trim, and there are other times when, if you feel your trim is accurate and you’re not getting the results you want, more drastic changes to controls will be needed.


You can sometimes tell your relative mode by the feel of the boat, but the most effective way is to make comparisons with the boats nearest to you on the racecourse. Make someone on the team responsible for observing and reporting your relative mode every 20 to 30 seconds. Once that person has something to report, the information should be kept simple and easy to process: For example, “higher, slower than the boat to weather.” From this observation, boatspeed changes can be made accordingly to shift out of a bad mode, or to maintain a good mode. It’s important for the person reporting to be diligent because changes will be made based on the information given. If the reporting stops or gets inconsistent, it becomes very difficult to know if the changes being made to boatspeed are effective.

key west race week
Always be aware of the boats around you and their mode in relation to yours. Onne van der Wal

Putting together the tuning, the controls, and the information feed needed to maintain top boatspeed will require processing the type of information that is being reported, and knowing how to quickly change modes. Below is a cheat sheet on the types of modes you can have with other boats on the racecourse and some general rules to make good adjustments. All boats are different, and it is important to understand which controls have the fastest, most dramatic changes.

Bad modes

Problem: “We’re lower, same speed to the boat to leeward.”
Remedy: Power up by easing controls; most immediate would be backstay or vang. Ease controls incrementally. Observe any changes. You could also try trimming a touch harder, heading up slightly, and converting speed into height.


Problem: “We’re lower, slower.”
Remedy: Ease controls and make observations. If that doesn’t work, you may need to consult your tuning guide and re-measure shroud tension and mast rake.

Average modes

Situation: “We’re higher, slower.”
Remedy: You most likely need to depower and convert some of your height into speed. Harden vang, cunningham, or backstay, and ease the traveler down. Ease the sheets slightly and put the bow down as well. If you’re trying to maintain a lane with a boat to leeward and ahead, or if you are attempting to work your way to more pressure, you can stay in this mode and not change a thing.

Situation: “We’re lower and faster.”
Remedy: You need to convert some of your speed into height and power up your sails. Try less vang, backstay, or cunningham, and bring the traveler up a bit. Try a slightly tighter trim. fis could be an OK mode, tactically, if you’re struggling with the boat to weather, or if you want to roll a boat to leeward.


Situation: “We’ve got same height, same speed.”
Remedy: No changes required. Maintain this mode and be ready to convert some of your speed or height if needed in a tactical situation.

Good modes

Situation: “We’re higher and faster.”
Remedy: No changes required, but be ready to convert the height-to-speed relationship when needed.

Situation: “We’re higher, same speed.”
Remedy: No changes required, but be ready to convert the height to speed relationship when needed.

Knowing and understanding your relative mode is often like hitting a trick shot in golf; once you can hit the ball straight, then you can start to work on your fade or draw. Once you have established a good baseline tune on your boat, then you can start to play around with your controls and change your mode for a given condition, either matching the height and speed with the boats nearest to you, or even better, sailing for the coveted higher and faster mode. To always know your mode and have the ability to change it, you must have a clear understanding of how the controls and sail trim affect the overall performance of the boat, and have clear observations about your speed and height.