It’s a Trap!

Good trapeze technique starts with good habits. It's all about balance and control.
In its simplest form, trapezing is a physical art. Focus on the balance of the boat and view yourself as the point of transmission between the rig, blades and hull. Will Ricketson/US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider

Each spring, my attention to trapezing is recaptured with two events: the J.J. Giltinan Regatta in Sydney, and the Princess Sofia Trophy in Mallorca, Spain. The J.J.s are the 18-footer world championships, and exemplify some of the tightest and wildest racing that skiff sailing has to offer, with every member of the crew trapezing. Quite simply, those regattas are a catalog of balancing successes and failures. Teams sailing at the highest level demonstrate smoothness, calmness and steadiness. They are “fighting” to maintain control of their bullish skiffs, but it doesn’t look like fighting; rather, it looks like balance and control.

Spain’s Bay of Palma, on the other hand, is home to the Princess Sofia and the de facto spring training ground for Olympic hopefuls. It is to Olympic sailing what Florida is to the Major Leagues. It’s cold, choppy, windy and anything but easy sailing — perfect for separating the Olympic­-trapezing wheat from the chaff. Palma showcases arguably the best trapezing in the world.

One of the biggest challenges of trapezing is that you must perform your normal sailing roles, such as sail trim, strategy and tactics, at the required level, but with the added dimension of playing an enormously more significant part in boat balance. This is true whether you are a Club 420 junior sailor, an Olympic competitor or anything in between. But regardless of skill level, the fundamentals of proper technique are the same. First, let’s go over a few definitions.


In general terms, I lump trapezing into one of two basic conditions: full-powered or underpowered. Full-powered is at or beyond the threshold where you’re fully stretched or flat-out on the wire, and where you can deliver no further leverage; you’re only so heavy and so tall. Underpowered is everything beneath this threshold, and involves “finesse” trapping, as your actions on the wire vary from close to the boat to outstretched.

The foremost element of good trapeze technique is symmetry. We are all asymmetric by nature (right-handed, left-handed, right-foot-dominant, etc.). But your body mechanics on port tack should mirror starboard tack and vice versa; the same is true with jibes and tacks. For example, upwind on a 470, your aft hand controls the jib sheet, while your forward hand grabs the trap gear and adds extra leverage when you stretch it out overhead. It’s paramount that both port and starboard tack feel the same. If you’re thinking, “I’m better on one tack than the other,” force yourself to be ambidextrous. Your end goal is an inability to distinguish a weak side.

Divide your symmetry self-­analysis into two parts. First is the on-the-wire attitude on one tack versus the other. Do you play the spin sheet less on one jibe? Do you feel more comfortable sliding aft in big breeze on one jibe versus the other? Do you have an easier time seeing the course on one tack than the other? These are all telltales of asymmetry, and the cure starts with recognition.


Second is the symmetry of boathandling mechanics. Quite often I find sailors who are extremely symmetric in the static environment on the wire, but the artfulness of crossing the boat is another matter. Nontrapping dinghy sailing allows sailors to get away with small asymmetries; trapezing boats do not.

Footwork repeatability is the key to consistent maneuvers. There is nothing more awesome for a 49er helmsman than knowing your partner is going to be hitting his trapeze in a constant fashion every time. Good footwork is based on the “lead-in” foot, on how and where you place your first step when you come in off the wire. This sets up the footwork sequence for the rest of the jibe.

Next, there is one step that must be a crossover, meaning the right or left foot crosses over the other. For instance, when a 49er crew comes in, the aft foot takes the first step, which transitions into a crossover step. From there, the crew is set up for an “A-frame” stance, from which he balances the boat, controls the spinnaker sheets, and coordinates weight with the crossing of the helm behind him. If the lead-in is the forward foot, then the crossover timing gets delayed, and some form of correction has to take place before attention can turn to the sheets. This is what I call “twinkle toeing” — short steps masking a previous position or stepping error. Masking errors will add time to your ultimate acceleration shot clock on the back side. Don’t let twinkle toes become part of your routine, because eventually you will pay the price for them. Think about your footwork, trade tips with others, and use video as often as possible.


Hang time is speed

The critical moment in good trapezing occurs when you have committed your weight to the wire, with your body outstretched, but you’re not clipped in yet. This is your hang time, which occurs on the front or back side of tacks and jibes, and at mark roundings. They can make or break transitions, and this is why they are critical — the boat is slowing, and you must re-accelerate it. Your goal is to take the shortest time possible between when the boat starts slowing and when the boat is back to full speed. Don’t be consumed with “clipping in” — there’s no rush. Instead, commit your weight to the wire, get the boat rumbling through sail ease, and then trim and clip in.

The more you’re a slave to shortening the time it takes for the boat to fully rip, the quicker you’ll end up clipping in. It’s a cycle that will positively reinforce itself.


A near-perfect example of hang time occurs on 49ers in full-­powered conditions. Many helms come out of the jibe and hang for a short moment. The concept is simple: Set the boat on its proper exit angle, and all else will fall into place. If you fumble when thinking of the trap, and don’t attend to the proper exit angle, the shot clock for getting up to full speed just keeps on running. The boat doesn’t care when you clip in; all it knows is speed and stability.

Smoothness is related to wire tension, the load on your trapeze. This ranges from zero pounds (you’re not hooked up) to max weight. The goal is to always have consistent weight on the wire. Onne van der Wal

Posture is performance

U.S. Olympic coach Luther Carpenter always talks about “swing weight,” which is code for demanding absolute commitment to the wire — body stretched, flat out, lowered down, with no possible excuse for giving up any power. It’s simple high-school physics: Weight application over the longest lever arm you can muster equals the ability to counterbalance more power from the sails. In other words, you can keep the main in longer. Push into your shoulder straps, and don’t be tempted to adjust your toggle when all that is truly needed is straighter posture. Don’t lower your body if it isn’t completely straight. The more experienced you become at trapezing, the less range you’ll use. Remember: “Shoulders before sheet.”

When clipping in and out of tacks and jibes in full-powered conditions, maintain posture and bring the hook to you, not the other way around. One of my biggest pet peeves as a coach is watching sailors bend their knees during the clip-in moment. Instead, use your arms and core strength to bring your hips to the clip with as little (or no) bend in the knees as possible. If you’re bending your knees, you’re sacrificing leverage when the boat most needs it for re-acceleration.

Similarly, don’t bend at the waist, because again you’re just giving up potential power. Bending often coincides with easing the sheet. A small bend in posture might feel harmless, but once the cycle of bends and eases begins, it can be many boatlengths until it’s ­remedied. There are many scenarios when the breeze decreases for a moment, or the sea state changes, and you can no longer present your fullest trapezing effort — you’re now underpowered. The key is to ensure your body can immediately assume perfect posture. This is done through the legs, not the back. “Break” your knees, so to speak, before bending the body. Why? You can become more powerful when straightening your legs, and you can naturally adjust both the amplitude and timing of the maneuver. Instead of focusing your weight on your lower back, your back is already straight and ready to be pushed into full trapezing mode by your lower body.

Imagine your back parallel to the water, knees bent. Straighten your legs when a puff hits, and you already have perfect upper-body posture simply because you never left it. The end result will be a quicker response time to puffs (and lulls), producing smoother transitions to maximize righting moment.

When you combine righting moment and swinging weight, low trapezing becomes the next goal. Don’t get lower than perpendicular to the mast, but get as close to that as possible. Particularly on dinghies like 470s, low trapezing adds stability to the boat. The rolling movement of the boat is dampened, and a more upright sail plan is created for a higher percentage of time. Moreover, the boat better accepts new pressure by decreasing its tendency to translate new energy into sideways force. Thus new energy is converted more quickly into forward motion. On the Olympic 470 circuit, we call this the French style. For whatever reason, the French are masters of keeping weight low.

Now let’s take your swing-weight and break-knee skills and add the geometry of the boat. I call this real estate. You must know how much real estate you have to work with. How far back or forward can you go? How far in?

On any given day in the 470, the crew’s trapping range might be from just in front of the shrouds to well behind the traveler bar. Olympic 49er crews know all too well the acrobatic move of trapping in front of the wing and being outstretched from the wing. A move forward in a lull is as good as raising your body with the trapeze adjuster, or “toggling up.” A move aft in a puff is as good as toggling down, or lowering your body. Those moves within your real estate — between displacement, lazy-planing and planing — keep the boat clipping along at its best pace. Static positioning on the wire does the opposite, slowing the boat and leading to even slower accelerations. With movement you can stop the negative cycle of toggling up in the lulls, only to then be caught off-guard when the next puffs hit.

It’s about being smooth

Despite constant changes, the forces on your body should largely be in balance. Out-of-balance trapezing leads to delayed reactions and, ultimately, fatigue. Know where your balance point is, know where the power of the boat is pulling you, and center the two. We often hear sailors speak in terms of “feeling the boat in the seat of their pants.”

For trapezing crews, it’s all about feeling it in your feet. Do you need to generate power? Slide forward. Do you have power and need the boat to be loose? Slide back. If there is too much tension in one leg, you’re fighting the boat. Relax and reposition. A good test of where you should be on the gunwale is to see if you can pick up one foot and still be in balance. Can’t do it? Then you’re either in the wrong spot on the boat, or you’re not properly lowered down on your toggle.

David Hughes, a former Olympic 49er skiff coach and an Olympic 470 European and World Cup champion, hopes to medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio with skipper Stuart McNay. Check them out at