Little Tricks

Often it is the little things that add up or the simple routines that have a major impact on the outcome of the race or a series. David Dellenbaugh, in the August 1987 issue of Sailing World shared a few of his top tricks at the time. Simple, yes, but obvious…not always.
rolling a sail

A rolled sail is a happy sail; take your time and do it right to prevent kinks and bends to lengthen the life of your sail. If under postponement on the water, go ahead and roll your sails while you wait, to keep them out of the sun and prevent them from flogging. Paul Todd/Outside Images

I don’t know if there’s anything quite so satisfying as discovering some tricky new way to make a boat work better. I am by no means a compulsive boat mechanic, but I get pretty excited about even the smallest improvements. I feel confident when I know I’ve optimized each little piece of the puzzle. Here, then, are a bunch of tricks. Many you may already use; some you might want to try. Hopefully, these will make your boat work a bit more smoothly and help you go faster around the buoys.


Make all your lines as short as possible. This reduces weight and minimizes the number of tangles you will get. Use a magic marker or piece of tape to mark important settings on each sheet. Don’t use smooth, shiny line. The mainsheet should be just long enough so you can trim it straight from the boom when running with the sail against the shrouds. If your sheet runs aft along the boom, use a loop to hold it up so the skipper won’t get strangled on tacks or jibes. On boats up to the size of a J/24, I prefer to tie the spinnaker sheets to the spinnaker. This saves weight and prevents shackles or brummel hooks from coming undone. If possible, keep your sheets dry before the start of the race, especially in light air.


Minimize twists in the spinnaker halyard tail by tying the end to a fixed point. All your halyards, especially the main, will stretch, so you may have to tighten them occasionally. The best time to put more tension on a genoa halyard is during a tack (while racing) or when the sail is luffing. 


Hiking straps

Use shock cord to hold them as close to normal hiking position as possible. This way you won’t have to reach into the bilge with your toes after every tack. Adjust straps for crew height and wind conditions before each start. 

Taping the mast

Wrapping tape around parts of the rigging is definitely one of my favorite pastimes. What I hate the most, however, is looking up at the mast and seeing little tape ends that have come unstuck and are flapping in the breeze. To prevent this, put silicone sealant over the ends of the tape. Also, use as little tape as possible. 


Your main goal should be to have as little play as possible between the hiking stick and rudder. Try using a solid rubber universal, and make sure the tiller fits very tightly into the rudder head (I use tape to ensure a snug fit). Also check that the rudder catch will really keep the rudder in the boat if you capsize.



Adjust your mainsheet cam so the jaws are just below the mainsheet when you are trimming it from a hiked-out position. You want the cam low enough so the sheet won’t automatically go into the cam. But you want the cam high enough so you can use your foot to get the sheet in the cam temporarily. When putting your boat away for the night or winter, don’t leave lines in cam cleats—this wears out the springs. If you have clamcleat, use metal instead of plastic because these hold better and last longer. You can even sharpen them when they begin to wear. 


Clear the weeds from your centerboard and rudder just before the start. On a keelboat, you’ll have to back down to do this. If you have an engine, don’t set your prop too early in light air because you may need some help to get to the favored end of the line before the preparatory signal. Make sure you have easy access to information about signals and code flags. I tear the back page off my rulebook, laminate it, and tape it to the inside of my cockpit.

Sailing instructions

It’s key to read these completely before getting to the starting area. Concentrate on courses, recall procedure, shortened course, protest requirements and any other sections where the committee may have modified standard procedure. I always encourage my crew to read the instructions, so we can share the blame for any mistakes. 



Take good care of your sails so they last as long as possible. Minimize flogging before and after the race, and always roll your sails, if possible, when you put them away. Draft stripes are a good idea for helping recognize sail shape. These should be placed parallel to the boom at 50 percent and 75 percent up the luff. Your sailmaker is the best person to help with these. If you carry two spinnakers, use the second one to practice before the start. This keeps your best chute dry, rip-free and ready to go. 


This might seem obvious, but you should put the most flexible end of the batten into the pocket first. Also, be sure you center the batten in the elastic that’s at the inboard end of the pocket. If you leave the battens in the sail, it’s a good idea to sew them into the pockets. I always carry a couple of spare battens in case one pops out before the start; the spares also vary in stiffness so they double as light or heavy­air battens. 


Use magnetic tape (very sensitive in light air) or yarn (more consistent action). Sail repair tape is the best way to stick telltales to the sail. Make it easy to tell which telltale is on which side by using red yarn on port and green on starboard. And put all starboard-side telltales a little higher (or lower) than those on port. Keep telltales away from seams in the sail so their tails won’t catch. Besides the luff of the jib, put telltales on the main’s upper leech (to gauge leech tension); near the luff of the main (for offwind trim); on the shrouds and on the topping lift above the pole attachment (easy reference for spinnaker trimmer). 


Protest flag

As a judge, I hear a lot of excuses from sailors about why they didn’t fly their protest flag “at the first reasonable opportunity.” These remind me a lot of “the dog ate my homework.” Before you leave the dock, make sure you have a protest flag on board. I suggest carrying Code Flag B (red with swallow tail), since this is always acceptable. Carry your flag in a place where it’s easily accessible—a crew’s pocket is one good location. 

Recording information

Before and during the race, there are certain things you should record for future reference. These include wind direction, order of marks, compass course to marks, and heading on each tack. Use a grease pencil to write anywhere on fiberglass—it’s easily erasable and still works when the boat is wet. 


Extra equipment should be kept to a minimum for weight considerations. I bring plastic garbage bags for all my crew’s gear so it doesn’t get wet [The more sustainable option today would be a durable drybag—Ed]. My ditty bag includes screwdriver, pliers, knife, extra pieces of line, sail repair tape, and duct tape. Keep all extra weight as close to the keel or centerboard as possible. 


Just as you wouldn’t go jogging without stretching, you shouldn’t go sailboat racing without some kind of warm up. The best idea is to stretch on the dock before you go out. Then stretch again on your boat just before the 10-minute gun. 

Water for the crew

Sailors, like all athletes, need water to keep from getting dehydrated. Go to a bicycle shop and get a water bottle with a spout. Put this in a place where it’s easy for the crew to reach. Encourage everyone to drink, both before and during the race. 

Water in the boat

Start the race with your bilge as dry as possible. In windy conditions, if you are planning to sail the race with your thru-hull bailers open, you may have to close them while luffing before the start. Good hand-held bailers can be cut from plastic gallon jugs with screw-type tops. Tie these on the end of a halyard so you won’t lose them overboard. 

Remember that your best source of good ideas is other sailors and their boats. Talk to the competitors in your fleet, and spend some time perusing the docks or dry-sail area. You will undoubtedly come away with a few exciting new tricks.