Open Your Bag of Tricks

There’s no magic to doing consistently well in sailboat races, but having a few more tricks up your sleeve than the other guy will always help. "Fundamentals" from our November/December 2010 issue.

When I was a young sailor, my dad used to tell me that the best sailors had the biggest bags of tricks, and that they beat you because they knew more than you did. So if you wanted to win, you had to learn more tricks. Heeding my dad’s advice, I’ve been slowly adding tricks to my own bag, one at a time. I may never use them all in a single race, but I do have 10 important tricks that consistently help me sail my best races.

1. Sail the boat at its optimum angle of heel
Figure out your boat’s “groove angle” and steer, hike, and trim to keep the boat on that angle. Find the sweet spot. The fastest teams concentrate very hard on a consistent angle of heel. And what best to judge by? Use your forestay or mast and compare it to the horizon. Doing so keeps you looking forward and allows you to see approaching waves and wind. It can also help to install one of those handy heel-angle gauges, which you can pick up at any marine equipment store. When the boat feels balanced and fast, note the angle for future reference.

2. Do more pre-start research than you think you should
You never know when a certain little piece of information may come in handy and help you win the start. Let’s begin with the essentials: find the laylines to the pin and to the boat; time how long it takes to sail the length of the line; figure out which end is favored and by roughly how much; get a line sight if possible; practice a few accelerations at a fixed object (or even better, the race committee boat or pin mark); visualize how the fleet will come off the line; examine the flow of the fleet in the final minutes; and position yourself in a relatively open space during your final approach. If you’re sailing in a venue where tidal flow is influential, do yourself a favor and check the fish or crab pots, or deploy a sponge or current stick at a few different places around the racecourse.


3. Clearly define the roles on your boat
Discuss who will do what in all of the possible maneuvers. And do this well before leaving the dock. Make a spreadsheet that lays it all out and make sure everyone has a copy to memorize. Also, determine who exactly is calling tactics, laylines, and wind. Everyone should be able to explain his or her job back to the team. Once everything is clearly defined, go practice it. If something can be changed for the better, tweak it during your debrief and adjust the spreadsheet later. Keep in mind that the goal is to do what gets the boat around the course fastest. Don’t be afraid to talk it out, make suggestions, and try different approaches.

4. Use tuning guides
It baffles me how many sailors at the back of the fleet have their own tuning matrix, or worse, none at all. This is one of the main reasons why they’re consistently in the back of the fleet. You can’t do anything right if you are slow. Sailmakers, meanwhile, are always asking the top sailors in the fleet to write down why they go so fast, and then they post the information on the Internet. Read it! Until you are better than the top guys in your fleet, do what they do, and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

5. Accept responsibility for winning and losing
Blaming poor results on your crew, other competitors, or a host of other factors may make you feel better at the yacht club after racing, but the reality is, it’s up to you to win. Don’t hide behind excuses. Look at your racing with an open mind and work on the areas preventing you from winning. This means addressing your weaknesses, and embracing the things you do well and executing them confidently. Sailing well is much more fun than having to explain why you lost, over and over again.

  1. Read the book Sailing Smart, by Buddy Melges
    Michael Miller and I read Sailing Smart just before competing in the U.S. Men’s 470 Pre-Trials in 2002. By following Buddy’s advice, we went on to win five of seven races and won the regatta with a race to spare against one of the best sailing teams ever. We beat Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham, who were campaigning for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where they eventually won the gold medal. Sailing Smart gave us a few more tricks to add to our bag; enough to help us to accomplish something truly memorable in our sailing careers, and it can do the same for you (pick it up on

7. Make sailing in clear air a top priority
I absolutely hate sailing in bad air, and you should too. Try to sail the entire race in clear air. If someone tacks or jibes on you, stealing your breeze, do something about it and find a better lane. Try to anticipate what those around you will do in order to help you maneuver in a way to keep clean air. Remember, wind makes sailboats move. So, don’t let your competitors steal it from you. It’s your golden ticket.

8. Mark your sheets
The best sailors I know mark their main and jib sheets so they can repeat fast settings. It’s simple and effective. Marking your sheets allows you to repeat settings you tested in prestart tuning and at previous events. It also allows you to accurately trim your sails for a fast speed build out of tacks and then in for a final trim: you spend more time with your head out of the boat. Through experimentation, you can find the best settings for accelerating and straight-line sailing. Mark your sheets initially with electrical tape, and once you have the marks in a good place, meaning they are visible and near a repeatable reference point, you can use a permanent marker or whipping twine to make the mark permanent.

9. Don’t be afraid to let boats cross
One of the first things I learned in college sailing was that the best sailors did not always exercise their starboard-tack right of way. Instead of hailing “starboard!” and forcing me to leebow, sending them in the other direction, they hailed, “cross” and ducked me. At first, I thought they were foolish. But then I figured out what they were doing. If you’re confident in the direction you’re sailing, and a duck is not too significant, let port tackers cross and continue the way you want to go. If it’s a big duck for you, the other boat is probably not close enough to leebow you effectively anyway, so you’re likely smart to use your rights. The favored side typically gives you much more gain than the small loss you incur when ducking a few feet.


10. Lead on the long tack if possible
One of the most fundamental rules of tactics is to sail the course that takes you toward the mark, the long tack, the one on which your bow is pointed closer to the mark. If you are stuck in a group of boats and the other tack is becoming longer and longer, try to be the first one to tack or jibe so you are leading toward the mark. Leading on the long tack should give you a wide open lane and more chances to gain or extend on the competition.