From the Archives: In the Passing Lane

Should you stay in the high lane after the weather mark? Sam Rogers helps you get into planing mode.

farr 40
A tight fleet meant that mark roundings were always a place to make big gains at the recent Farr 40 Worlds.Rolex / Kurt Arrigo

When you’re first to the weather mark, life is easy. The traffic is usually light, and you have complete control of your exit angle. Clean air and undisturbed water are abundant. When you’re in the middle of the fleet or rounding in a tight pack, however, immediately claiming a high passing lane is the best, and sometimes only, way to spring yourself from the group.

Your first order of business as you reach the top of the beat is to determine the “mode” you want to be sailing when you start the run: “displacement mode,” where the crewweight is forward and the trimmer and driver are fighting for a low angle, or “planing mode,” where crewweight will immediately shift aft, and the trimmer and driver will work to keep the bow out of the water and the boat on a plane using a combination of waves and breeze. If marginal planing conditions are present, the tactician or driver needs to make this mode call before reaching the windward mark.

The high passing lane is most effective when consistent planing conditions are present, so if it’s obvious you’ll be planing as you start the run, keeping your bow free of other boats on the offset leg is essential. Whatever you do, do not put your bow to leeward of a boat ahead. Getting caught low after the rounding will result in you battling for clean air, in which case you’ll be forced to either join the parade or jibe away.

To immediately distance yourself from any traffic ahead and behind, delay your spinnaker hoist and reach up for a bit after the offset mark. You’ll create a clean lane and consistent breeze for better planing farther down the leg. It’s still important to square down while setting the spinnaker, especially when it’s windy, but sailing high for a few lengths will allow you to have a clean set and possibly find a wave to jump on, which will allow you to hoist when boat is moving quickly and the sails are unloaded. Once you’re in the passing lane with the spinnaker pulling, the trimmer and driver can focus on getting to the desired angle, with the bow out of the water and the boat planing.

Know the move
Like a quarterback calling an audible and the linemen knowing their assignments, the crew must know their responsibilities when the call is made to set high. On most sportboats, this means some subtle changes to the routine. To make the set easier and reduce the probability of a wipeout, the vang must be eased. To help the kite fill, the jib must be well eased, if not luffing, and the crew must get their weight to the rail immediately. If it's windy, and a high exit angle is difficult to maintain, pull hard on the backstay. This will tighten the spinnaker luff, open the leech, and make it easier for the helmsman to control the rudder.

Delay the housekeeping
Having the crew focused on their jobs is essential to solid boathandling, but there are times when certain tasks can wait for the sake of making the boat go as fast as possible at that crucial moment. Resist the temptation after the set to go straight into cleanup because this often results in crewweight being too far forward, which makes it more difficult for the driver to prevent the bow from getting buried. Coiling the spinnaker halyard, furling the jib, and tending sheets are not vital jobs at the windward mark or during the first half of the run. A quick exit always trumps any cleanup. When in doubt, and before the bottom mark, the forward crew should always confirm a good time to take care of their housekeeping.

Keep the pedal down
If you've jumped into the passing lane, set successfully, and are in a position to roll a boat to leeward, you're not done until you can jibe and cross cleanly ahead. This can take a considerable amount of effort because crossing a boat on your leeward corner isn't easy, especially if they're settled in and planing, too. The team must be focused on sailing the boat fast, which means maximum hiking and concentration. The extra focus can be the difference between capitalizing on your position in the passing lane or being controlled by the leeward boat the entire leg. You're ultimate goal is to be free to plane because planing means more separation farther down the road.

The driver and trimmer need to work in perfect unison to keep a constant angle of heel. When planing, heeling to weather is rarely effective, and being rocked up too much is wasted speed and distance. Keep movements on the tiller and spinnaker sheet to a minimum to ensure you won’t be caught too high or too low. Once you get your apparent forward, do everything you can to keep it there. The rest of the crew must shift their weight as needed on waves, hike to keep the boat at the right angle of heel, call puffs, and work the main and jib so they’re always trimmed to the subtle angle changes. Having a designated crew calling puffs helps to ensure the trimmer and driver know what’s coming so they can stay in sync with the breeze.

The ultimate goal of extending past the offset and jumping into the passing lane is to allow the boat to sail its preferred VMG angle downwind without any interference from other traffic, bad air, or disturbed water. Perfecting the passing lane move will allow for big gains, especially if you find yourself in the middle of the fleet, but it does take commitment to extend on starboard after the set: It all boils down to good communication and a coordinated team effort. The first one to get to maximum speed breaks free from the pack, and once you’re free, you’re free to run.

Crew Mechanics

Displacement Mode

  • Helm: Prepare for a normal hoist after the offset, then fight for the low lane by soaking when possible, and always working on keeping a constant angle of heel. Talk with the Trimmer to keep the boat moving at best VMG speed and angle.

  • Tactician: Let the team know the call is for a normal set and help determine VMG angle for the conditions shortly after the spinnaker fills.

  • Trimmer: Get into position for a normal set, and communicate with the helm about best VMG angle according to the conditions. When in displacement mode, work to soak whenever possible while maintaining angle of heel and speed.

  • Forward: Listen for a call from the tactician and know positions for a normal set at the offset. Once the kite is set, keep weight forward and low, and help to call pressure and mode.

Planing Mode

  • Helm: When the call is made to get into the passing lane, extend 2 to 3 lengths past the offset, square down during the set, and work with the trimmer to get the boat planing as soon as possible. When in the passing lane, you always want to keep the pedal down with a constant 3 to 5 degrees of heel.

  • Tactician: When extending on the run is favorable and planing conditions are present, inform the team of the move so everyone is on the same page to extend past the offset and delay the hoist. Talk with the helm to pick a good spot to square down and hoist.

  • Trimmer: Help to coordinate forward crew to set successfully in the passing lane. Work with the helm to get the boat consistently planing as soon as possible.

  • Forward: Extend into the passing lane by hiking hard beyond the offset, and wait to move until the boat has squared down. When you go for the set, ease vang to keep the boat stable, and ease the jib to help with the set. When the kite is up, hike to get the boat on its feet and delay any cleanup until the coast is clear.

This boatspeed article first appeared in Sailing World's April 2013 issue."