Top 10 Tips for your Bag of Tricks

These 10 simple but effective practices can make all the difference on the racecourse.
sailing tips
It’s always faster to downwind with the jib up, rather than upwind with the spinnaker, so prepare for the douse early. Benjamin Meyers/Sailing World

My dad used to tell me that the best sailors have the biggest bag of tricks, and that they win because they know more. So if I wanted to win, he’d say, I had to learn more tricks. It’s always been good advice, and I’ve never stopped adding tricks to my bag. Here are 10 tricks for the bag.

1. Stream the jib leech telltale
Most jibs perform well when they’re tight enough that the top leech telltale stalls every once in a while. A few more ratchet clicks of trim, and the telltale will stall much more—50 percent or more. A little ease, and it’s streaming 100 percent of the time. The sweet spot for a jib is just a touch in from full flow—95 percent. At this trim, your jib will be as tight as possible without stalling airflow through the slot. This will help your speed and pointing. If you’re not going well upwind, jib trim is one of the first places to make an adjustment.

2. Learn your boat’s optimal weight
Most dinghies and planing boats need to be kept light, while heavy keelboats don’t mind being heavy, especially when it’s windy. Ask around and learn what your boat prefers. The top teams on planing boats bring a few bottles of water per sailor, a sandwich, and an energy bar per person, at most. They don’t bring ice, coolers, spares, gear bags, or excessive tools. By being light, you can plane more quickly downwind, and the gains are huge, especially in marginal conditions. In heavy boats that like weight, top sailors bring extra water. The extra weight lowers the boat in the water, creates a longer waterline, and allows for faster speeds. In these boats, it’s all about momentum. Get it rolling, and keep it rolling.


3. Define specific roles on the boat
Boathandling issues stem from crew not knowing what to do. For example, who handles the twings in the jibe? Who pulls the topping lift when the pole goes up? Who flakes the spinnaker halyard downwind for a smooth drop? Who gets lunches and waters in the morning? Who reads the sailing instructions? Don’t just leave things to chance and hope someone will get to it. Defining who does what is critically important: It ensures that you’re prepared for everything and gives everyone a purpose.

4. Improve your exit angles
One of the most important driving techniques for boatspeed is exiting jibes and tacks. Your exit angle affects your heel angle and acceleration. You should come out of tacks just below closehauled with eased sheets to accelerate before trimming in and heading up. During jibes, you should come out just a bit higher than your normal course and accelerate before steering to your downwind angle.

5. Abide by the one-hour rule
I’m sure you’ve been told this a thousand times before, but it’s worth committing to, especially if you find yourself getting lazy mid-regatta. Arriving to the course early allows you to figure out the wind and racecourse, and tune your boat for the conditions—that’s more important than waiting in line for your mid-morning latte. Use the hour to do starting line research and a few practice starts to get dialed in. You’re far more likely to start well, sail fast, and go the right way after this warm-up.


6. Constantly ease the kite
A good spinnaker trimmer is always easing the kite until they see a slight curl in the luff, and then trimming in slightly to eliminate the curl. Once that process is complete, they do it over and over again to ensure that the spinnaker is not overtrimmed, which we all know is slow.

Experienced trimmers can even sense lifts and headers by constantly easing for a curl and watching the bow to see if the boat has turned. If you ease more than normal before getting the curl, and the skipper sailed straight, you got lifted. If you get a big curl without easing, and without the skipper heading up, it’s a header. Stating this aloud helps the tactician immensely because he’s looking to jibe on lifts and sail straight on headers.

If I’m calling tactics and considering a jibe, for example, when the kite trimmer says we just got lifted, I can call a jibe with confidence. If I’m thinking of jibing, and I hear we just got headed, I’ll wait a little longer.


7. Use other boats as telltales
Good tacticians use all the clues they can to figure out the wind, including other teams: Observe how much they’re heeling, how many bodies are on the rail, and the angles they’re sailing. By watching others, you can see what the wind angles are on different parts of the racecourse. If you happen to be on a course with multiple fleets, you get even more data ahead of and behind you to let you know what is headed your way.

8. Douse early
It’s faster to go downwind with a jib than upwind with a spinnaker. Going upwind with the kite flapping around and your crew off the rail struggling to control it isn’t fun or fast. It’s one of the most common mistakes, and it’s also one of the easiest to eliminate. Make sure you flake the halyard downwind so that it can run smoothly through the jammer, and be disciplined enough to start your douse a few seconds earlier than you think you should.

Starting early will allow you to put the kite away and free you up to focus on a smooth turn with proper sail trim and heel angle. A great rounding can set you up with the tactical options to go straight in a good lane or to tack if you wish.


9. Read the sailing instructions
I’ve seen many teams lose critical points by not carefully reading the sailing instructions or checking the notice board every morning. Missing the downwind finish because it’s opposite the starting line, mistaking the color of the change marks, or not knowing that penalties are changed from two turns to one are “unforced errors.” I make bullet-point notes in my WetNotes pad while reading the sailing instructions and then share my notes aloud with my team on the way to the course.

10. Get the power right
In light air, we are typically looking for power. In medium wind (8 to 11 knots), we are happy with the power. In 12 knots or more, we start to depower by flattening the sails, tightening the rig, and pulling on controls such as outhaul, cunningham, and backstay. Conversely, you can power the boat up by making your sails fuller, loosening the rig, and easing all control lines. Make sure you adjust your sails and rig as conditions change.

Your goal is to sail to the telltales with the proper heel angle. If your sails are too full when the breeze comes up, the helmsman will have to sail inside the jib by pinching to get the heel angle right, or they will sail too heeled over while sailing to the telltales. Instead, depower so that the helmsman can sail to the telltales without heeling over too much. As the breeze dies slowly, put power back into the sails to keep the heel angle correct while sailing to the telltales. It’s imperative to feel the power and adjust settings for the perfect setup.

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