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The Fallacy of Ease, Hike, Trim

The old adage for dealing with puffs needs further explanation.

August 24, 2020
dinghy sailing
In conditions where the crew is already hiking, the old phrase “ease, hike, trim” doesn’t apply. “Hike, point, trim” is more appropriate. Corey Hall/St. Petersburg YC

“Ease, hike, trim.” Say what? This a ­common phrase that’s been around for a long time, and one that has always bothered me. I understand that the point of this age-old piece of advice is to keep the boat flat and humming along through gust, but taking it literally, it’s misleading. If the goal is to go fast, I think a rewording is in order to make the technique more accurate through a range of conditions. Hear me out.

It’s safe to assume that the phrase lays out a sequence of events meant to handle an upwind puff: 1) ease the sails; 2) hike the boat flat; 3) trim the sails back in. The specific condition this phrase refers to is hazy to me. By telling us to “hike,” is it implied that we are not yet hiking but on the edge? Close to hiking? Are we already hiking but not all the way yet? I’m not sure, but instead of worrying too much about that, let’s just go through the wind ranges and decide the best thing to do in a puff for each scenario.

Light Wind

I define light wind as ­conditions when you’re well below hull speed and your team is sitting inboard. In this condition, you keep the boat level by moving body weight in and out, and you are trimming to maintain flow over the sails. A puff comes along, and the proper response is to move your body weight to windward to keep the proper heel. Leeches on both sails will blow open a bit with the new pressure. You will need to trim them back in; but not too quickly—the timing is important. Your first response is to move your body weight gently to windward. Next, head up a bit as your apparent wind increases and shifts aft while trimming just enough to match your new steering angle. The order of events should be: 1) weight to windward; 2) trim in as you head up. The light-wind equivalent phrase to “ease, hike, trim” would be “weight up, point, trim.”

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Medium Wind

In this wind range, you’re getting close to hull speed and your weight is to windward. You’re either sitting on the rail, or at a gentle hike. You’re watching your leech telltales on both sails to trim to optimal flow. The ­forward crew counts down, “puff in 3, 2, 1.”

The flatter the sea state, the more I feather to depower; the wavier it is, the more I ease the main to depower.

At right around “1,” your team hikes (or hikes a little harder, if you already are) to keep the boat from heeling as the puff hits. The leeches will blow open, so you will have to trim in to keep optimal flow, and you will want to head up as the apparent wind moves aft. The order of events should be: 1) hike; 2) trim in as you head up. In other words: “hike, point, trim.”

Medium to Heavy-Air Transition

Here, you’re already hiked, and a puff will transition you to overpowered. This is a sweet condition to sail in—my favorite. A lot goes on to maximize your acceleration in this puff, so, “puff in 3, 2, 1, puff” sets a bunch of things in motion. At around “3″ or “2,” to get ahead of the curve, any significant depower controls come on, such as the backstay, if you have one. I have sailed on boats where the vang rams the boom into the mast, bending it, and in catamarans where an 8-to-1 cunningham compression bends the mast. Whatever the major depowering tool on your boat is, now is your time to use it. At about “1,” you’d better be hiking harder, or you are already too late. At the front edge of the puff, the leech will blow open, but unlike the lighter winds, this is good because it helps auto-depower, and you will likely need to ease more to balance the boat, depending on how big the puff is. As in lighter winds, you will head up, following the apparent wind’s aft shift, and you might even want to head up more to feather the sails.

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The order of events goes like this:

  1. Pull on depower controls
  2. Hike full (if you are not already)
  3. Ease (if necessary)
  4. Head up and re-trim.

This one is a ­mouthful: “controls, hike, ease, point, trim.”

Overpowered Conditions

You’re hiking as hard as possible while feathering and playing the sheets to keep the boat flat. I don’t believe in changing how hard we hike by hiking extra hard in a puff because that is not sustainable. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so I would rather a steady 80 percent effort over a long day. Your primary depower tools are already at max, so that’s easy—just leave them where they are. With that, when a puff hits, there are only sheets and steering left to keep the boat flat. It’s always a combination of both, but the question is how much of each. The flatter the sea state, the more I feather to depower; the wavier it is, the more I ease the main to depower. Even when it’s flat and the priority is to steer, easing the mainsheet is the quickest way to spill power as the front edge of a puff hits, so most often, I ease on “2″ or “1″ of the puff countdown. The order here is: 1) ease; 2) head up and re-trim. In our phraseology, that would be: “ease, point, trim.”

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Though it does not match the way I would respond to a puff in any of these conditions. I do think that the ol’ “ease, hike, trim” serves as an ­effective reminder of the importance to keep the boat flat, and for that I give it credit. There are two significant things that rub me wrong, however. The first is that if you’re easing and not hiked full, you are giving away precious leverage. I can think of no condition where it is better to ease before you hike. If you are ­overpowered, you should already be fully hiked, whether it’s 15 knots or 30 knots, so it does not work there either.

The second rub is that the phrase implies reaction instead of getting ahead of the puff. Ease before hike is what one would do if blindsided by a gust. Someone should be looking and calling that puff.

The closest condition I think “ease, hike, trim” refers to is in the medium-to-heavy transition condition. Clearly “controls, hike, ease, point, trim” doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it’s a far more accurate description of what’s best to do. Get used to saying it if you want to go fast.

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