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Sailing Technique

Here are a few ideas for getting more out of your boat, once you are comfortable with the basic techniques.

Boats don't all have the same set of controls, so you may need to apply the ideas in different ways accordingly. But the basic principles are generally the same. You may find useful details on your class association website too; but in any case, why not try a few experiments with the settings, and see what sort of effect it has.

Maintain a healthy balance

We all learn to keep the boat upright, by shifting our weight across the boat, and/or hiking out, to cancel out the sideways pull of the sail. And it's very important: if you don't do it, it's not just that you're closer to a capsize: you'll also find steering harder; and you'll be losing speed through having to use the rudder a lot, causing unnecessary drag. If you're already sitting out as far as you can, and it's not enough, let the mainsheet out more, and spill some wind.

Going downwind, if you leave the sail(s) in their usual position, you will find you need to apply pressure to the rudder to counteract the unbalanced force on the sails, and this will increase drag. To prevent this, you need to move the centre of effort over the middle of the boat: in a single-sail boat, heel the boat to windward; or in a two-sail boat, use goosewinging. It may even be worth steering slightly off the direct route to maintain the goosewing.

There's a useful exception: in very light winds (0-3mph), the sail(s) will tend to collapse, and will be slow to react when the wind rises again: you can keep everything in shape by heeling the boat slightly to leeward, so the sails are ready to start drawing straight away.

Keep yourself in trim

You need to take care of your fore-and-aft trim as well. So, depending on the strength of the wind, you should sit further forward when going upwind, and further back for downwind. Going downwind, you don't want the bow ploughing too deep (or even diving under), and you don't want the stern digging down and causing drag going upwind.

Tension headache?

How much tension should you have on your mainsail controls? The general rule is: the higher the wind speed, the more tension you need, to flatten the sail; and the lower the wind, the less tension, to increase the curvature, and so increase the power of the sail.

Exactly how you do it depends on the particular boat. One thing that most of them have in common is the kicking strap: you use it as described above - really tight if it's blowing hard. If you have an adjustable outhaul (and/or) inhaul, again the same applies, but you should probably have a look at your class site for details. If you have a downhaul/Cunningham, you probably only use it in a strong wind - pull down hard to flatten the luff curve.

And what about the mainsheet? Obviously it depends firstly on the point of sail, but when you are beating, again you adjust according to the wind strength; and if you have a controllable traveller, you set it close to the mid-line for lightish winds, and further out as the wind strengthens.

When you are going downwind, if it's not blowing too hard, you may find it useful to relax some of these principles: slacken off the kicking strap and outhaul, to get a bit more drive, but remember to put them back on again before you get to the leeward mark.

And a final exception: in very light winds (say 0-3mph), some boats actually do better with the sail completely flat: you might expect that to reduce the power available, but against that, the air follows the (slighter) curve of the sail without breaking up, so you get less drag, and better speed.

The centreboard/daggerboard

The basic rule is of course: Down for beating and Up for running, and somewhere in between for the other points. A couple of exceptions, though:

If you are running, or on a very broad reach, in stronger winds, you may find that the mast starts swaying sharply from side to side. This is the beginning of the "death roll", and if you don't do something very quickly, you will probably capsize. So get the board down within the first two swings if you can: this will increase the resistance to rolling, and may save you. Perhaps a surer way, if things are getting a bit wild, is to keep the board partly down all the time. You may be going slightly slower, but you are more likely to keep on going.

At the opposite point of sailing: with some boats, when you are beating in heavier conditions, you do better to keep the board slightly raised (only slightly). It allows the boat to sideslip more (something you don't normally want), and so reduce the sideways thrust on the sail, so you stay more upright for a given amount of weight transfer (hiking), and actually make better progress overall.


As far as possible, you should make only smooth rudder movements; if you suddenly yank it over, you are putting the brakes on quite hard. You go faster overall by travelling in wider gentle curves. Of course, you may not have much choice if there are other boats nearby, but remember the option if you can.

And, as usual, there's an exception: don't turn too slowly on tacking, or you'll go slower and slower, and quite possibly end up "in irons".

Racing Tactics

A few tips to improve your score.

One thing at a time

Is racing a new experience for you?

If it is, ignore practically everything below this box, and just concentrate on getting around the proper course, keeping moving, without running ashore, or tangling with other boats or marker buoys. Give everybody and everything a wide berth.

Take care to get to the briefing, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask the RO; make sure you know exactly where the course goes, and then just go out for an enjoyable sail.

Don't bother with getting mixed up in the manoeuvring at the start; just hang back a bit, then get going when most of the fleet have gone, and sail around the course until they tell you to stop.

When you have had a few goes at sailing like this, and want to get more involved, that's the time to start looking a bit more at the specific tips.

But don't try to do it all at once: have a look through and see if there's one area that looks as if it might be particularly helpful for you. Then try to apply that one tip next time you are out: keep practising it until it becomes automatic for you. Then move onto something else.

Get off to a good start

Don't lose precious time by messing up the start. Every second you are late at the start means a second added to your finishing time. Ideally you will be approaching the line at a decent speed when the starting signal sounds. But be wary of arriving too early. If you arrive early, you may have no option but to go over the line, and then have to go around again; and that will cost you a lot! You will have to find your way back without obstructing any of the solid mass of boats, and it can easily cost you a minute.

And assuming you got the start right, you will occasionally find yourself at the front of the fleet. You presumably know where the first mark is, but do you know the next one? And the next? If you get it wrong, and the people behind you get it right, you will almost inevitably lose places when you backtrack. So don't get into your boat until you know exactly where the course goes. (Either in your own memory or on a clear, written note.)

Trouble with wind?

You should always pay attention to the weather forecast(s) when setting out to sail. (And perhaps have a look at the ones the home page points to, which are specialised for sailing.) When you've done that, you should have a fair idea of what sort of day to expect. But don't rely on it being exactly right: there is always a certain amount of variation in the wind, and it combines with the local landscape to give sometimes surprising effects. The wind direction will often be different at various points on the lake, and you may find apparent "holes" in the wind, where different flows come together.

There are a few patterns that come up fairly often:

You will generally find a noticeable wind shadow below the trees on the windward side of the lake, and also in the lee of islands and buildings.

Related to this, you may find a stronger wind in the middle of the lake (but not always: sometimes there's a hole there, if there are conflicting flows).

You sometimes find a favourable wind running along a shoreline, where it is channelled by the trees.

So what does all this mean for me?

The most important thing is to try to find out what is actually happening on the day. If you can, go out for a sail-around before the start of the race (before the briefing if possible), and find out what sort of wind there is at various points around the lake. If you can't manage this, at least have a good look at the other boats, and keep doing this during the race, to update your knowledge.

Then use that knowledge to plan your way around the course. As far as possible, keep away from areas that look like being problematic, and consider your best route from one mark to the next (not necessarily the shortest). And remember that, because of the fluctuations in the wind, the best route on one lap may not be best on the next. The best way to get an update is to look at the boats ahead of you. Tricky if yours is the lead boat, but that's not a bad problem to have.

Sailing up the beat

First: how's your close-hauled sailing? The beat is where most of your time is likely to be lost, so get some practice in if necessary. Find the "sweet spot" and stay in it. Don't try to pinch (sailing too high): you'll actually make less progress; but don't go too far off the wind either, or you'll find yourself going back and forth in the same place. Keep checking, using the tell-tales, or with slight movements of the tiller, and respond to all the slight shifts in the wind direction. And when you're happy with it, make a mental note of the angle between your heading and the wind direction - this is your pointing angle, and you'll find it useful later. Now, use the same approach in your racing.

If all is going as the Race Officer intended, on a windward leg of the course you will split your time roughly equally between port and starboard tacks. But how do you decide on the right time to tack? A simple approach would be to leave the leeward mark on one tack, sail across until you ran out of room, then tack and sail right across again, and so on. But this doesn't take account of the normal oscillations in the wind. When the wind has shifted to the port side of the course, you would make better progress if you were on port tack; and conversely the starboard shift would favour starboard tack. So it's worth considering whether to tack as each shift comes (the shift will show itself by heading you away from the mark). It's not always right - the shift may just be temporary, as you pass one of the gaps between the trees. But if you find yourself heading further from the mark than your pointing angle, (usually about 45degrees), you are probably on the wrong tack.

Dealing with marks

Approaching the windward mark

At some point you will be on your final approach to the windward mark. All being well, you will be on the "starboard lay-line", or perhaps a little above it, and you will go on to round the mark comfortably. But what if you got it wrong, and you weren't quite high enough, or if a last minute wind shift has put you into the same position? If you try to pinch your way past, you are quite likely to end up in irons, and touching the mark. You may sometimes get away with turning in towards the mark, to accelerate, then turning away at the last moment, while you have some momentum. Otherwise you need to tack away if you have room (or gybe around if necessary), and take another shot at it. But the real answer is: don't cut it so fine in the first place; give yourself some leeway and come in above the starboard lay-line. And to be sure of being able to do this, you need to be thinking about it many boat-lengths beforehand.

Rounding a leeward mark

The leeward mark is your gateway to the windward leg, and you want to be advancing up the beat as soon as possible. In most cases you will do best if you aim for a "wide entry" and a "close exit" : approach on a wide curve, and harden up, close in to the mark as you complete the rounding; tack or not depending on the plan you formed before rounding. If you drift out wide, the boat behind may nip through the gap and get ahead of you. (Of course you may have to change your plans to allow for any other boats approaching the mark.)

See the bigger picture!

It can be great fun to have a one-on-one duel with another boat that's closely matched to yours - almost to the point where you don't care which one of you wins. But while you're enjoying this, don't let it blind you to the overall objective: you want the best overall time you can manage. If you forget this, and concentrate on beating your immediate rival, you may find that you're slowing each other down, and you both end up further down the fleet than you should have been.

There's another similar case. You're going along at a reasonable pace, but there's a faster boat coming up behind you quite quickly. Now there are ways of holding it up for a while, and sometimes there are reasons why you should use them. But most of the time, it is going to overtake you anyway, so just let it get on with it, and out of your hair, and don't mess up your own progress.

What if you are catching up to a bunch of boats that seem to be becalmed? They've probably got into a place where two conflicting airstreams are cancelling each other out. The wind will change some time, but for the moment, they are stuck, and the last thing you want to do is to join them, and get into the same hole. See if you can find another way round; never mind if it means sailing a longer distance - the important thing is to keep moving.

Now what do you do when you're on port tack, beating, and you can see you're on a collision course with a starboard tack boat? (As you sail along, it's always at the same angle from your viewpoint). By definition, you can't get ahead of it (if you could, it wouldn't be a collision course). One option is to tack away, if that suits your overall plan. Just make sure that you do it early enough, so that you are not "tacking in the other boat's water", and subject to penalty. But if you decide to continue on port, and you take action early enough, you can bear away a little, accelerating as you do, pass behind, then harden up again, and come out of the manoeuvre without noticeable loss. It doesn't matter that you crossed astern; your overall race time will probably be the same.

Glossary and Terminology

Now to refresh your memory, a few sailing terms.

In sailing, we often give ordinary English words a different, specialised meaning. Here is a reminder of some that you are likely to come across. And we also have a few special terms that you are less likely to meet elsewhere.

Up and down, high and low, above and below.

These are all about movements or positions relative to "the wind" - the direction from which the wind is blowing.

We treat the wind a bit like a hill to be climbed. Then going upwind - towards the wind - is like going uphill - towards the top of the hill. And a higher course - one nearer to the wind - is like a steeper course up the hill.

Boat A is above boat B, if A is nearer the wind than B.

Heading up, hardening up, luffing, all mean turning/moving more into the wind; and bearing away, heading down, (any others?) mean the opposite - turning the bow away from the wind, or the stern towards it.

Your heading

is the direction in which your boat is pointing. It is usually not far different from the direction of travel (your course), but, particularly when going to windward, there will be some sideslip, which means your course will be below your heading.

Wind shifts (and heading again)

As you are sailing along close-hauled, the wind will often shift, changing your options and possibly your tactics.

If the wind (which will have been at around 45degrees from your bow) shifts more towards your bow, (an adverse shift) it is a "header", you are being "headed", and you will need to bear away, to get back to a close-hauled course, and avoid going into irons. Alternatively you will often decide to tack, to make the best of the new direction.

If the wind shifts away from your bow (a favourable shift), it is a "lift", and you are being "lifted". You can afford to head up, if it helps you to reach your target.


A lay-line is an imaginary line, representing the track that a boat would follow, sailing close-hauled, to pass just to windward of a mark. Each mark has one starboard lay-line and one port.

For a windward mark, you will usually aim to get onto the layline, as the most efficient approach to the mark.

Heeling and Hiking

Heel is a sideways tilt of the boat in either direction. This can refer either to a continuous state or to a movement, where rolling more usually refers to a movement to and fro.

Hiking (out) is sitting out over the side of the boat (using the toestraps for safety), to use your weight to balance out the sideways pressure on the sail(s) and minimise unwanted heel(ing).


Goosewing refers to a configuration of the sails with the mainsail out to leeward, as usual, but the jib held out to windward, so that both sails are fully exposed to the wind. Only practical on or near a dead run.

Sail parts

The triangular mainsail and the jib have standard names for their parts. The head is the area near the top of the triangle, and the foot is the whole of the lower edge. The luff is a strip along the leading edge, from the head down to the tack, where the luff meets the foot; and the leech is similarly along the trailing edge, from the head down to the clew, where the leech meets the foot.

Mainsail controls

The kicking strap (or kicker, vang or gnav) is a system to exert downward pressure on the boom. This initially tensions the mainsail leech, and at higher pressures, induces mast bend.

The traveller is a device, at or near deck level, which provides a mounting for a mainsheet block. It usually allows some side-to-side movement, so that, when fully-sheeted, the mainsail and boom can be held at some distance from the midline, and on some boats this movement can be adjusted to cater for different windspeeds.

Outhaul/Inhaul. The outhaul is a line, arranged to pull the clew of the mainsail outward, so as to adjust the tension in the foot, and so the curvature of the sail. It may be fixed at the time of rigging, or it may be adjustable while sailing. Some boats also have an adjustable inhaul, to control the pull on the tack towards the mast.

Cunningham/downhaul. These are lines attached somewhat above the tack, and arranged to provide a downward pull on the luff. Most often used in heavy winds, to take the curvature out of the luff, and reduce the power of the sail.


These are abbreviations for Inner and Outer Distance Marker. The IDM and ODM are marker buoys placed at either end of the starting line. The Inner is at the "committee boat" end, where the Race Officer is situated, and the Outer at the opposite, the "pin end". For a valid start, a boat has to pass between the two distance marks on approaching to cross the start line. A separate IDM is not always provided, and the committee boat or transit flag then takes its place.