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Performance Racing Trim
by Bill Gladstone


Chapter 4 - Upwind Boat Handling

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Tacking

4.3 More Upwind Boat Handling

4.4 Conclusion


4.1 Introduction

It would be easy to dismiss this topic as easy and insignificant. Everybody can tack. What more is there? For starters, there are tacks. There are good tacks and bad tacks. Tacks in smooth water and chop. Roll tacks, slam tacks, and fake tacks.

There are other upwind boat handling issues as well. Reefs and genoa changes are rarely made during a leg, but there will be occasions each season when they are needed, and can win you a race. There are also good and bad ducking techniques, and there are ways the crew on the rail can help performance in subtle, but significant ways.

Don't forget: The difference between fast and slow, between the lead and the pack, is just a couple of boat lengths per mile.


4.2 Tacking

The difference between a good tack and a poor one can be measured in boat lengths. In a race where you tack ten times good tacks can provide the margin of victory. And in a close duel superior tacks will allow you to break free from, or keep control of, a rival. There are a number of elements which make up a good tack. Fig. 1.

Fig. 1 - Tacking You should always be ready to tack. The winch should be pre-loaded with a full set of wraps. The working sheet should be flaked and ready to release. Start with a smooth easy turn. Let the boat coast upwind. Release when the sail luffs half way across the deck. By grinding full speed throughout the tack over-rides can be avoided and there will be no need to pause to add wraps. Call speeds coming out of the tack. Gradually trim the sail home as full speed returns.



First, if you have some flexibility in timing your tack, look ahead for a smooth spot to tack in. Avoid waves, chop, and wakes coming out of the tack. Also, make sure you will be in clear air coming out of the tack - don't tack into bad air.



The courtesy of a preparatory hail, "Ready about," increases the likelihood of a good tack on "Hard-a-Lee."

A proper tack starts with a slow, smooth turn. Many drivers turn too fast. Some wind up by bearing off before they turn, which is also wrong. A slow smooth turn will preserve momentum and allow the boat to coast upwind. As the boat comes head to wind and speed is lost, turn more quickly to finish the tack.

In waves a faster turn is called for, as momentum will be lost more rapidly. Start the turn on the face of one wave and turn quickly as the bow pops free over the crest. Try to get the bow around so the next wave pushes the bow down on the new tack, not back to the old tack. In a short chop it may not be possible to get around fast enough. Fig. 2 .

During the turn the helmsman must change sides and settle into position to work the boat up to speed. Come out of the tack a few degrees low of course and squeeze up as speed builds. Getting up to full speed is your priority coming out of the tack. Don't let anything distract you from your mission.

Fig. 2 - Tacking in waves requires a faster turn than a smooth water tack. Start your turn in the trough of a wave so the bow will pop free at the crest. Try to push the bow around quickly enough so that the next wave pushes your bow toward the new tack, not back to the old one.


Crew Movement

You should always be ready to tack. The lazy jib sheet should be loaded on the winch and the working jib sheet flaked at the completion of the previous tack. At "Ready about" the trimmer should make sure he is prepared to release and the tailer should check the new winch, take up slack on the lazy sheet, and put the winch handle in place. No one else should move. You slow the boat if you get off the rail at "Ready about" and you telegraph your moves, letting your rivals know you are about to tack.

At "Hard-a-Lee" sit tight. The grinder should move into position as the boat stands up. There is nothing to grind until after the release anyway. The longer you hike the faster the boat will be going into the tack.


The Release

The release should not start until the genoa is backed half way across the foredeck. Then ease out one arm length before spinning the remaining wraps off the winch. The sheet should be flaked in advance. Make sure it runs.


Roll Tack

Every boat can Roll Tack, not just dinghies. In light and moderate winds a roll tack uses crew weight to help steer the boat and tack the sails. Here's how: First, heel the boat to leeward to generate weather helm and start the boat turning up into the wind. Next, as the boat passes through irons roll weight to the old windward / new leeward side. This will push the boat through the second half of the turn, and throw the sails across the boat. Finally, as the sails come over, the crew move up to the new windward side. This hikes the boat flat, and helps accelerate the flow of air across the sails, and thus helps the boat accelerate out of the tack.


Tail and Grind

The genoa should be trimmed hard from the moment it is released. The tailer should pull in long even strokes across his body. The grinder should grind full speed right from the start, even when there is no load. It is sometimes helpful to have another crew member help the sail around the rigging and drag the clew aft.

With the grinder spinning the winch full speed he can help the tailer bring the sail through the tough spots. By keeping the winch drum spinning he also prevents over-rides. This allows all the necessary wraps to be laid on the winch from the start of the tack. By laying all the wraps on in advance you don't have to stop to add wraps during the critical moments when the sail loads up.


Trim out of the Tack

Trim for extra power and better acceleration out of the tack. Pull the jib leads forward a few inches and trim three to six inches short of full trim initially. Grind to final trim as speed builds. If you want to adjust controls, such as the backstay, for acceleration out of the tack, do not wait until the turn is completed to make the adjustment. Do it just before you tack, or as you tack, so you can concentrate on building speed out of the tack.

Once the sail is nearly trimmed the grinder can move to the rail and the tailer can trim the last few inches as the boat accelerates. The trimmer should call out boatspeeds so the helmsman knows when the boat is approaching full speed.



If time allows, hike first. Don't set the pole, or clear halyards, or do housekeeping immediately after you tack. Hike out, settle the boat, and let the driver concentrate. Wait until you are up to full speed before you start moving around. This holds true in light air as well. Even when hiking weight is not needed, movement robs speed and disrupts concentration.


More Tacking Ideas

Tactically there will be times when you will not be able to execute the desired glide in and quick finish described here. When tacking in traffic you may need to execute a slam tack, where you slam the boat into a small opening. There will also be times - at starts for example - where an exaggerated coast in irons is called for to reach the desired location coming out of the tack.

Here's another idea: Tack through a wind shadow. If you are about to tack and there is a boat passing on the opposite tack downwind, tack through his wind shadow. There will be less drag and windage in reduced air of wind shadow. You may as well be tacking as you can't sail well in the shadow.

One more thing: Tactically, you should add a fake tack to your repertoire. Signal your crew with some clever code, like, "Ready about Wally?" to which they reply "Ready Beave." Put the helm down and turn to the point of the jib release. If your opponent falls for it, you can pull back. If your opponent doesn't tack, you can finish the turn as a normal tack. Hail either "tack" or "no" to signal your decision.


4.3 More Upwind Boat Handling


Straight Line Sailing

There are plenty of useful things for crew on the rail to do on a windward leg, aside from talking about their hangovers. Here are a few:

Find the windward mark (and the next mark).

Look ahead for changes in conditions.
Observe earlier fleets on the next leg (and plan strategy).
Plan ahead for the rounding - Bear away or jibe set?
Call immediate wind and waves.
Keep track of other boats.
Move to maintain proper heel.

These chores are, of course, in addition to badgering the driver to stop pinching.



A proper duck is important to a successful reversal, as described in Performance Racing Tactics. To duck the sails must be eased as the helmsman bears off, and the sails retrimmed as the boat comes back on the wind. With a coordinated effort the loss from ducking a starboard tack boat can be minimized. The first trick, of course, is to look ahead so you see the other boat coming. The second trick is to keep greed from clouding your judgement about whether you can cross or not. You can cross only if the bearing from your stern to the starboard boat's bow is increasing. The figure shows several ducking variations - only one of which is recommended technique. Fig. 3abcd.

Fig. 3a - A proper duck involves a smooth turn, with sails eased to build speed. You gotta look ahead. You want to avoid the "crash tack" (3b), "Oh my god!" duck (3c) and the "ease the main, EASE THE MAIN" insurance incident report (3d).



It is rare to take a reef during a round the buoys race. Usually we just flog the full main and hang on until the end of the leg. Once or twice a season a squall will roll across the course, and an immediate reef will be in order. If you can reef efficiently, you win. Those who are not practiced and prepared lose. And they beat the crap out of their sails as well�

Taking a slab reef in the main should take less than 60 seconds. Here's how to do it:

Release the boom vang.
Lower the halyard to a preset mark.
Pull down the luff of the sail and secure the reef tack.
Grind the halyard to full tension.
With the sheet eased grind the reef line in.
Trim the main and reset the vang.

The key is to be organized for each step before you start. And divide the jobs. Keep as many crew as possible on the rail. All lines should be tailed from the rail, for example.

The genoa should be eased two inches and the helmsman should drive off slightly to keep power and speed while the reef is set; but be careful not to drive off too far as the rig is unbalanced while the main luffs.

If you tie in the reef, use brightly colored sail ties so you will not forget to take them out before shaking the reef. The reef points are only used for tieing up the loose sail - they are not strong enough to carry load.


Genoa Change

A genoa change is a major distraction, and should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary. Often, in a building breeze, it is possible to hang on with what you've got, rather than change down. In a squall change down for the sake of performance and for the life of your sail. In a dieing breeze it is more critical to change up to the appropriate sail.

There are three variations on genoa changes with a twin grooved headstay. The inside set, where the new sail is hoisted inside and the old sail dropped outside; the outside set, where the new sail goes up in the free groove outside the old one; and the tack set, where the new sail is hoisted inside, the boat is tacked, and the old sail is dropped inside.

Unless tactical considerations dictate otherwise the tack set is easiest and fastest, as the crew never has to work on the outside. Outside hoists and outside drops are difficult, as it is hard to get the outside sail under the foot of the inside one. Freeing the tack of the inside sail will create a gap under the sail, allowing the outside sail to pass more easily.

It is best to start the race with the genoa in the port groove so an inside set can be done on starboard tack, minimizing the chances of having to tack suddenly. One exception is a skewed beat heavily weighted to port tack.

Bring the new sail to the windward shrouds and prep it. Find the tack, check that the luff is straight, and attach the new halyard. Do all this before going forward to the bow. The new genoa lead should be set to a pre-marked position and a new sheet led. For a tack set simply use the lazy sheet from the old sail. The old halyard should be flaked so the old sail can come down as soon as the new sail is up.

When everyone is ready take the new sail forward and put the head in the luff groove. Start the hoist, and hook up the tack as the sail goes up. Don't overhoist if the tack is not secure as you near full hoist. Once the new sail is up [tack if you are doing a tack change and] drop the old sail.

Once down the old sail should be pulled aft along the weather rail and flaked. Before devoting crew attention to this house keeping chore first make sure you are properly trimmed and up to speed with the new sail. Then take care of the old one. At a minimum flake the luff and secure it with a sail tie so the sail is immediately available if needed. If the sail can be flaked and turtled so much the better. A fast genoa change will cost several boat lengths. A bad one�

Incidentally, all sails should be stowed systematically so they can be found immediately as needed. Before the race put them in position where the weight will be least harmful - usually on the cabin sole. Once in place you cannot rearrange them during the race. They absolutely must not be left in the bow. Weight in the bow is a speed robber. Get your sails (and everything else) out of the bow.


A Few Words on Flaking

We'll take a moment here to rant about flaking genoas properly so they hoist easily. Simply put, the luff must be flaked straight. Since the luff is longer than the leech folds in the luff will need to be wider than those in the leech. Initially, to get the luff straight, take two or three full folds in the luff with small folds in the leech. The luff flaker leads, the leech flaker follows. The luff flaker should keep moving, taking wide folds which stack one on top of the other. It doesn't matter if the leech flaker falls several folds behind.

Note: If you are a foredeck crew inspect to make sure sails are flaked to your satisfaction. Or suffer the consequences�


4.4 Conclusion

It is true: There aren't very many races where skippers cite superior upwind boat handling as the reason for their victory. But snafus - such as winch overrides, tangled sheets, jammed jib luffs, and the like - can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Fig. 4. Upwind boat handling is just one small block in the pyramid of power. Don't stumble over it.

Fig. 4 - Snafus - such as a jammed luff tape during a genoa change - can ruin a race


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