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Performance Racing Trim
by Bill Gladstone


Chapter 7 - Upwind Helmsmanship


7.1 Introduction
7.2 Garbage In...
7.3 Steering Upwind
7.4 Calling Trim From The Helm
7.5 Driving At Starts
7.6 Conclusion

7.1 Introduction

Helmsmanship.* One of the most important and least tangible elements of boat speed. Experience and concentration are important performance factors. The ability to stay calm in situations which scream out for panic is another trait. The truly excellent helmsman not only drives fast, but is also able to call trim through the feel of the helm. The driver is often also the skipper. In that role the helmsman must surround himself with trusted crew. The helmsman must be confident in those around him so he can concentrate on sailing fast.

In this chapter we will discuss helmsmanship upwind in various conditions. We will also look at driving at starts. Chapter 13, later, covers Driving Downwind.

7.2 Garbage In...

To be a great driver you must first be able to feel how the boat is performing. Once you have that information you can respond to improve performance. There are many sources of information to draw from. The importance of each source varies with conditions. Fig. 1.


Driver info...

Boat speed

Our boat speed is the first critical piece of performance info. The best source is comparison to nearby sister ships. In mixed fleet racing this is not often available. We must make do with speed from our instruments, and comparisons to boats of similar design.

Obviously, if we are slow then we've got to do something about it. The first response at the helm is to foot off. We'll explore possible reasons for the slows in more detail below.

Fig. 1 - The driver uses the information from the seat of his pants, boat speed, jib telltales, and wind and waves ahead; along with information passed along by the trimmers and crew; to guide him in his steerings.


If your speed is OK but pointing is a problem then changes in trim are called for. As driver you may be able to help decide what trim changes are needed based on the feel of the boat.

Seat of the pants "feel"

If the boat feels mushy, slow, or unresponsive you may be over trimmed. You should also be able to feel the boat lose power before it loses speed. You can respond and reestablish power. Ease the sails, and bear off if necessary.

Feel of the wind

As with seat of the pants feel, you can often feel changes in the wind before they show up as changes in performance. In a lull drive you can expect power and speed to drop. Retrim for lighter air while maintaining the best performance you can.

Feel of the helm

Weather helm is a key trim guide. If you are carrying more than 4° of helm, the boat is out of balance. (Note: On tiller boats 5° of helm is about 1" of helm per foot of tiller length. i.e. For a four foot tiller four inches of helm equals 5°. On wheel boats you will have to measure the ratio of wheel rotation and rudder turn.) Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 - When trim is properly balanced you will have less that 5° of weather helm. By coindidence, for a tiller X feet long X inches of weather helm is 5°

Angle of heel

Once you are fully powered angle of heel becomes a key performance guide. Steer and trim to maintain a constant angle of heel. Too much heel will mean too much helm and leeway.

Jib telltales

Jib telltales are a valuable trim and steering aid. You can use them a couple of different ways. The most common method is to correlate telltale behavior to performance gears, ranging from acceleration to speed, pointing, and pinching. We'll look at that in more detail in the next section.

A second way to use telltales is somewhat the reverse. When the boat is performing well look at the telltales. Steer to maintain that behavior, whatever it is.

If there is a problem with jib telltales it is that some drivers rely too heavily on them, while ignoring many of the other inputs described here.

Info from trimmers

Much of the information discussed here you gather yourself. Other information can be passed to you by your trimmers. For example, you should not be looking at other boats to compare performance - the crew should gather and pass along this information. Rather than take a barrage of info from all sides it is best to pass all the info through one or two people - the jib trimmer and either the main trimmer or the tactician, for example.

Comments from the rail

Rail crew can call incoming puffs and waves. They can also provide critical information about other boats. Of course, given the state of crew today, the information must be viewed with a high degree of skepticism.

7.3 Steering Upwind

As you tune in to the your performance information you should respond as necessary to anything which seems amiss. Your jib telltales can help you fine tune your steering to improve performance.

Using Jib Telltales to Advantage

One valuable tool for upwind performance is genoa telltales. Genoa telltales serve as a trim guide and as a steering guide. Once the trimmer has set the sail to proper shape the driver can fine tune his course to suit the boat's needs. There is more to it than simply keeping the telltales streaming. Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 - Once you are sailing in the groove with the telltales flowing you can fine tune as follows:
Fig. 4 - Sail with telltales flowing to maintain full speed and pointing.
Fig. 5 - Push down against the outside telltales for extra power and acceleration.
Fig. 6 - For extra pointing in smooth water let the telltales lift occassionally.
Fig. 7 - When overpowered feather up and let the telltales luff to help depower.
Fig. 8 - Gentry Tufts are a series of short telltales which can help more narrowly define the steering groove.

Full Speed Mode

The baseline is sailing at full speed, with the telltales streaming. This course will hold full speed. Fig. 4.

Acceleration Mode

Slightly lower than a full speed course, in Acceleration Mode the outside telltales will dance. By "pressing down" against the jib the boat will be fully powered. This extra power improves acceleration out of tacks and through chop. Fig. 5.

Point Mode

Slightly higher than Full Speed Mode is Point Mode. Here the inside telltales will rise (but not luff). The goal is to hold this slightly higher course without sacrificing speed. At the first sign of a loss of speed it is best to slide back down to Full Speed Mode. If you are slow to respond the bottom will fall out, and you'll need to fall all the way down to Acceleration Mode to rebuild speed. Fig. 6.

Pinching and Feathering

Higher than Point Mode is pinching, with the inside telltales luffing. You are pinching if you force the boat up and lose speed. More time and distance is lost through pinching than through any other single flaw in driving. Don't do it.

Feathering, on the other hand, is OK. The telltale behavior is the same as for pinching - the inside telltales luff. The difference is that you feather as a way to depower in heavy air. You are feathering if you don't lose speed. If you slow down you are pinching. Fig. 7.

Gentry Tufts

Gentry Tufts are a string of several short telltales used in the place of a single lower telltale. They provide more subtle information about where on the sail flow is becoming attached. Use them to more narrowly define your steering groove. If you find you have a great balance of speed and pointing when the front tufts are luffing, and the aft tufts are streaming then steer to maintain that behavior. Fig. 8.


A slow smooth turn initially, coasting upwind to carry speed; with a faster turn through the second half. Settle immediately and drive off slightly to accelerate. Work with your trimmers to quickly get back up to speed. Keep it smooth.

In waves a sharper turn is needed to get the bow around. First look for a smooth spot. Start the turn heading into a wave trough. The bow will pop out as you hit the crest of the wave and (hopefully) cross the wind before the next wave hits. This way the next wave helps you complete the turn rather than pushing you back onto the old tack. (See figures in Chapter 4 - Upwind Boat Handling.)

7.4 Calling Trim from the Helm

It is not enough to simply steer fast. A good driver will also provide feedback to the trimmers to assist in improving trim.

The helmsman has the most direct feel of how the boat is performing. He must help call trim by giving details of the feel of the boat. Is the groove to narrow or too wide? Do you have enough punch in the waves? Do you feel you should be pointing higher? Is the helm properly balanced?

For the trimmers to trim properly the helmsman and trimmers must communicate and understand the relationship between trim, helm, and performance.


Narrow or Forgiving

If the steering groove is narrow and the telltales won't settle down then the jib may be over trimmed or too flat for the conditions (or the helmsman). The easiest way to widen the steering groove is to ease the sheet an inch or two. You can also create a rounder, more forgiving entry shape by tightening the halyard, or sagging the headstay. Fig. 9.

Fig. 9 - With the halyard esed and the sheet trimmed hard the sail will have a narrow high pointing angle of attack.


Of course, if you are going fast and pointing high, who cares that the boat is hard to settle. Live with it.


If the steering groove is wide and the boat is not pointing well try a flatter entry shape and narrower slot. Trim the sheet, tighten the headstay, and/or ease the halyard. In smooth water you will be able to steer to a narrower groove than in wavy conditions. Fig. 10.

Fig. 10 - A tighter halyard (and eased sheet) will create a more forgiving angle of attack for easier steering in wavy conditions.

Proper Power

If the boat feels sluggish, and lacks punch in the chop, the driver must call for more power. Conversely, if the boat is overwhelming the helm you are overpowered.

There are many ways to change the boat's power - through sail shape, twist, and angle of attack for each sail. In Chapter 8 we will look at how to balance each type of power.

Weather Helm

If you are carrying more than 4° of weather helm your trimmers need to know. To reduce weather helm flatten your sails, add twist, or reduce angle of attack by easing the traveler. (Which to do? - see Chapter 8, next for ideas)

Wind & Waves

In heavy air and waves we want to keep the boat in the water and prevent it from pounding through the seas. You do not really steer through the waves. Set the boat up with proper trim and it will find its own best path. Fig. 11.


Weather helm can be used to head the boat up for each face. Rather than force the boat up with the helm the boat should be trimmed with enough weather helm that it heads itself up for each wave. In order to bear off the weather helm will have to be relieved for a moment by lowering the traveler or easing the sheet. To head up pull the traveler up, or trim the sheet. Steering with the sails and using the natural weather helm of the boat is much faster than pushing the boat around with the rudder.

Angle of heel is an excellent guide for steering in these conditions. The proper angle of heel will create appropriate weather helm to match the size and period of the waves.

Fig. 11 - A properly trimmed boat will almost steer itself through waves. Trim in enough weather helm to bring the bow up for each swell. In chop this won't work. Just crank up the power, put the bow down and, and crush the chop

In short chop it is not possible to get the bow up for each wave. Crank up the power, put the bow down, and crush the chop.


Turbo Sailing

Point higher without giving up any speed! Enjoy the rewards of Turbo Sailing!

In smooth water beating with the crew on the rail try forcing the boat to point higher. It will, without any loss of speed. Turbo Sailing works best in ideal sailing conditions - smooth water and enough breeze to get the crew fully hiked without being overpowered. Get your boat sailing at normal speed and angle, and then head up slightly. Turbo Sail until the first sign of diminished speed or power; then bear off immediately to power up and rebuild speed. Experiment with trim to find out if extra mainsheet tension or flatter shapes helps you hold the higher angle. And beware the first sign of a lull or chop. Nothing is as slow as trying to Turbo Sail in Non-Turbo conditions.

Turbo Sailing offers improved performance in special conditions. The next time you're racing upwind in smooth water with the crew on the rail give it a try. But don't try to force it when the conditions aren't right. Fig. 12.

Fig. 12 - Turbo sailing involves trimming hard and flat, and sailing slightly higher without any sacrifice in speed. It only works in ideal, smooth water, moderate air conditions.

7.5 Driving at Starts

Starts are chaos. Driving at starts requires that you focus on factors affecting your start. You should know which way you want to go after the start, and you should know which end of the line is favored. You need to anticipate and keep clear of crowds.

You need proper position against the boats closest to windward. You need to create a space to leeward. You need to keep clear air, and judge the time, speed, and distance to the line. Fig. 13.

Fig. 13 - Driving at starts requires timing, judgement, and teamwork. It also requires focus. Sail your boat. Ignore the chaos around you.

Make a Plan

You need a starting plan, and your crew need to be ready to put the plan into play. You must pick a spot on the line, select an approach that will get you there.

Starts require free form boat handling - you never know what will happen next. A well organized and prepared crew will allow you to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.

Sail Your Boat

Don't be distracted by the madness around you. Sail your boat. Don't talk to other boats - assign that chore to someone else. Sail your boat. Don't be late, don't be timid, don't worry about the crowds. Work with your trimmers. Sail your boat.

Your tactician should look ahead and tell you where crowds are forming, and what to expect in the next 30 seconds or minute. He should also look behind, and warn you of following traffic.

Your foredeck crew should call the line, signalling distance to go. Trimmers should keep the boat at full speed, and avoid the common mistake of overtrimming in the confused seas and disturbed air of the start.

Practice Drills

Starts are hard to practice. It is tough to get enough boats out to get a realistic set up. There are several drills you can use to train for starts.

Stop and Go

From a close hauled course luff you sails and coast to a stop, then trim and accelerate to full speed. How long does it take? How much distance do you cover? Obviously that will vary with the wind and seas. Fig. 14.

Fig. 14 - The Stop and Go drill is used to practice trimming and accelerating at starts. How long will it take to accelerate to full speed at a luff? How much distance will you cover? Practice to find out.

Trimming from a stop it is best to trim the jib first, and following with the main. If the main is trimmed first it tends to push the bow up into the wind, and you will need to pull the bow down with the rudder, which is slow. Trimming the jib first holds the bow down, for better acceleration.

Variations on Stop and Go

Once you are comfortable with the Stop and Go try these variations:

Try trimming while holding hard on the wind, as though there were a boat close to leeward. Also try the Go-Stop-Go. From full speed stop as quickly as you can - push out the main as an air brake - and then accelerate to full speed again. This can be a handy way to kill time, or to break an overlap so you can dive below a leeward boat.

Practice Approaches

Use a buoy as your chosen starting spot, and practice various approaches to it. From a distance try to guess how long it will take to get to it. With a little practice you can become quite good at this skill, and it is a great help at starts.

More Practice

Try a 360 turn, and see how long it takes. Do you end up where you started?

Also pretend you were over early, and circle back for a restart.

7.6 Upwind Helmsmanship - Conclusion

Helmsmanship is a subtle skill requiring practice and concentration. A relaxed yet acute awareness is needed to be able to sense what is going on with the boat. To build sensitivity practice steering with your eyes closed. Feel the boat through yours hands, seat, hair, feet, and inner ear. Go ahead and laugh, but try it.


The best helmsmen are those who have surrounded themselves with great crew, so they can focus their attention on driving. If you want to be driver, tactician, and sail trimmer then race single handed. If you really want to look around and do tactics, get off the helm. Fig. 15.

Fig. 15 - The best drivers focus their full attention on driving, and trust their crew to take care of everything else. Great drivers require great crew!

You can order this great book called Performance Racing Trim in it's entirety.

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