Download the
entire article
as a PDF


Get Faster

3: Building on the basics

The following are crucial areas which you’ll want to work on to propel yourself up the learning curve. By paying attention to each of these it won’t be long before you’re catching up with those at the back of the pack. Enlist your fellow competitors to help build your skills by bombarding them with questions — this is a very effective way to learn and most sailors are more than happy to share their knowledge.

Wind awareness: Pay as much attention as possible to the changes in wind strength that can be seen on the water — gusts show as darker patches, while lighter areas indicate a lull. This knowledge helps you to become more in tune with the boat — you’ll have advance warning of when you’ll need to move your weight, or hike harder to keep the boat flat. A change in wind strength is almost always accompanied by a change in direction, so if you’re sailing the windward leg of the course you’ll need to adjust your course to suit the new wind direction and in any case you will need to re-trim the sails. It takes time to develop a high level of wind awareness, so don’t worry about nailing it straight off — just start by making sure that it’s always uppermost in your mind and be content to slowly build your feel and appreciation of what’s going on. In particular, don’t make the all-too-common mistake of assuming the wind’s still coming from exactly the same direction that it was five or 10 minutes ago.

Windward leg tactics and laylines: Windshifts are one of the key determinants of the best time to tack when sailing the windward leg — it pays to tack when you are headed away from the windward mark. Also try to establish whether one side of the course appears to be faster than the other. Watching boats ahead can be helpful in working this out — look for which side of the course the leaders took. An obvious, yet important, point is not to sail too far on the windward leg — judging exactly the right place to tack to make the windward mark is difficult from a distance — so sail a progressively shorter distance on each tack until you reach the mark.

Boatspeed: It’s all very well to point the boat in the right direction, but if your boatspeed is poor, you’ll still trail at the back of the fleet. A common mistake many club racers who are starting out make is to believe that investing in new sails and other kit is the most effective way to improve boatspeed. Granted, these are important elements, but the first investment to make almost always needs to be in your own skills. Sail trim is perhaps the single most important issue. Learn to use the telltales to indicate the air flow over the sails, then learn about twist and draught (fullness) and how the outhaul, cunningham/halyard tension, and vang can be used to depower and power up the rig. Read all the technique features in Yachts and Yachting, plus anything else you can get your hands on! Correct rig tuning is vital to boatspeed and many sailmakers and classes provide ‘standard’ tuning guides. You’ll need to use one of these, possibly with input from other club members, to make sure your boat is properly sorted in this respect.

And more... On the water, keeping the boat trimmed correctly fore and aft, and properly balanced, makes a huge contribution to boat speed, yet the number of relatively experienced sailors that fail to pay sufficient attention to this is amazing. The golden rule is to keep the boat flat at all times — heeling may create a sensation of speed, but ALL dinghies are slow when leaning over. The only exception to this is in very light airs (see our ‘Troubleshooting’ feature on page 18). If the wind is almost imperceptible, heeling the boat away from the wind helps the sails to fill — their own weight helps them to take up the correct shape — and at the same time less of the hull is immersed in the water, so drag is reduced. Other aspects of boat handling to start working on at this stage are tacking and mark roundings. With tacking, start by making sure you’re turning the boat through approximately the correct angle for each tack, so that you always exit the tack at an optimum wind angle. Note that it’s very common for newcomers to turn much too far, which is exceedingly slow. Mark rounding may sound like a small factor, but neat boat handling will always gain ground at a mark, and with some club races involving up to a dozen marks, there’s a lot of scope to gain ground in this area. The key is to approach wide, which enables you to exit the mark close to. This prevents others getting inside you and shortens your windward leg by perhaps half a length, which may just be enough to get an inside overlap at the next mark. At the same time, you can start to build your understanding of the rules and tactics, gradually implementing your additional knowledge as you build your skill level. If you’re sailing a two-handed dinghy it will also be important to work on communication and division of tasks between the crew — it’s often more effective for the crew to make the bulk of the tactical decisions, which leaves the helm able to focus as fully as possible on trimming the mainsail and steering the boat fast.


Previous page:2 Essential skills

There are a few key sailing skills you’ll initially need

Next page:4 The next stage

It’s worth doing some more training to give you the next jump ahead

More articles on starting sailing or racing