5 Tips for Sailing Fast by Jerry Montgomery
We’re all different. Some of us give more than our share to charity and spend a couple of weekends each year painting the church; others knock off liquor stores in their spare time. Some go sailing to relax, others see sailing as an opportunity to excel. Some study reefing and anchoring—others read about how to make their boat go faster. Takes all kinds.
If you’re in the group who would like their boats to go faster, some of the following might help.
Sails. This is a no-brainer. Number one, easily, is to have good sails, and this is way more important than anything else. If your sails are blown out, nothing else much matters. I’m picky enough so that if I have a boat long enough to let the sails get the least bit blown out, I get new ones and reserve them for racing and use the old sails for more casual stuff. Many others do the same thing. Sails start wearing out from day one; there are ways that we can make them last longer, like not leaving them up, flapping their life away at the dock. What do you want for Christmas? New Sails!
Mast rake. Two things to consider here, the first being that a boat will sail upwind better with the mast raked aft. The boat will point higher and go faster, but the other effect is how mast rake affects balance. We want a definite feel of weather helm, which means the boat will come up into the wind if you let go of the tiller. This also means the rudder is helping the keel or centerboard in resisting leeway. If you’ve ever sailed a boat with lee helm you’ll know exactly what I mean. If your boat has lee helm, you must keep the rudder angled down, or to leeward, to keep the boat on course, which increases leeway—the opposite of what we want.
Boat trim. Remember seeing Ma and Pa out in their Seafood 16, sailing along slowly with the bow up in the air? They’re both sitting aft in the cockpit, taking the boat totally off its lines, and they’re probably totally oblivious. The amount of heel is also important. Most well-designed boats reduce their wetted area when they heel, and heeling affects the balance. As the boat heels it increases the feel of weather helm and we can reach the optimum degree of helm by shifting our weight and adjusting the amount of heel. In light air, sit on the lee side and force the boat to heel. A tiller extension is a very helpful item because it allows you to move around in the boat to adjust the trim.
Sail trim. The key here is to have tell-tails on your sails, which graphically tell you how the wind is flowing around them. I always have the telltales at three levels on the sails, but use mostly the top and bottom ones. In general, you are concerned with the telltales on the lee side, and they should be flowing straight back. If they point up, the sail is stalled out and you need to ease the sheet. If you don’t have the optimum amount of twist the telltales will tell you about it; the top will either be luffing or the telltale will sky. I put the telltales on headsails about 6” back from the luff, but those on the main need to be about 10 or 12 inches back because of interference in air flow caused by the mast.
The “feel” of the boat. It’s seldom discussed but cannot be overemphasized! In the last two regattas I’ve been in I’ve used a totally new sailor as crew, just for giggles. I found it necessary to occasionally remind the crew to make major sail trim changes fast and subtle changes slowly and gently. Lyle Hess, an outstanding designer of the last century, made a comment about sailing in very light air. He said to equate it to leading a little kid down a crowded sidewalk; be gentle rather than jerking him around. Good advice, and obviously applies also to the hand on the tiller. Particularly in a drifter, I like the crew to get in a comfortable spot where he can concentrate on the telltales on the jib. During a casual sail, sure, cleat the jib down and crack a beer, but if you’re optimizing performance, crack the whip. Actually, a good crew will quickly get to the point where sail trim will become second nature, racing or not. Last weekend I was on the committee boat during a regatta, and I noticed the contrast in boats that were milling around between races. Some were effortlessly moving very well even though the air was very light, others were pretty sluggish. Funny thing, but the ones moving well were also the ones that were leading their fleets during the races. They simply had a real feel of the boat. And when things weren’t quite right they were instantly were aware of it—and did something about it.—Jerry Montgomery