Boatspeed & Boathandling
by David Dellenbaugh


Judge speed against other boats.
In sailboat racing, speed is relative. It doesn’t really matter what your knotmeter says or how fast your boat feels - the only true measure of performance is how well you are going compared to the boats around you. Your boat’s performance is a subtle combination of speed and height that you can only see when sailing alongside another boat. Therefore, keep close tabs on how you’re going relative to nearby boats.

man sailing

Look for a few ‘speed wrinkles.’
On many boats, it’s fast to leave the mainsail and genoa luff tension loose enough to have at least a hint of horizontal wrinkles in the lower half of the luff. This keeps your sail powerful and helps pointing. Two exceptions are heavy air and an older sail when you need more luff tension to flatten the sail and move draft forward.


Go fast first, then point.
The ability to point high is great for tactics, strategy and speed, but you can’t just aim your boat closer to the wind. Pointing ability is closely tied to speed, so in order to point higher you must start by going faster. This gets the water flowing faster over your foils, which increases their efficiency and produces lift. When pointing is a problem, the natural response is simply to turn the boat toward the wind, but this is the opposite of what’s needed. Instead, you should aim lower and go faster first - then slowly try pointing higher. (Of course, you may also need to make other changes to improve pointing.)

If you’re slow, make a change.
When you are going fast, keep things roughly the same. When you have a case of the “slows,” change something. Start by adjusting things that will have the biggest impact on your boatspeed. My first change is almost always to ease (or tighten) the mainsheet. If this doesn’t help, try changing other variables. You’ll learn more if you change only one thing at a time and wait long enough to see its effect, but it’s hard to be this patient while racing.

hiking flat out

Use legal kinetics more often.
‘Kinetics’ is the use of body motion and weight to help steer and balance the boat while racing. Though there are some sailors who abuse this technique, most sailors do not use legal kinetics nearly as much as they could. For an in-depth explanation of what’s legal and illegal under the current rules, check out the rule 42 interpretations on the ISAF web site:

Copy the fast boats.
Your competitors are a great source of go-fast ideas, so keep an eye on them. Pay particular attention to boats that are going faster than you, and don’t be afraid to copy their set-up. For example, how are they trimming their sails and positioning their weight in different conditions? You can learn a lot just by watching them on the race course; many of these sailors will also be willing to share ideas if you talk with them ashore.

Be ready to change gears constantly.
Sailing is a challenge because conditions are always changing. You can’t just trim in your sails, cleat them and expect to win races. You must be ready to “shift gear,” or adjust the trim of your boat and sails, constantly to match changes in the wind and water. As Buddy Melges often says, you must “present your boat for Mother Nature.” In other words, you have to anticipate the puffs, lulls, shifts and waves that are coming. And when these reach your boat, you should have already made adjustments for them (rather than reacting after they hit).

car uphill


Pace yourself when hiking.
Even the most athletic sailors can’t hike all the way out for an entire race, so save your best hiking for when it makes the most difference. Use two hiking modes: 1) “flat-out” style where everyone straight-leg hikes as hard as they can (on one-designs) or leans with both arms and legs straight out (on boats with lifelines); and 2) “comfort” style, a position you could hold all the way up the beat. Use ‘flat-out’ mode at crucial times when you need speed, like right after the start or when you’re close with another boat. Use ‘comfort’ mode at other times to conserve energy and strength.

hiking comfort style

Jibe when you’re going fast.
When the wind is blowing hard enough to make jibing risky, it seems at first that you should jibe when your speed is slow. but it’s better to jibe when you are sailing as fast as possible. Speed has two advantages: 1) it makes your hull a more stable platform; and 2) the faster you are going, the less apparent wind pressure you’ll have on the sails. One of the best times to jibe is while surfing down a wave. When jibing in heavy air, speed is your friend.

six boaters

Take your chute down early.
One of the costliest mistakes at leeward marks is leaving your chute up too long. Carrying your spinnaker for an extra length or two will gain you only a small distance, but a takedown snafu can cost you tons. Therefore, unless you are fighting for an inside overlap, make the smart, conservative choice by dropping a little early and not risking a bad takedown.

Don’t maneuver in lulls.
Another good rule of thumb is that you should never make a maneuver in a lull unless you have a very, very good reason. Whenever possible, time your maneuvers (e.g. tacks, jibes) so you perform them in good wind pressure. If you make turns without much wind you will lose a lot in each maneuver.

lull maneuvers

In light air, be smooth.
When the wind is light, you don’t want elephants for crew. So make sure everyone shifts into “light-air” mode. Plan movements carefully and avoid unnecessary disruption. When you must move, be gentle and smooth, as if you are walking on eggs; otherwise you’ll kill your momentum. A light-air tack, for example, should be a smooth and slow event. Don’t just run over to the other side like you would do in heavy air, because that could shake all the wind out of your sails.

Power up before you hit waves.
When you are sailing in waves, it’s important to make sure your boat is powered up and going fast when you hit the bad ones. Anticipation is key. The secret to maintaining speed through a bad wave is shifting gears before you get to the wave. That means you need enough warning to power up your sail plan before the bow digs into the wave. So as soon as you see a bad wave coming, make sure everyone knows. Then ease sheets, bear the boat off for speed, move your crew weight aft and find a place to hit the wave.

Keep a lookout in blind spots.
The entire crew can help sail the boat fast and smart by keeping their heads out of the boat. Watch for puffs, lulls, waves and converging boats. Pay special attention to areas where the helmsperson has a hard time seeing. The two primary ones are behind his or her back and behind the genoa or jib. By focusing on these ‘blind spots,’ you’ll avoid last-second surprises that could interrupt your game plan.

three boaters bow

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