I have sailed most types of boats at some time or another, sometimes with quite good results – so I have confidence in my general sailing ability.
My bibles have always been Eric Twiname’s books. They both have the message that anyone can do well at a National level and that improvement comes from changing the way you think. They are possibly out of print but I see them not infrequently in second hand bookstores.
“Start to Win” – goes through the techniques required to handle a boat efficiently.
“Sail, Race and Win” gives examples on how to make the techniques automatic.
The overarching principle is, to improve, spend time on the water practicing. The practice has to be task oriented. If you can get time aside from racing to practice, well and good. If you only ever race it is worthwhile moving the priority from finishing well, to focus on some aspect to improve during the race (eg, one or two of: roll tacking, roll gybing, pumping sail downwind, surfing, sailing boat flat (or windward heeling), sailing in the right direction when looking elsewhere etc).
Most important in order of importance:
1/ Keeping boat flat -the biggest difference between the sailors in the top third of the fleet vs the bottom third. A bit of heel in the very light stuff is OK, but as soon as the boat is moving reliably – flat. Practice by sailing a medium wind race keeping the boat heeling a few degrees to windward upwind and on the reaches and a bit more when running. There are no excuses for not being able to keep the boat dead flat through use of steering and sheeting.
2/ Keeping sail moving – sheet in and out – steer in concert – wind is never static – know how to use the tufts on the sails – they should be flying almost all the time (though they won’t fly on a run).
3/ Being able to set up sail adjustments quickly for changes in wind or point of sail. Texta (permanent marker) marks on boom, mast and control lines when you feel you have been going particularly well. Is it worthwhile to stop just past the windward mark to draw texta lines on your boat when it has been moving well? YOU BET! If concerned about the appearance, put some clear contact film on any areas that you may need to mark beforehand.
Sail Adjustment in General.
Rule One of sail adjustment (and everything else) is watch what the fast guys are doing – how loose is their traveler, outhaul, luff tension, where are they sitting? As I am learning “Sabre Specific Behaviors” I spend the time before the start following the good guys, copying their settings then setting off upwind myself to see if I need more power or pointing.
Rule Two is that if you can’t adjust it quickly during the race without losing speed or direction it is better to not adjust. Save the adjustments for the beginning of each downwind leg and before the beginning of each upwind leg. If in the bottom third stick to mainsheet and tiller otherwise unless badly underpowerd/overpowered and concentrate on keeping the boat flat. As this becomes more automatic you will have additional time to optimise settings for variations in windstrength
Specific Sail Adjustment
Winds where getting boat moving is unreliable (see paragraph above, grumble).
Wind less than 3 or 4 knots. In principle, sail should be relatively flat and quite twisted. Crew weight should be well forward and a bit of leeward heel. Perhaps pull a bit of rudder up to reduce wetted surface. If in doubt, ease mainsheet and get speed up, then think about pointing. No point in adjusting sail controls for reaching and running (all points require a flattened sail with reasonable twist), though I would use a little more vang on the run.
Boat moves reliably and can be held flat without easing sail. Wind 5 to 13 knots.
Upwind – foot outhaul adjusted so about 75mm (3ins) between sail foot and boom, vang adjusted so windward tufts at each level of the sail stall at the same time when you point up a little too much. Leach tufts should all be flying No or very slight luff tension. Traveler loose. Outer end of boom above inside face of buoyancy tank. Legs behind thwart, body leaning slightly forward so midpoint of shoulders is in line or slightly ahead of thwart.
Reaching – if sail is eased and tufts still flying, that’s reaching. If you can’t ease sail enough to make tufts fly, you are running – so see below. From beam reach to broad reach ease foot outhaul to give 1 in 7 curve to bottom of sail – fit a stop so that it can’t go past this. Vang readjusted so lee tufts stall at same time at all heights. No or slight luff tension. Mainsheet can be adjusted so leech tufts flick behind the sail briefly from time to time. Centreboard raised a foot
Running – No tufts will fly. Foot tight so that only a tiny amount of curve remains. Vang firm so leach does not twist. Traveler irrelevant – Centreboard as high as you can manage without death rolls (There are toothmarks in the stbd side deck where I got carried away with this in my third race). Move weight forward a foot or so, heel boat to windward approx 5 to 10 degrees (brings helm back into centre to reduce rudder drag and moves middle of sail up higher).
Sails are having to be eased frequently to keep boat upright. 13+ knots.
The big trick to sailing in strong breezes is to pre-empt the effect of the breeze – see a gust approaching, get boat double extra flat (if not actually heeled to windward a bit) and ready to ease a bit more mainsheet and point up (if going upwind) or bear away with big ease of main (if going down(wind)).
Wind is never even in strength – there are times when the wind is stronger on average (ie wind is stronger in BOTH gusts and lulls) and lighter on average (ie wind is lighter in BOTH gusts and lulls). These cycles last from 5 to 15 minutes, the trick is to set up the boat for the current cycle. The vang is the most important adjustment
Upwind – the objective is to flatten the top of the sail to prevent heeling, but have enough fullness in the bottom to give adequate power and to make the boat point – if foot is flattened excessively it is hard to make a Sabre point. Same if the traveler is too tight. This is quite different from most boats I have sailed. Vang is the most important adjustment and will be adjusted frequently and hard – the trick is to set it up so that boat can be kept flat 90% of the time for each wind cycle. If you see a big gust approaching, pull on heaps of vang before it hits, then ease it back out after the gust has passed as you become underpowered. Luff tension can be medium or pulled out to the black band if vang is not adequate to keep the boat flat. If really blowing the crabs out of the sand pull up 150mm (six inches) of centreboard. If you can’t avoid a nasty wave face ease the mainsheet a little, bear off a few degrees and hike HARD (flat boat) – you will still hit the wave – but speed will reappear quickly – then point again while pulling main back in and go back into your normal hiking position.
Reaching – upwind vang tension is excessive on the reach so you can afford to ease it from the tight upwind setting. – if you don’t you will notice the mast bending strongly to windward in the middle from the boom compression. So vang firm rather than hard. Downhaul as per upwind – doesn’t make much difference in these conditions. If you feel underpowered ease out main foot toward the one in seven position, if still underpowered ease downhaul. Centreboard 1/3 up. Sit behind thwart and lean body aft if nose is digging in.
Running – as per medium breeze but weight should be as far back as necessary to prevent nose diving but keep trying to move forward – sitting in the stern when it is unnecessary is dead slow. Centreboard 1/3 to 1/2 up. When surfing down the faces steer for the low point of the wave in front
Main thing is not to get too caught up in the search for the perfect boat. Rather, spend time working on specific aspects of your skills, try to identify weaknesses and work out practice strategies to correct them.
For example my weaknesses are: Light wind, starting, strategy under the simplified rules, not using body weight actively enough to maximise advantages from waves and small fluctuations in wind (a legacy of sailing larger boats – Sharpie/Yachts) and not pushing the boat hard enough downwind in medium to strong conditions. I am prepared to blow race results to improve these areas by practicing on the race course.