In Search of Perfect Tacks

With the season just beginning for many of our local sailors, I thought it might be a good time to get back to the basics. In sailboat racing there are four fundamentals you must master: tacking, gybing, spinnaker sets, and spinnaker douses. Until you have these down cold, you can’t really begin to focus on developing front row boat speed, and actual racing (tactics and strategy) will remain a strictly theoretical concept. So, let’s start with the seemingly simplest maneuver and break down the components of a great tack.

Photo courtesy of Quantum Sailing

Steering

There are two critical elements to a tack, and you guessed it, steering is number one. First, everyone has to be ready. If the helmsperson simply turns when they feel like it without communicating clearly, the rest of the crew will not have a chance of getting the timing and executing. “Ready about” should demand a response from the one person who is critical, the jib trimmer doing the release. If they aren’t ready, you can’t turn. A simple countdown, “3, 2, 1, turning the boat” also helps with coordination.

The next key is rate of turn. Wherever the expression “hard-alee” came from, it should be banned. The last thing you want to do is turn hard. The rudder is a brake. A slow smooth turn is the goal. Keep in mind one thing: In the middle of the turn, where are you going? Straight upwind, which is where you are trying to go ultimately. If you turn too slowly, you will come out of the tack with not enough speed. You will need to vary your rate of turn depending on breeze velocity and sea state. In light air you will have to turn faster. Likewise in breezy, bumpy conditions you will have to be concerned about stopping the boat, so a faster rate of turn is required. A rough guideline is that you want to come out off the turn at about two thirds of your upwind target speed going into the tack. Going upwind at six knots, you probably don’t want to drop below four coming out.

The final key to steering through the tack is to come out at the perfect “build” angle. Turn too fast, and you will overshoot, coming out more on a reach. The boat will generate too much heel if there are more than eight-10 knots, and your trimmers will struggle to get the headsail in. Underbake the turn, and you will be too thin and unable to build speed. The sweet spot is full upwind on the new tack, just a hair below final upwind so you can accelerate. Heel is actually a great guideline. Start slowing the turn just before you get to optimum heel angle, so the boat straightens out just as you hit it. Go too far, too much heel. Not far enough, boat will be too flat. In light air you will need crew weight to generate the right amount of heel. More on that later.

Executing this smooth, controlled turn that ends at just the right build angle is further complicated by the fact that there are usually bodies everywhere blocking your line of sight and generally being disruptive. Practice your footwork. You should use the same steps to cross the boat over time. Stand up and face forward, and keep an eye on the bow and the horizon. The wheel or tiller will not tell you how far to turn. Reference the horizon and your angle to the waves.

Trim

The second key is the release. I know a lot of furious effort goes into pulling in the headsail on the new side, but it really is all about the release. As the sail luffs 50 percent of the way aft, spin all the wraps off the winch and make sure it runs. On a boat with overlapping headsails it is harder. Don’t let the sail back against the spreader, and follow your release, pulling several handfuls of sheet from out in front of the block.

On the new side take your time. If using non-overlapping headsails, your job is easy. The moment the release is made pull like mad. For those with a genoa, just take slack out until the clew is past the leeward shrouds. Then pull like crazy. In light air, don’t over trim. Start with the sail eased from normal upwind to help with acceleration, gradually trimming in as the boat gets going. In medium conditions you can trim in faster and hit the rail. In heavy air you may need to take your time. Heel will be your guide. If you trim and the boat gets knocked down, you are trimming too quickly.

The mainsail trimmer helps with the turn and is the key to acceleration. Into the turn, trim harder to encourage the boat to come up into the wind. As the bow passes head to wind, begin to ease out on the new tack to help build speed. How far you ease is a function of wind velocity and where the boat is relative to the build angle. In light air you will have to ease considerably (to get the top telltale flying), while at the same time pulling the traveler up to get the boom up to the centerline to create heel and give the driver something to lean against. In medium air the ease will be smaller, and the traveler will be moving through a much smaller range. In heavy air you are the one controlling heel. Ease whatever is necessary to keep the boat on her feet. I usually just nail the traveler down at pre-set positions for breeze on. Trim back in as the boat gets up to speed.

Weight

Last, but not least, is weight placement and movement. First, if you are hiking, “ready about” is not the command which signals a mass exodus from the rail. In fact with the exception of the trimmer doing the release, no one has to move. The rest of the team should actually hike harder. Once everyone is hiking, the name of the game is staying on the rail as long as possible, and then, in one catlike move, scramble quickly to the opposite rail, hitting it just as the boat starts to heel on the new tack. And, you guessed, hike like crazy to help with acceleration.

In light to medium air, crew weight is part of the turning impetus. Slide in to create heel to help with the turn. Then hike on the new leeward side to create heel out of the tack. In the lightest conditions, you just stay to leeward, gradually moving a body or two up as necessary to maintain consistent heel. If it is slightly windier, stay to leeward for a few seconds to create heel and then move all the weight at once up to weather to flatten (the “roll tack”). Always keep in mind that movement kills, especially in light air. So get to the right place and freeze.

So it may look simple, but there are a lot of moving parts and variables. It is worth the effort to get it right. Think about it. Depending upon conditions, a good tack versus one that is “less than perfect” is probably somewhere between a half to one boat length at a minimum. How many times did you tack in a race? Five, six, maybe eight times? I’ll take four to eight boat lengths anytime. All it takes is practice.

Questions? Email dflynn@quantumsails.com