What It Takes To Be a Great Race Boat Driver

Success at the Helm Depends on a Few Key Factors

David Flynn of Quantum Sails shares his thoughts on driving

In the last edition we visited the pointy end of the boat and looked at what it takes to be a great bow person. This month let’s swap ends and see what it takes to be a great driver.

Driving a racing sailboat requires intense focus. Photo courtesy of Quantum 


Driving is an exercise in pure concentration and laser-like focus on the task at hand. If you want to look around at what is happening on the race course, or offer commentary on how the spinnaker sheet should be led, then driving is not for you. Some of the very best who have had extensive dinghy experience can multitask. In a small boat they had no choice. Even these virtuosos are better when they just steer. All steering inputs need to be small and done as smoothly as possible. Anticipation is key to minimizing movements, and this means total focus. While coaching a budding driver I knew I had made the point and gotten their attention when we sailed through the finish line and they didn’t even realize it.

Use all of your senses

Yes, telltales are important upwind and are one of the primary inputs, but you need more. Upwind your field of vision must include (at least) the headstay relative to the water (angle of heel), oncoming wind (puffs and lulls), waves, and where available, the speedo and wind angle (usually apparent angle upwind). While a target boat speed is a good thing, fixating on it alone will leave you chasing. First too fast and then too slow. Use targets as a secondary input. Telltales look good, angle of heel is right, wind angle seems reasonable, and oh… look at that. We are on target.

Above all don’t forget the feelings in the seat of your pants. With time you can sense when the boat is accelerating or slowing down. Heel is a huge input and maybe your most important. Feel the boat heeling over and the helm starting to tug, and you automatically let the boat head up slightly to relieve the pressure. The telltales are suddenly not that important. Want a great drill to sharpen up your sense of feel? In moderate conditions try closing your eyes, and let the boat talk to you.

Downwind the game is the same. You aren’t using telltales, but you are looking at the luff of the spinnaker all the time. You are using the speedo and wind angle (targets for both are hugely helpful). You are watching wind and waves and listening to the input from your trimmer about how much pressure is on the spinnaker sheet. Downwind constant heel angle and pressure is the name of the game.

If you feel the boat heel as a puff hits, you can gradually pull the boat down to keep the pressure consistent. Flatten out, and the boat is telling you to come up and increase the pressure. When it gets hairy and you are on the edge of control, angle of heel and anticipating changes in heel angle are what keeps you from wiping out. The groove between sailing too high and overloading the boat and too low and wallowing into an accidental gybe gets very small.

Make maneuvers work

The driver has more to do with making tacks, sets, gybes, and douses work than the rest of the crew combined. Yes, the bow team always gets the blame for the blown gybe, but usually the finger should be pointed at the helm. If you just turn the boat without consideration of where the sails are at a given moment, you are doomed. In a gybe, for example, if you don’t start at the proper angle with plenty of pressure in the spinnaker, the trimmer cannot get the sail to ease out when you bear away. You can only turn as fast as the spinnaker is rotated. If you get ahead in the turn, the spinnaker will collapse or back through the foretriangle. Smooth, constant rates of turn in sync with the trimmers is what makes the maneuver work.

Likewise, if you turn too fast in a tack, you will invariably turn too far. The headsail will not come in fast enough, the trimmers will hate you, and you will have given up precious ground to windward that is there for the taking in the middle of the tack. Head up before the spinnaker is in at the bottom mark (yes, I know you are supposed to go around it), and you will compound the disaster.

Trimmers are your friend

On a small boat you trim your own mainsail. You have only yourself to blame. On bigger boats upwind the mainsail trimmer is your best friend. They need to be a good driver and be looking at and feeling the same things you are. A little slow and too much heel? A small mainsheet ease or traveler down, and you are back in balance and up to speed. Downwind the spinnaker trimmer takes over and gives you feedback on pressure, helping to find the optimum angle. Work together! You are the speed team.

Taking charge

A good coach can get you up to speed and help keep you on pace through the puffs and the lulls. A good tactician can help paint the picture and help you anticipate. “Two boats on starboard, we want to go straight, may be a duck on the second.” They even help guide you through the amount and rate of turn that the duck will require. In the end, great driver’s need to be able to take charge of the maneuver, be it ducking, tacking on the lee bow, or knowing when to put the bow down, and to accelerate at the start.

Spatial awareness of the boats around you, the rate of turn, and timing cannot be adequately talked through. By the time even a great coach sees what needs to happen and their brain turns it into words it is too late. The little bit of lag makes boat-to-boat situations very difficult to talk through. When you get to the graduate level, you need to be able to take charge of boat-for-boat encounters. The tactician paints the picture, and then at some point, you say “I got it.”

Find more of David Flynn’s Racer’s Edge Tips here.