Dinghy Sailboat Racing: Building Success From the Ground Up

Dinghy racing? Think through your choreography

In so many ways, sailing, especially dinghy racing, isn’t like any other sport. But in a handful of aspects, it has a lot in common with other sports. It’s important to build success from the ground up—or really, in our case, the cabin sole up—by developing and practicing effective, repeatable footwork. 
It’s impossible to run the 100-meter hurdles without practicing your strides to ensure you lead over each hurdle with the proper leg. Success at bat for baseball players includes getting your feet set just so at the plate and transferring your weight from back foot to front foot at the right time to maximize your power. Football punters carefully measure steps back from the ball they’re going to kick so they can follow the same steps on the way back to kicking a field goal. 

dinghy racing
Dinghy racing; smooth boat handling leads to boat speed. Photo by Will Keyworth

So it is with sailing. How do you get from side to side in a tack? If you try it a different way each time, it’s likely to be a hot mess. Figuring out the best way (for you) to move around the boat—and practicing it so that it becomes committed to muscle memory is a big step toward success. The less you have to actually think about what you’re doing and instead just do it, the better. And smooth boat handling leads to boat speed. 

How to get from here to there: your dinghy footwork

To figure out the best way to get from one spot to the next, think about keeping your feet and body moving in the right direction while also continuing to effectively do whatever your role on the boat is. 

A (fairly) easy example of this is the crew tacking on a doublehanded boat. Boiling it down, you need to move across the boat while also moving the jib from side to side. On most boats, moving from hiked-out position on one tack to hiked-out position on the other tack, you’ll want to remove your aft-most foot from under the hiking strap, take a big step with that foot over the centerboard as your other foot follows, and pivot 180 degrees on that same foot so that you’re once again facing inboard—and then pop out into your hiking position. Your trailing foot may never hit the cabin sole! 

But, your individual mileage may vary. On some boats, the jib sheets are led further aft, so in order to release the jib and trim it onto the new side, tacking facing aft may be required. In that case, you’ll need to lead with your fore-most foot—and your pivot will include an instant where you are facing completely aft in the boat. 

If you try it a different way each time, it’s likely to be a hot mess

Think through your choreography to keep things as streamlined as possible, especially on more complex maneuvers. Your initial choreography may not be the best—experiment until you get things optimal. If you’re doing foredeck sitting on a J/22, heading upwind with your feet outboard, as you head toward the weather mark and prepare to pop up to hoist the spinnaker, you may be used to spinning around on your butt and first putting the foot that’s furthest forward on deck first. By continuing the spin so that you first contact the deck with what was your aft-most foot you might be able to save a step. Here, trial and error that lead to learning are critical.

Throughout all of this, whenever your feet make contact with the cabin sole (or if on a larger one-design boat like a J/22, if you go up on the foredeck), never get back on your heels. Keeping your weight forward, poised for action, will ensure you don’t get caught a half step behind the action. 

You’ve heard this before, but practice makes perfect 

Yes, it is way more fun to go out on a breezy day and practice reaching so that you get to go super fast, but locking in that footwork will pay lasting dividends. Putting in the legwork (pun intended) will create the muscle memory you need so that in the heat of battle, your maneuvers run smoothly—so you can simply tack, rather than tacking while you’re thinking about how to tack. 

One thing many (most?) sailors are challenged by is that we don’t automatically do our maneuvers symmetrically. I know for me on my ILCA 6, tacking from starboard to port seems to come more smoothly than port to starboard. What I have done is to identify the steps it takes for me to tack successfully from starboard to port. I will go out to practice and as I identify each of those steps, I count them off, giving a happy tack a rhythm, and ensuring each of those steps is clear in my head. I work on replicating that counting process—that rhythm—as I tack from port to starboard. I literally say out loud, “one, two, three, four, five, six” as I practice each of many, many tacks. 

Boathandling drills by yourself help you get from this point—slow tacks where you talk yourself through the process—up to speed. Work through five to 10 tacks each way, talking yourself through it, at slow speed. It may feel quite odd, but it’s helping connect your mind to your body movements. Then, remove the out-loud talk, and try them as normal-speed tacks. 

This isn’t just a one-time adventure! Add this talking to yourself drill back in whenever you feel you need a refresher. Talk yourself through it, and you’ll talk yourself to success!

by Kim Couranz

About the Author: SpinSheet columnist for more than a dozen years, Kim Couranz has earned several national and world titles in Laser Radials (ILCA 6) and Snipes. She has also raced J/22s, J/24s, and Ynglings on an international level.

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