20 sailing tips

Here are 10 of our top sailing tips to improve your performance

When looking at how to move sailing performance up to the next level it’s all too easy to think first in terms of spending money – buying new sails, gear, or even a new boat. However a number of small and easy improvements in your technique can yield great results. Here are 10 of our top sailing tips to improve your performance – come back next week for part two.

1 Practise boat handling

This need not be onerous so there’s no excuse to put it off – 15 minutes spent practising your weakest manoeuvre before the start of each day’s racing will rapidly pay dividends. Once this first manoeuvre is much improved, you’ll have a ‘new’ weakest one to work on. A GoPro video camera in a waterproof housing is an ideal self-coaching tool – they weigh only a few grams, are easily fixed to the back of the boat and will reveal both your strengths and your weaknesses.

2 Mark all the settings

Knowing the fastest settings for a wide range of conditions is a key prerequisite of good boat speed, yet far too many boats – whether dinghy or offshore racer – fail to mark their controls. Everything should be marked – halyards, sheets, vang, outhaul and so on. Once you start, it’s the beginning of an ongoing process that sees both sail trim and boat handling improve as you gradually refine the markings.

3 Hoists, drops and gybes

Getting the spinnaker work right is crucial to good performance and a bit of practice outside of race conditions will always yield excellent returns, especially early in the season. The boats with crew work in this area always gain an advantage on their rivals, whatever the weather. Try and practise manoeuvres round an actual mark or marker point to replicate race pressure.

4 Mark roundings

It’s amazing how many even quite good sailors give valuable time away at mark roundings. The biggest mistakes are failing to follow the basic ‘wide in, narrow out’ principle and thereby allowing other boats inside, and uncoordinated sail handling. Planning ahead for your mark rounding can also pay dividends, where will you be in relation to the boats around you at the next mark should be considered from at least halfway down the leg.

5 Work on your starts

Few of us can claim to be able to nail the start every time, whatever the circumstances, yet getting away into clean air on the first beat gives a valuable early advantage. If you don’t do so already, try to think of the length of the line in terms of the time it takes to sail along it – this can be a big help in improving judgement of time and distance. If starting mid-line, get a reliable transit and don’t be afraid of being half a length ahead of the boats around you – most hang back too far, even in the very top level of competition. It goes without saying that a top-notch timer is needed, and on big boats it’s essential to have instruments or software that enable you to ‘ping’ the exact location of each end of the line.

6 Don’t hit the starboard layline too early

This is particularly important on the second and subsequent beats, where hitting the layline early means you will end up overstanding, especially in big fleets. In many fleets it’s possible to make the mark if you tack on to port just underneath the boats that are overstanding – but remember to do so just outside of the three length zone and that if you need to luff to shoot up to the buoy you must not go beyond head to wind. In a big fleet it’s possible to pick up dozens of places this wayNote that it may be too crowded for this tactic to work on the first beat in a big fleet – but watch out for any chancers piling into the mark on port and be prepared to sail round the resulting carnage. However, on subsequent beats the fleet will be more spread out, which means a different tactic can be applied.

7 Take the correct gate

On windward-leeward courses with a gate at the bottom, you need to know – or at least have a good guess at – which side of the gate will be favoured before you bear away at the top mark. The bigger the fleet the more important it is that you get this right – going the wrong way can be costly, but it’s really easy to be pinned out to one side by other boats if you don’t have a plan at the top mark.

8 Weight distribution

This comes naturally to a few lucky people, but other crews struggle and it’s not unusual to see boats with poor fore and aft trim, especially in light conditions. Never allow yourself to fall into thinking that your boat is sufficiently heavy that this isn’t a priority – even at the 50ft level, the best crews will roll tack in light airs.

9 Change gear to accelerate

This is just as important for reservoir sailors who are trying to reach a mark in a wind shadow as it is for keelboat sailors who become buried in disturbed air after making a disappointing start. Sheeting in and attempting to point high is always counterproductive, even in a lightweight boat. You need to ease sheets and bear away until you’ve gained some boat speed or found clean air.

10 Develop high and low upwind modes

The ability to maintain VMG while pointing higher than usual – or lower than usual – gives tactical control over other boats around you and helps to keep clean air. It’s one of the best- kept secrets of the most successful sailors and is well worth practicing. For instance it may allow you to gain enough space to tack, or squeeze up above an overtaking boat. But don’t be tempted to overdo it – any more than 3-5 degrees in each direction will put you on the conveyor belt towards the back of the fleet.

11 Be consistent

It’s important to balance the size of any risk you take against the potential gains – a principle that almost always rules out taking a big risk in exchange for a small gain. People whose results are inconsistent are often those who either take too many risks, or take the wrong risks. When they get a run of good luck they are at the front of the fleet, but all too often the risks don’t pay off and they are mid-fleet or worse. Alternatively, if your results aren’t consistent, there’s a good chance you’re sailing fast, but being let down by a small number of important mistakes. Identifying these can be very revealing and help propel you a long way up the fleet.

12 Post-race analysis

Make a habit of critically analysing your performance in each race – when you do well, it’s important to know the reasons why, so you can repeat the success when faced with the same conditions in the future. Equally, learning from your mistakes will prevent you repeating them. This process also helps to improve team communication. This can also be a good opportunity to air any issue that may have come up during racing, away from the intensity or the race-course. Doing this regularly means all crew know they will have a chance to bring up any grievance at a later date, not in the middle of mark rounding other vital moment.

13 Duck or tack?

When beating on port tack you need to know, in advance, whether to tack or duck on meeting a starboard tack boat. If you’re not doing it already it may require some conscious effort to train the right thought processes, in effect rhetorically asking, ‘what would I do if we met a starboard tacker now?’ Before long it becomes instinctive and puts you in much firmer control of your route up the beat. Equally, if you’re on starboard and want to continue on that tack don’t let a port tack boat that’s on collision course tack under your lee bow. Wave them through instead, and duck their transom if necessary.

14 Sort the boat out!

While there are many small ways in which a little extra performance can be gained with a relatively small amount of effort, many of the benefits will be lost if the boat is not up to scratch. There’s also an important psychological aspect to this – it’s easy to blame a substandard boat for disappointing performance, when the real fault lies with the crew. Does everything work exactly as it should? Would the foils benefit from being faired? If the boat is kept afloat is the bottom immaculately clean? Is the rig properly set up? Can you tweak the rigging tension for different wind conditions? How good are the sails? It also helps psychologically to have a boat that looks smart, so maybe now is the time to get the polish out, or even plan a repaint or a vinyl wrap of the hull.

15 Look after yourself

The right clothing that will keep you warm, comfortable and dry across the full range of conditions that might be experienced during the race is vital if you’re to perform at your best, both physically and mentally. It’s a false economy to attempt to make do if there’s a gap in your sailing wardrobe – you won’t be as fast, you won’t enjoy the sailing as much, and the kit you do have will wear out faster.

16 Nutrition

This is also of vital importance and is as relevant to a 40-minute dinghy race as to the 605-mile Rolex Fastnet Race. Quite simply, without the right form of energy – which frequently means complex carbohydrates – you won’t be able to perform at your best: after a period of intense concentration followed by relative inactivity even the fittest sailor will feel tired and make poor decisions. If you’re working hard, don’t underestimate how difficult it is to remain properly hydrated. In an event that goes on for more than one day you should aim, where possible, to eat a decent portion of carbohydrates within 30 minutes of a drop in activity (ie. race finish or going off watch).

17 Stay focused

This may sound obvious, but no one can give 100 per cent concentration all the time – and even just a short lapse at a critical time can cost several places. As well as good nutrition, make sure your conversation doesn’t wander away from the race and that everyone is tuned in on the run-up to important manoeuvres. This is particularly important in the latter parts of a race – many crews will be flagging, so those who stay focused on the job can make good gains relative to other boats.

18 Develop your knowledge

Your understanding of the rules, tactics and sail trimming should be incremental and ongoing, but we all get stuck in a rut from time to time. If this is you, unless you have loads of free time to play with, choose a couple of specific topics on which to get started.

19 Do something different

It’s amazing how much can be learnt by sailing with different people, in a different boat, or in a different place. If you have been sailing the same class with the same crew for a long while, give something else a try for a weekend or two – you’ll almost certainly come back to your regular boat with valuable new skills and knowledge – see our interview with multiple class champion, Ben McGrane to see the benefits of class swapping.

20 Don’t play the blame game

Sailing, like tennis and many other sports can be as much about mental preparation as it is about the physical and a great many wins or decent recoveries have been thrown away by blame. This can strike in many forms, from believing your boat is slow due to some undefined defect to anger with other members of the team for a mistake that cost you ground, right through to anger at the sailor who t-boned you off the startline putting you at the back of the fleet. Aggression can be used to good effect, of course, but anger rarely helps anyone. Making time at the end of the race, away from the heat of the moment to speak to crew about errors or calmly discussing a situation with a competitor is always a better option than continuing an argument on the water, taking focus away from your race.


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