|Prepare Your Boat for Speed
by David Dellenbaugh
The top sailors have all but won any regatta before it starts because
they’ve prepared themselves and their boats so well.
- Paul Elvstrom
In sailboat racing, success often depends more on what you’ve done before a
race than on what you do during the race. Even if you have the best tactics and
strategy in the fleet, you won’t finish first if your bottom is slow or if your
tiller extension breaks on the last beat.
No matter what type of racing you do, it’s important to get every ounce of speed out of your boat. In one-designs all the boats are nearly identical, so you have to look for any little advantage you can get. In handicap boats you race against the clock, so every second counts.
One of the best ways to improve speed is by fine-tuning your hull and equipment. Certain ideas, like keeping your boat dry while racing to save weight, will have a direct impact on speed. Other ideas, such as adjusting your hiking straps properly, make it easier to sail your boat and will thus help speed. Still other ideas, like taping the places where a chute might rip, will prevent breakdowns, which would be very slow.
I do not claim to be an expert boat mechanic, but I do get excited about making improvements to my boat. And being prepared definitely helps me feel more confident. A pre-regatta wet-sanding of my hull, for example, may not improve my speed very much, but it does give me a psychological boost.
With this in mind, here is a brainstorm of tips, tricks and techniques that can give you a physical and mental “preparation edge” over your competition. These won’t all work on every boat, but at least some of them will work on any boat. By themselves, many of these ideas will probably not have a noticeable effect on your speed. But if you systematically make as many small changes as possible, the cumulative effect can be significant.
• Cut some slack - Shorten all your sheets, halyards and control lines as much as possible. This will reduce weight and minimize the amount of clutter in your boat. Use a magic marker or electrical tape to put reference marks on each line. For example, make a mark on your spinnaker halyard at full hoist and marks on your jib sheets as guidelines for rough trim.
• Tweak your mainsheet - On light-air days, use a smaller diameter mainsheet, if possible, so it will run through the blocks more easily. Turn off your ratchet and consider making the mainsheet 2:1 or 3:1 instead of 3:1 or 4:1. If your mainsheet runs aft underneath the boom, attach a loop (or two) of duct tape, wire, webbing or sailcloth around the boom to hold the sheet up so the skipper won’t get strangled on tacks or jibes.
• Tweak your chute - On boats smaller than a J-24 or so, tie the sheets to the spinnaker instead of using shackles or brummel hooks. This saves weight and prevents accidental releases. In light air, keep your sheets and spinnaker dry until the race starts. Sometimes I even keep my chute in a large plastic garbage bag until just before the warning signal.
• Help your halyards - Use low-stretch line or wire for your halyards to minimize stretch. If you don’t use a lock at the top of the mast, you may have to tighten your main halyard occasionally while racing. On smaller boats, tie the (hoisting) end of the spinnaker halyard to a fixed point so it won’t twist or knot while the chute is set.
• Customize your straps - Adjust your hiking straps for crew height and wind conditions, and make sure to test them before each race. Use shock cord to hold them close to their normal hiking position so it’s easy to find them after tacks. Check you hiking strap attachment points for chafe, especially after windy races, and be sure knots are tied tightly.
• Tape your rig - Use electrical tape to cover sharp parts of the rig where sails may tear and to hold ring pins in place. To prevent tape ends from unraveling and flapping in the breeze, dab on a little silicon sealant to hold them in place. Use as little tape as possible so you minimize weight and windage aloft.
• Support your centerboard - Shim the head of your centerboard (or the inside of your centerboard trunk) to get a tight fit, especially along the bottom and top of the trunk. You can use specially made Teflon strips for this, or get stick-on Velcro strips from a hardware store and use the fuzzy side in your trunk. Mark your centerboard (1/4, 1/2, 3/4) so you’ll know how far up or down it is while sailing.
• Rudder - Be sure the rudder catch will really keep your rudder in the boat if you capsize. Work hard at getting a smooth, positive feel between your wheel or tiller and rudder. With a wheel, eliminate play by adjusting the steering gear. Put marks on the wheel so you know how many degrees of helm you have. For a tiller, use a solid rubber universal, and make sure the tiller fits very tightly onto or into the rudder head. Make sure the hiking stick universal is not cracked as this is a common failure. To extend its life, coat it with lubricating oil or sun protection cream.
• Make cleats friendly - Mount your control cleats so lines are easy to adjust from a hiked position on either side. When putting your boat away, don’t leave lines in cam cleats because this ears out the springs. If you have “clam” cleats, use metal cleats (instead of plastic) because these hold much better and last longer.
On smaller boats, adjust your main cam so the jaws are just below the mainsheet when you are trimming it from a hiked-out position. You want to cam low enough so the sheet won’t automatically go into the cleat, but high enough so you can get enough leverage to put the sheet into it occasionally.
• Draft some stripes - Draft stripes (horizontal lines across your sails) are a good way to visualize sail shape. These should be positioned at roughly 33% and 67% (or 25%, 50% and 75%) up the luff of the main and jib/genoa. Try adding a short vertical cross-hatch at 50% aft on each stripe to help you gauge the position of maximum draft. It can also help to put short draft stripes on the spinnaker (perpendicular to each leech about 1/3 of the way down) to help you visualize luff shape and curl.
• Use an old chute - Find or buy an old spinnaker that you can use for practice. Bring this out on race days and use it before the start so you won’t rip, soak or have to re-pack your good chute. Then leave it on a support boat.
• Think battens - Make sure the most flexible end of each batten is inserted into the pocket first, and then center that end in the elastic inside the inboard end of the pocket. I carry a couple spare battens in case one pops out or breaks during the race day. These spares should vary in stiffness so they can double as light or heavy-air battens. If you have battens in your jib, check to be sure these aren’t broken.
• Use flag decals - Buy one of those stick-on decals that show all the race signal flags with their meanings, and mount it in your cockpit. This way you won’t be scratching your head when the RC makes a signal you don’t recognize.
• Scribble on deck - Bring a grease pencil to record race info on the deck where you can easily see it. A grease pencil will write anywhere on fiberglass, is erasable, and still works when the deck is wet. Things you might write down include the starting sequence, course info, tide times, wind bearings and reminders about how to sail fast and smart.
• Draw tacking lines - On boats that are at least 20 feet long or so with a flat deck area, put tacking lines on each side of your cockpit. You can draw these on with a marker and protractor, or stick on ones that you can buy commercially. Tacking lines are great for help with laylines and ladder rungs, both upwind and down.
• Prepare your telltales - On your jib or genoa, place telltales about 6 to 12” aft of the jib luff. I prefer lightweight yarn attached with a small circle of sail repair tape. I like having three sets of telltales from head to foot, and I make sure they’re away from seams so they won’t get stuck. Use different color yarn on each side (red for port and green for starboard is logical), and put all starboard-side telltales slightly higher or lower than those on port so you can tell them apart.
On your mainsail, put a yarn telltale on the end of the top batten and use this to gauge leech tension. I also use a telltale half way up the main luff and a couple feet aft of the mast to help with reaching trim.
For tangle-free telltales on shrouds, attach yarn to a plastic bushing that rotates around the shroud and is held up by a small wrap of tape. To get rid of static electricity, spray yarn telltales lightly with lubricant. One other good telltale spot is on the topping lift just above the pole attachment (easy reference for chute trimming).
• Toss extra stuff - Keep your overall weight to a minimum by removing any unnecessary gear. Store essential gear where a) it won’t get wet and heavy (sometimes I use a plastic garbage bag for this), and b) it’s low and as close to the keel or centerboard as possible (to minimize pitching moment).
• Drink and be wary - Sailors, like all athletes, need fluids to keep from getting dehydrated, especially when it’s hot and sunny. Get a water bottle with a pop-up spout for every crewmember (write their names on them), and mount holders around the boat where they’re easy for the crew to reach. If you sail in salt water, be sure to wash your boat thoroughly after each day of sailing to keep all moving parts salt-free and dirt-free.
• Stay dry - I never understood why sailors work so hard to get rid of every unnecessary ounce and then sail around the course with water in their bilge. Here’s an experiment to try ashore sometime: Dump 3 gallons of water inside your boat and then ask your crew or skipper to look inside and guess how much the water weighs. It won’t look like much at all, but it weighs roughly 25 pounds! The lesson is you should always sail your boat as dry as possible.
Get the right equipment (e.g. sponge, bailer, bucket, pump) so you can start every race with your bilge dry. If you have automatic bailers, make sure they move up and down easily, don’t leak and are flush with the bottom. On rough days, it may be best to leave them open for the entire race. Make sure flotation tanks are bone dry and air-tight. Check port covers and plugs before sailing each day to be sure they are tight.
• Make marks - Stick on or draw numbered reference scales along the outhaul, jib tracks, halyards and so on. These are important so you can easily duplicate settings that you know are fast from the past. They will also help you improve communication with your skipper or crew about trim. For example, you might say, “Move the jib lead aft to #4.”
• Add a mini-sprit - On some boats, the spinnaker sheet often goes under the bow, creating a real speed and boat handling problem. To prevent this, consider adding a short, blunt “bowsprit” sticking out a few inches to hold it up. A short piece of batten or bent coat hanger will work for this.
• Go on breakdown patrol - Breakdowns are the enemy of good race results, so work hard to prevent them. Identify areas on your boat where breakdowns are most likely, and check these a few days before every regatta. Then inspect them again each race morning. If you sail more than one race in a day, go over your list again between races (especially if it’s windy).
• Carry a ditty big - Bring out a small bag of supplies and/or tools you might need during a race. This would include things like tape, a knife, marker, grease pencil, sail repair tape and so on. Try to keep this lightweight and appropriate to the size of the boat you are racing.
When the race is over, remember that this is the time to start preparing for your next race. On the way in from the finish, begin writing a list of things that need to be fixed, or ideas for improvement.
In between regattas, talk to the competitors in your fleet, and spend some time perusing the docks or dry-sail area. You will undoubtedly come away with a few new tricks to try. And these little things will help you go faster!
David Dellenbaugh was a coach and tactician for Mighty Mary during her 1995 America's Cup campaign. He was also the starting helmsman and tactician on America3 during her successful defense of the 1992 America's Cup.
Dave publishes the newsletter Speed & Smarts.
For a subscription call: 800-356-2200.