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Old 05-27-2002
Rich Bowen Rich Bowen is offline
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Headsail Trimming Basics

This article was originally published in June, 2001 on SailNet.


When a team is in the groove, they make speed under sail look simple, but we all know that's not the case; headsail trimmers in particular need to work at their jobs.
Watching a sailboat race, it sure looks simple when a boat heads upwind with the crew fully hiked on the weather rail and the helmsman, trimmers, and the tactician working in perfect unison as they optimize performance. Sometimes it actually is as easy as it looks, but getting to the point where you can enjoy this momentary luxury takes tremendous effort and coordination, particularly among the trimmers and the helmsman.

The first step in the search for that perfect upwind leg is boat preparation. For most boats this means having the rig tuned for the given wind and wave conditions—too tight a rig and you'll lack power in moderate air; too loose a rig and you'll have trouble pointing upwind. If you're sailing in a one-design class, consult your sailmaker's tuning guide for the basic rig set-up. Regardless of what type of boat you're racing, you'll want to have a magic marker and a tape measure handy to document your rig and sail-control settings because having easy references for such things as jib-lead positions or halyard tensions can put you ahead of the game when the conditions begin to change.

Before you even leave the dock, measure along the jib/genoa tracks on each side of the boat and make evenly spaced, numbered marks on the deck where they are easily visible to the headsail trimmer. The next person to get the power of the pen is the pit person or foredeck crew (depending on the location of the halyard and whose job it is to ensure the halyard tension is set appropriately for the sailing conditions).


Halyard tension is the first setting a trimmer should look at after confirming that the rig is in tune. Depending upon the conditions, you generally want the luff to be tight enough so that it just takes the wrinkles out of the sail. In the shot above, the halyard has been loosened to allow for a few wrinkles, and to let the draft slip slightly aft.
If you are sailing a larger boat, it is a good idea to create some sort of numbered gauge that you can keep in the pit area and a mark on the halyard that can be measured against that gauge. If your boat's headstay has a foil system, it is also a good practice to put a mark on the foil and a corresponding mark on the luff tape of each headsail when the tension is right for the given conditions. And on some boats, like the J/24, where the halyards are cleated on the mast, it's a good idea to mark a gauge on the mast where the halyard exits the spar so that you can easily judge what the setting is where the halyard overlaps the gauge.

Once you've taken care of those basics, it's time to go sailing and make sense of all the nice, neat marks the team has made on the owner's pride and joy. If you can, get your core team on board so that everyone learns from the exercise of understanding this collective set of marks. Hoist the appropriate headsail for the conditions, head upwind, sheet in, and get everyone in their racing positions.

The first setting for the trimmers to confirm is halyard tension. Generally, the luff of the headsail wants to be tight enough so that it just takes the wrinkles out of the sail along the luff tape. Naturally, you'll want this to be tighter in breezier conditions and looser in lighter conditions. The headsail trimmers and the pit crew (or whoever secures the halyards) should note—mentally and in writing—the proper settings for each sail and for the conditions throughout the range of that sail.

Let's say you're out sailing on board a 30-foot boat and it's blowing 12 knots. Chances are you'll be using that boat's largest headsail, probably a No. 1. Get the halyard tension set so that you have enough shape in the forward portion of the sail for the sea state, but no so much that the boat won't be able to point well. That's what I'd consider a ballpark setting for the halyard. You can fine-tune it from there.

Now the sheet-lead positions need to be sorted out. A good place to start is when sailing along with the headsail fully sheeted in—adjust the lead so that headsail is roughly the same distance from the spreaders on each tack, or the spreader and the chainplate, depending on the rig configuration of the boat you're sailing.


Making sure you look at the trim all the way up the sail can help you better understand the effect of the adjustments you make.
If you're sailing with non-overlapping headsails (as you would be on a Melges 24 or a Farr 40), determine your lead position by lining up marks on the spreaders with the leech of the jib. The telltale at the top batten can also be a useful gauge to line up with your spreader marks. When setting up a jib, it is important to be sure that you are looking at the entire leech of the sail, all the way up to the head. Minor adjustments at deck level, like sheet tension and lead position, can mean big changes at the head of the sail.

I'd recommend that you take a moment to ensure that the halyard tension is correct for the existing conditions before making a final determination regarding the sheet lead position. If the halyard is too loose, the leech will be too round, causing you to pull your lead too far aft. The same is true if the halyard is too tight; you may end up with the lead too far forward in an attempt to round out the leech. So start with the halyard, and once you've gotten that right, move on to the lead positions.

Now that you know how tight to pull up your halyards and how far to pull in your sails, it is up to the trimmers and the halyard crew to keep track of this information. The best approach is to simply write it down and read it on the way out to the racecourse. On some of the boats that I race aboard we make laminated "cheat sheets" containing this information and we post them somewhere within easy access so that we know what changes to make to the settings as conditions on the racecourse change. It's a great way to keep the confusion to a minimum.


Once your boat has accelerated off the starting line, keeping the headsail trimmed correctly will be essential for you to maintain your speed and your position.
Now it is time to go racing. To really be prepared for the first race of the day, it's a good idea to get your team to be the first boat off the dock, fully rigged and ready to sail. This will give everyone on board the opportunity to review the settings, as well as their job descriptions and the overall strategy on the way to the course. It will also allow you a little extra practice time to get your settings right and to find out which team members spent too much time at the bar the evening before.

Once you arrive at the starting area, put away the newspaper, drain the last cup of coffee, and hoist your mainsail. You'll probably have one or two more discussions regarding headsail choice, but leave yourself plenty of time to get your final choice hoisted before the starting countdown begins.

Ultimately, it's up to the helmsman and trimmers to determine if the settings are correct. The trimmers should be looking at sail shapes, making the necessary adjustments to the controls depending upon the conditions, the research, and the notes made while tuning the rig, as well as the input from the helmsman. If time permits and the opportunity presents itself, it's always a good idea to try to line up next to a competitor to compare your speed and pointing ability. If you think you are moving better than the other guy, make another note about all of your settings. Likewise, if your competitor seems to be sailing around you like it's your first time on the boat, double-check your settings and see if you are able to identify something your competitor is doing regarding settings or sail trim that may be different from yours. If you've got plenty of time before the start, now is the time to make the change and sail upwind again to see if there is a positive difference. All of this preparation might seem tedious, but once the gun goes off, it can really pay off for you and your crew.


Suggested Reading:  

Shifting Gears in Light and Variable Wind By Rich Bowen

Shifting Gears Upwind, Part Two by Rich Bowen

Pointing Performance by Dan Dickison

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