Earlier this month an incident occurred at the Rolex 2001 Prince of Wales Cup (US SAILING's National Match Racing Champs) that caught my attention. During the last match on the second day of racing at the Fort Worth Boat Club, strong winds were gusting across the racecourse when Scott Dickson and his crew representing Long Beach Yacht ClubTony Stuart and Charlie Ogletreefound themselves in trouble. While in the throes of a downwind luffing match against the team from Seattle, Dickson made a sharp luff, but it happened just as a puff hit and the California team found itself in trouble after their J/22 broached hard. It wasn't the broach that bothered them; they recovered from that right away, but immediately they discovered that their spinnaker had macraméd itself around the masthead. This is where it got interesting.
The chute wouldn't budge loose, said Ogletree later, but they knew they'd have to get it down even though the Seattle team had sailed away for the win. So innovation kicked in. "I've sailed these boats a lot," Ogletree explained, "and I knew how easily they flip." After quickly putting the companionway boards in place and sliding the hatch closed, Ogletree instructed Dickson to sheet the mainsail in hard and Stuart to hang on the leeward shrouds. Then he ran up the mast to muscle the boat over on its side. According to witnesses, they did this as if the boat were a Laser. Ogletree freed the kite while Stuart stood on the keel to keep the boat balanced and Dickson stayed at the helm. Amazingly, the sail was unharmed. They popped the boat up, trimmed the kite, and resumed racing. "That's the first time I've ever done that," said Ogletree, "but it came in handy."
Admittedly, that incident was unusual, but sailors everywhere have to contend with a broad array of unexpected situations when racing; that's just the nature of the game. And fittingly, the most imaginative sailors have devised techniques for addressing these situations. For instance, it's not uncommon before the start of a race to see a boat here and there sailing backward under mainsail alone. To the uninitiated, this might look like something gone badly wrong, but actually it's very much intentional. Sailors do this to clear weeds, kelp, and anything else that might have fouled the keel, rudder or prop up to that point.
OK, that's fine you say, but other than clearing unwanted items off the boat's appendages, why would you want to be able to sail backward? The simple answer is that the process of doing this or any other unorthodox maneuver will teach you more than you might already know about the behavior of your boat and the forces that act upon it. If you've ever seen an advanced junior sailing class on the water, you might have noticed the dinghies sailing around without tillers or rudders. What's going down here is these kids are learning the value of steering the boat with the sails. Depending upon the kind of boat they're in, they discover that more mainsail trim generally makes the boat want to head up while trimming the jib has the opposite effect. Will these kids become better boat handlers? Definitely, if they stick with it. But their skills won't simply help them as racers, they'll also become more adept at sea and more open to being resourceful when the occasion demands it, which could be a life-saving factor for some in the future.
So what are some other innovative approaches that sailors might want to know? Well, most anyone who has ever had the opportunity to sail small tiller-steered boat in light winds can tell you the value of sculling. Defined by the Racing Rules as "repeated movement of the helm not necessary for steering," sculling is prohibited while racing, but it's one of the best ways to cover that final 30 feet to the dock when the wind dies away. Pumping your sailsalso outlawed under the Racing Rules (except when planing or surfing is possible)can propel a boat forward significantly, particularly a small, light boat. Then there's rocking, the process of gradually rolling the boat from side to side with crew weight to use the keel and the mainsail (sheeted in tightly on centerline) as propulsion thrusting the boat forward, albeit slowly. Sailors I know have succeeded in rocking boats as large as a Beneteau 10-Meter for over a half mile.
Of course any racing sailor who's had the opportunity to sail dinghies or small keel boats can tell you about the value of roll-tacking and roll-jibing for enhanced performance. (See PJ Schaffer's Basic Roll Tacking for an in depth explanation.) And then there's ooching ("sudden forward body movement, stopped abruptly"), another outlawed action under the Racing Rules, but a good way to eke out a little more forward motion, say, to keep your boat from drifting back into a rock or a nearby vessel. In the old days of J/24 sailing before ooching was outlawed, racers used to violently thrust the full weight of their bodies, repeatedly, into the bulkhead down below or the shrouds on deck as the boat sailed downwind. It was definitely productive, but I'm not suggesting you practice this technique.
Almost all of these unusual maneuvers or techniques have an intrinsic valuelearning them through practice will help you broaden the scope of your boat-handling ability. It's as simple as that. Of course what you do doesn't have to be as heroic as Dickson's spinnaker recovery; and these moves certainly aren't restricted to racing situations. After watching sailors back their boats down before a start you'll realize that the next time you're heading for the dock and the engine craps out, you can always steer up into the wind and back the mainsail to brake your headway. Now isn't it nice to know you've got another option besides crashing into the dock or flagging down a tow? That's just part of the beauty of putting innovative thinking into action.
Basic Roll-Tacking by PJ Schaffer
Perfecting the Jibe Set by Dean Brenner
Team Building Basics by Betsy Alison
Buying Guide: Boom Vangs