This article was first published on SailNet in August of 2000. It's back on our homepage by popular demand.—Eds. Seasoned sailboat racers know that a good tack can make a critical difference in any race or regatta. The extra boatlength you can gain from a roll tack might be enough to put you in front of the pack on a tight or mark rounding. More often than you might think, this can mean the difference between winning and losing. Regardless of how competitive you are, knowing how to execute a proper roll-tack is a skill all performance-minded sailors should consider adding to their arsenals because you never know when that extra might come in handy.
The crew I sail with recently had that lesson come into clear focus while competing in a local J/24 race. We were approaching the weather mark on port tack about five boatlengths from the port-tack lay line. There was a group of about seven boats perfectly lined up on, or just above, the starboard-tack layline. We figured that we were just in front of the first boat of that group, but not far enough to cross. Ducking the whole pack would be ugly and we knew that the light-wind conditions required a perfect tack or the group would roll right over us. As we closed with them and set up for the tack, I turned the helm, the team crouched near the leeward lifelines, gave a quick push, and then smoothly moved to the other side of the boat. The combination of their combined weight rolling the boat and the trim of the sails allowed us to squirt out in front just enough to maintain our position and round the mark ahead. Let's take a closer look at that maneuver to understand what roll-tacking is all about.
First, roll-tacking simply means using moveable ballast (i.e. the crew weight) to assist the boat in turning through the wind. Although the concept sounds simple, effective roll-tacks come from well-orchestrated maneuvers that require practice, coordination, and team effort. Generally, roll-tacking isn't necessary or beneficial in strong winds or aboard very heavy boats, but when the wind is in the light-to-moderate range, almost any monohull, from a single-handed dinghy to a grand-prix racer, can benefit from the crew rolling the boat through the tack.
Before you try this, make sure everyone on board is aware that you'll be executing a roll-tack. Then, as the boat approaches the spot where you'll tack, have the crew members in their normal racing positions. In light air, some of them may be below, or laying on the deck. In heavier air, they'll likely be fully hiked. It's important for the crew boss or skipper to communicate what the expected move(s) will be—a big roll, a slight roll, or a moderate roll—particularly if you're tacking near other boats. If the timing between the team members is off, the tack won't be optimized. When we go into a tack on the boats I race, I favor a verbal countdown so that everyone is aware of the timing and can move simultaneously. We count “3-2-1” and turn the boat at 0, or “tack.” The idea is to have the crew move to the new leeward side in unison as the boat comes through the wind, effectively rolling the hull, keel (or centerboard or daggerboard), and rudder through the water. In very light air, it's important to heel the boat to leeward just before the tack. If done properly, a roll-tack will feel as though the boat is rolling on top of you when you're on the new leeward side. Then, as the sail is trimmed on the new side, the crew should quickly and smoothly move back to the weather side to flatten the boat. On lighter boats, this actually produces a brief increase in forward motion as the keel, rudder, and sails push against their respective mediums. Then the crew should smoothly return to their normal racing positions.
Roll-tacking is beneficial under the water because it helps the keel and rudder re-connect with the proper flow by lessening the drag caused when the rudder is turned independently of the other appendages (keel, centerboard, or daggerboard). What this means is that the lighter the wind conditions, the more effective the maneuver. As the breeze increases, the boat will require less assistance getting through the wind and it becomes more important to get the boat sailing properly on the new tack by having the crew move quickly to the weather side. There are definitely varying degrees of intensity to the roll-tack, depending upon the wind strength, and certainly there's a point for all boats where it becomes too windy to execute the maneuver effectively.
Keep the following points in mind as you practice roll-tacking:
- The crew should always be informed about maneuvers on the boat ahead of time. The helmsman may say, “Lighter breeze; we need a big roll during the tack” or “Big puff so we don't need as much roll on the tack.”
- The greater the wind strength, the less roll needed during the tack.
- The higher the ratio of crew weight to boat weight, the more effect a roll-tack will have on the boat. Roll-tacking a dinghy has a more pronounced effect than roll-tacking a maxi boat, but both boats will benefit. Also, the more crew on the boat, the greater the need for coordination. Practice makes perfect, so don't be afraid to try different techniques of moving crew to gain the greatest effect.
- The deck layout and system setups on board will effect the crew's ability to roll-tack a boat. A cluttered deck makes moving the crew more difficult. Look at the layout of your boat and identify “alleys” for the crew to move through during a tack. This allows the crew to concentrate on rolling the boat, without worrying about being trapped to leeward when the boat passes through the wind.
Bear Away Spinnaker Sets by Dean Brenner
Executing a Successful Duck by Dan Dickison
Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison
Suggested Product: Clear Start Watch