Basic Downwind Performance, Part Three - SailNet Community

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Old 04-08-2004
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Basic Downwind Performance, Part Three


Downwind legs present one of the best times to make gains if you're willing to work all the angles.

The best racing sailors know that the downwind legs of a racecourse provide multiple opportunities for making gains. If you and your crew can master the basics of downwind boat handling—principally how to jibe effectively and keep the sails working at optimum performance—you can take advantage of the shifts and puffs, the waves, and any unexpected opportunities that your competitors' mistakes might provide.

In the second part of this series I discussed working the shifts and the puffs. At the risk of being redundant, I'll remind you to pay close attention to both the compass and the wind via your telltales and what you see on the water. The compass can tell you if you're lifted and need to jibe, and the wind on the water and on your telltales will tell you where the best breeze is. Remember, downwind you should jibe on the lifts.


Positioning your boat for the puffs in marginal surfing conditions can help you gain distance quickly.
If you are sailing downwind in large chop or ocean swells, it's important to realize that the waves beneath you can be just as important as the puffs and shifts when it comes to making gains on the racecourse. And understanding how to use waves to enhance your boat's performance depends upon just a few simple concepts, so let's get started.

If the waves aren't aligned with the wind, surfing and planing on them may be much easier on one jibe than the other. Sometimes you can only surf the waves on the best jibe during a puff, and in this case you should make every effort to get on that jibe when a puff is about to fill in. Sometimes one side of a run will be favored because the waves are bigger on that side, and you need to recognize this. (One caveat here: bigger waves can result from current against wind, and sailing against more current than your competitors won't make you any gains.) Also, keep an eye out for motorboat waves, these can be your ally if they're properly oriented to your course, because private waves are better than the ones you have to share with all the other competitors.

Approaching the leeward mark is another time when you can make gains on your competitors. Heading into a leeward mark rounding is a little like approaching the windward mark: the best sailors have already talked about what they learned on the present leg and how that knowledge will inform their decisions on the next leg of the course. As you close on the leeward mark, you should already be determining which side of the beat you like and why, and this information will help you determine how to set up for the rounding. The gains you make in this fashion won't be apparent until five boatlengths after the mark rounding, and the key here is speed control.


Getting locked into position at the two-boatlength circle should allow you to execute the kind of mark rounding you want.

The approach to the leeward mark can often be a fire drill. If you have a spinnaker flying, you'll have to get it down, and even if you don't, you'll probably have to reset your sail controls for the upwind leg and make other adjustments like pulling your centerboard down all in a small amount of time. Planning ahead can really pay off big at these times. Consider that you might also be fighting to make or break an overlap with another boat going into the two-boatlength circle. If this is the situation, it will be more important to keep the sail controls set for optimum downwind speed, meaning you'll have to scramble for adjustments at the last minute. Otherwise, most of the time you will do better by preparing early and setting yourself up for a tight, inside rounding at the mark.

Often, you'll find yourself among a large crowd of boats at the leeward mark. This is where boat handling becomes key. As you enter the two-boatlength circle and establish your rounding position in the pecking order, you can then slow down and wait for the boats directly ahead to round, giving you room to maneuver after you round. But how can you slow a boat that's sailing downwind? The most effective way to slow down is by dousing the chute early, or dropping your centerboard early. Another way is to over-trim your mainsail—almost to the to centerline—to decrease its efficiency. A third way is to move crew weight to the wrong place. In a dinghy you can sit in or on the transom to drag the stern and slow down. And the final way is to use the rudder.

One quick lesson on technique here: The rudder can be a very effective brake when it is turned all the way over. But that will make the boat turn, won't it? Not always. A radical thrust of the tiller from one side all the way over to the other will stall the flow of water over the rudder. For a moment or two it won't be steering at all, just dragging, and then the water will find its way back around the rudder and it will begin to steer the boat again. At that moment, you need to shift the tiller or wheel all the way to the other side, hard. That will continue the stall and braking action. While this technique is extremely effective in smaller, lighter boats, it's a lot less effective in big keelboats.


Opting for an early spinnaker douse is the best way to ensure that you're ready for the rounding and set up for the next leg of the course.

If you experiment will all the above techniques, you will become more proficient at waiting your turn and rounding right next to the mark. And, if you execute the mark rounding in this way, it will give you the freedom to continue on port tack or tack right away to clear your air.

As for the rest of the downwind leg, developing good, smooth boat handling will allow you to jibe the boat to take advantage of each shift, puff, or wave, as well as respond to the movements of the boats behind you in order to maintain clear air. And, staying aggressive with the waves and puffs will help you put some distance on the fleet while they break out the sandwiches and eat your dust! Good luck and good racing.

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