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The Winning Mindset

Just like the boat name implies, good headsail trimmers need to keep in mind what will happen next.

One of the most common maneuvers in sailing is tacking the jib or genoa. Most sailors do this without even thinking, which can be good and bad depending upon what’s going on at the moment. Sure, you want the jib trimmer to be so practiced that he or she can almost do this with his or her eyes closed. But if they’re taking a by-rote approach to the maneuver, they’re certainly going to miss some of the subtleties that might otherwise provide opportunities for making the tack a gaining maneuver.

Earlier this winter I competed in one of the most competitive events in the US—Key West Race Week—and five back-to-back days of racing with eight races can teach you a lot about various techniques. Because I wasn’t trimming the jib aboard the boat I raced on, I was in a good position to observe how this was being done, as well as what was working and what wasn’t. One lesson that was repeatedly hammered home for me was that in racing situations, it’s clear that not every tack should be identical. Sometimes you want to come out of the tack low and fast so that the boat can gradually build speed due to choppy water, marginal wind speeds, or any number of other factors, so the trimmer needs to execute accordingly. Sometimes you want to come out of the tack with the best point possible because you’re trying to pinch off another competitor just to weather (as in a lee bow situation), and this won’t work unless the trimmer anticipates the move. And sometimes you just want to get the sail in quickly so that you can get the trimmer up on the rail hiking where his or her weight will be the most productive.

Whether you race dinghies, dhows, or maxis on lakes, lagoons, or oceans, sailboat racing is conditional, and the best racers are those who figure out how to shift the techniques they use to make their boat perform optimally in the given conditions. The wind and the waves that make up our playing field present a set of conditions that is rarely static and almost always in flux. The best headsail trimmers are those who are aware of more than just their mechanical functions. They’re the ones that execute their duties with the bigger picture in mind. Here’s an example: If the tactician calls for an immediate tack, but the sea state is choppy, it’s up to the trimmer to relate to the helmsman after the tack that he or she is keeping the sheet slightly eased so that the boat can rebuild speed after tacking in bad waves.

In these choppy conditions, the headsail trimmer on this Farr 40 needs to make sure he's got the sail powered up enough to suit the helmsman.

Here’s another one: You go to multi-day regatta and spend the first day racing in mostly breezy conditions where tacking the jib is predominantly a matter of getting it sheeted in and getting your weight up on the rail. Then the next day dawns with marginal breeze, and you—the trimmer—realize that shifting gears for these conditions not only involves switching headsails and rig set up, but also altering your release technique. Instead of spinning the sheet off the winch rapidly as the sail luffs, you delay the release just a second so that the headsail backwinds momentarily and helps to push the bow around. This also helps the sail to get past the shrouds and makes it easier to trim in on the new side.

These scenarios are just a few of the many situations in which a trimmer—by showing a little initiative—can have a productive impact on the performance of the boat, and it’s all a byproduct of his or her outlook. Because tacking is such an integral part of the game, headsail trimmers have these opportunities on a regular basis. To help you develop this kind of outlook, what follows here is a brief and loosely organized list of the important considerations that should be going through the mind of a headsail trimmer as he or she goes about their duties on the upwind leg of a racecourse:

While fine-tuning the trim on the headsail:

  • Is the sheet lead set correctly, or do I need to pull it forward for more power?

  • What input do the driver and the tactician need from me right now so that the boat can continue performing optimally?

  • What about the headsail halyard tension? Do we need to increase it to pull the draft forward and improve our pointing ability after we get up to speed?

  • How about those boats to leeward? I’d better let the tactician know about traffic before I head up to the rail.

Even when sailing downwind, headsail trimmers should be anticipating the trim settings for the next upwind leg.

While you’re up on the rail between tacks:

    • Are there any waves coming up? If so, I’ll need to get off the rail and go down to trim for power.
    • The helmsman is oversteering; maybe I need to drop down and ease the sheet slightly so it’ll be easier for him to find the groove.
    • Looks like we’ve got a clear lane here, so we might tack, I’d better pre-wrap the lazy sheet on the high-side winch.
    • This is our last tack onto starboard before the windward mark, maybe I’ll take the sheet tail to the high side with me so that I can ease it from up there.

    Those are just a few of the concerns that should be occurring to headsail trimmers at various times during the weather leg or a race. But these things probably won’t drift through your mind if you’re only thinking about releasing and sheeting the headsail. If that’s all you’ve got on your mind, you need to broaden your perspective regarding the contributions you can make.

    Concentration is the mantra for the headsail trimmer in light-air conditions.

    The other beneficial aspect about adopting a proactive, attentive mindset as a headsail trimmer is that you’ll be more aware of potential problems and able to defuse them. You’ll be more apt to notice the lazy sheet snagged in the high-side lead block before the next tack, or the fact that the top of the headsail is beginning to slip over the toerail while the boat heads downwind with the spinnaker up. You’ll usually be the first to realize that the boat isn’t hitting its target speeds upwind and adjustments need to be made. After a while, these kinds of observations should become second nature for you, and the other crew on board will welcome your input as a troubleshooter who’s always on the lookout for ways in which to optimize performance for the team by avoiding mishaps. All it takes is a little well-placed initiative.

    Suggested Reading:

    The Crew Members’ Manifesto by Dan Dickison

    Lessons from the Rolex 2000 ISAF Women’s Match Racing Worlds by Betsy Alison

    Basic Roll Tacking by P.J. Schaffer

    Buying Guide:


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