Practice & Tuning Elements

By Andrew Kerr

 Most of these ideas and observations have been reinforced from my perspective as a coach – whether thru observing a team sailing around the race course from a coach boat or from post race video review.


A very common issue, particularly when teams have had a lay off from sailing, have not practiced as a team, or are in a pressure scenario, is over steering thru the tack.  Not only are you sailing a greater distance but you lose the opportunity to use lee bow tacks to control your competition.

 If, on average, a team tacks 7 times on the first leg and a bad tack costs you as much as several boat lengths (more in light air, chop, or heavy air), the distances “lost” can be quite dramatic on that first leg alone, where crossing or not crossing another boat is crucial.

 Critical to the success of the tack is picking the right time – if in light air – tacking in a puff to minimize loss, in chop – tacking in a flat spot, or if constantly wavy – at the top of the wave.  And if windy – when the boat is flat and sailing fast and not heeled over which will cause the boat to over steer and heel over again out of the tack.

 Take time to practice a smooth turn and make it a goal to keep reducing the rudder application in all conditions – start by reducing it by 25% and keep reducing it.

 Have the skipper watch the movement of the Genoa from one side to the other as you tack.  If it is blowing through very quickly – try slowing the turn down.  If it is getting hung up on the shrouds, try increasing the rate of the turn a little to get it through the fore triangle.

 When a team is tacking well, the headsail flows across with very minimal winch grinding and the boat accelerates immediately rather than stalling or heeling over and making a lot of leeway.

 A good idea is to do at least 10 practice tacks prior to the race and really hammer away at it in the more difficult conditions – waves, when it is gusty and when it is light – these are the conditions where the practiced teams will excel.

 A key point is to start developing a rhythm to your tacks so they are consistent and that can be best accomplished in practice and warm ups before the race.

 When the team is all up on the rail, try practicing how long you can stay on the rail before coming inwards – this will help keep the boat sailing flat and fast going into the tack.  The longer you can stay on the rail and still execute a good tack translates into less heel, less leeway, and better performance.

 An interesting observation of the top teams in a wide variety of classes, particularly from a coaching perspective, is how little grinding and physical work they have to do in each tack - just the fine tune at the end.  I would make this a team goal.


Tie the tiller off and sail!

Tie the tiller off in the center and move the crew weight from side to side and fore and aft & adjust the sails until the boat steers itself.

 Do this both upwind & downwind (with the spinnaker up) and try tacking & jibing around a course!

 This drill illustrates how the team can steer the boat with weight and sail trim and that if the Genoa is too tight in relationship to the mainsail trim that the boat will be forced to bear away and will hurt pointing ability and if the main is too tight in relationship to the Genoa the boat will have a tendency to head up and load up the helm.

 It will also illustrate to the team how a roll jibe can jibe the boat with no helm application as well as keeping the spinnaker filled as it avoids over steering.

 In coaching sessions, I have even had teams try practicing starting with the tiller tied off - this helps the team with pivoting the boat using the sails and being able to carve up and create a good gap to leeward off the line.

 The team will notice that when the boat is set up correctly, both trim and weight wise, that it essentially steers itself.  This is the same feel the boat usually has when it is sailing at its best.

 Take time to observe shifting your team’s weight aft in light air cause the boat ‘s helm to go dead and that it also forces the boat to bear off in the form of lee helm.  This will reinforce to the team why they want to sit forward in light air to reduce drag in the transom and give the helm some feel.

 The opposite will also be true; weight too far forward in windy conditions will cause the bow to dig in and the rudder will load up in the form of weather helm - the boat has a hard time tracking straight.

 If you try tying your tiller off in windy conditions, it will illustrate why moving the weight slightly aft on the rail going upwind when it is windy is fast and balances the boat by helping prevent the bow from digging in and loading up the helm.

 You will find that the “rudderless” drill will also help with leeward mark rounding’s by showing how the mainsail causes the boat to up wind and how to trim the Genoa at each point of sail to get max speed so that you can sail at max speed and efficiency thru the turn.

 This drill is highly recommended, particularly if you have a new crew member and want to integrate them quickly and you find that theatrically waving your hands karate style is just not getting your point across!

 Time and distance drill:

This drill is particularly good before a regatta and can help with getting good, clean, starts right off the bat in the series.  Pick a mark, set up near it and then sheet in and see how long the boat takes to accelerate and get there.  Repeat 5 or 6 times and also take the opportunity to figure out the lay line to the mark and stay within it.  Some teams I coach like to do this every day before the race; he more starts and approaches the better.  The goal is to be consistent off the line – not really good and then really bad.

 Looking at upwind set up:  

The next time you go sailing, try evaluating your mast tune and sail trim.  This is a good skill for your team to develop and will help everyone fully understand the tuning guide and what looks fast.

 Look to incorporate this before the start while you are getting tuned up and if possible sailing with a tuning partner.

 Here are some quick visual cues for turning:

 Look at forestay sag:

While going upwind with the boat fully loaded up – with the appropriate amount of backstay and aft lower for the conditions, have a crew member kneel on the foredeck and sight up the forestay to see how much sag there is in the middle part of the sail.   Use the mast as a reference.

 One thing we have done in helping with forestay sag evaluation is take the spinnaker halyard up to the stem head fitting and hold it there as taut as you can to make a straight reference line and then sight the forestay in comparison to the spin halyard to gauge how much sag there is.

 If there is too much sag, you will notice quite a bit of backwinding in the mainsail as the leech of the Genoa will direct air in to the mainsail.  You will also notice the draft is too far forward and to leeward.

 If there is very little sag you, may notice the forestay is very straight and stationary thru puffs and lulls and that the Genoa is super flat and the boat feels underpowered in the light spots.

 Look at the leeward shrouds:

If leeward shrouds are very loose (dangling) and the boat is overpowered it means the rig needs tightening.  If they look and feel tight and the boat feels underpowered then the rig needs loosening.

 The thing we have learned in a wide variety of one design classes is to set the boat up for the lulls and not the puffs – you can always depower for the puffs with steering, hiking and backstay but if you are underpowered in lulls, the boat always struggles.

 Try to get the sails to luff together:

We try to set the boat up so that when we do a slow luff up in to the wind, the luff of the Genoa and the luff of the mainsail break at as much the same time as is possible.  This tells you the sails are working well together and the slot between them is about right.

 Very often a scan of forestay sag, a look at the leeward shrouds, a look up the mast luff track to see where the tip of the mast is going,  in conjunction with how the boat feels – overpowered or underpowered, will help with what adjustments to make.

 In all of this stay as open minded as you can, ask questions and observe other team’s techniques, style and points of emphasis, there is something to be learned from everyone.

 These are some elements for your team to practice and incorporate; future articles will cover more ideas for a team to look at.   

 Any questions or thought’s please e mail me at:

 Best of luck and good sailing.