Handling Your Working Sails

While spinnakers provide the most fun (and inspire the most fear) when you are out sailing, your working sails can provide just as much challenge if they are not handled properly. Some sailors make it look easy when they throw in a reef or furl a jib, while others struggle and strain to get the same result. Technique is critical, and with that in mind we will look at some of the finer points of handling your rig on other points of sail.

Tacking

This may seem like a fairly simple maneuver, and in many ways it is. But there is a big difference between a good tack and a bad tack, with the former constituting a well-coordinated effort between the helmsman, the mainsail trimmer, and the two headsail trimmers while that latter is a haphazard manuever that includes a lot of needless flapping of sails and loss of boat speed.

For example, in a good tack as the boat starts to head up into the wind the headsail trimmer should actually trim the headsail on a little bit more in an effort to eke out an extra bit of performance from the sail as the apparent wind increases and the apparent wind angle decreases. Same too with mainsail trimmer: As the boat comes around he should wind the sail on and bring the traveler up to windward. Both will help the helmsman use less rudder to turn the boat, while taking advantage of the increase in apparent wind and change in wind angle.

Once the bow has crossed the eye of the wind, the headsail needs to be let go, but not until it is back-winded for a second or two, since the pressure will both help push the bow of the boat onto the new tack and also push the sail through the foretriangle quicker. By this time, the headsail trimmer on the new side should already have taken up the slack on his sheet so that as soon as the sail is released he can start to pull it in on his side. Be sure, however, that the sail is not sheeted on too tight, too quickly, since that will cause the boat to stall. All this time, the mainsail trimmer will be working the main, sliding the traveler across and easing the sail so that when the boat is on the new tack the mainsail will not be over trimmed and stalled as the helmsman foots off ever so slightly to build speed. Remember that until the boat is back up to speed the apparent wind speed is going to be a lot less on the new tack than it was on the old one, so be sure that the main is twisted open and air is allowed to flow off the leech without interruption.

Once on the new tack be sure that both sails are powered up and slightly twisted open. You do not, under any circumstances, want to close out the leeches there-

"... in a good tack as the boat starts to head up into the wind the headsail trimmer should actually trim the headsail on a little bit more in an effort to eke out an extra bit of performance from the sail as the apparent wind increases and the apparent wind angle decreases"

by stalling the sails. You aim is to build speed, not gain lift. There should be constant communication with the helmsman as the boat speed picks up until the sails are fully trimmed back to where they were on the other side before the tack.

Tacking

• Communication between the helm and trimmers is critical.

• Trim the headsail and mainsail as the boat starts to luff.

• Bring the traveler up to help the helmsman use less rudder.

• Don't let the headsail go until there is a back-wind.

• Keep the sails powered up and slightly twisted to build speed.

• Slowly trim the last few inches as the helm comes up onto course.

"If you are sailing a large boat and it's a grind to get the new headsail raised, have the helmsman luff the sail a little. This lets a pocket of air get between the sails, and makes the job a lot easier."

Changing Headsails

Racing sailors will want to change headsails if the wind is increasing and they need a different size or weight sail to match the conditions. If this is carried out properly the amount of boat speed lost will be minimal. Screw it up, however, and you could find yourself at the back of the fleet. A "tack change" whereby the new sail is hoisted to windward of the old sail is usually the best way to do a headsail change since this allows the foredeck person to feed the luff of the sail into the headstay groove without much fuss and for the sail to be raised without falling in the water. The only drawback is that sometimes there is a bit of friction between the headsails. If you are sailing a large boat and it's a grind to get the new headsail raised, have the helmsman luff the sail a little. This lets a pocket of air get between the sails, and makes the job a lot easier. Once it is all the way up and there is sufficient tension on the luff, attach a new weather sheet on the sail and prepare to tack. The old genoa halyard will be flaked and ready to be released, and as soon as the bow of the boat passes through the eye of the wind, the old headsail halyard can be eased fully. The sail will drop to the deck, and if it is not all the way down by the time the tack is completed, it can be pulled down. The new headsail will stop the sail from falling into the water.

If a tack change is not possible you will just have to work with what you have, which will mean either more difficulty raising the headsail (if the new sail is set to leeward of the old sail) or more difficulty dropping the sail (if the old headsail is to leeward of the new headsail). When I raced the Whitbread Race on Drum we often encountered a problem when changing sails. The headsails were huge, and since a tack change was usually out of the question, we had to devise a system to make it easier. All the headsails were equipped with a cunningham ring two feet up the luff, so we would take up on the cunningham and release the tack before changing sails. This way the lower two feet of the sail would be free, allowing us to feed the new headsail under the old one and into the leeward groove. Furthermore, if we were trying to lower the leeward sail having a gap under the windward sail would allow us to get the old sail down under the new one. We would then reattach the tack on the old jib and set the new sail on the cunningham, so that we would have the lower two feet of the new sail free until the old sail was down. Then we would secure it at the tack.

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