Tacking a Laser

Many sailors struggle with the concept of a good tack, in this blog we will try to shed some light as to the right and wrongs when tacking.

Firstly, let us discuss the reasons for tacking. The legend Paul Elvstrom once said, “don’t tack without a great reason to tack”.  By that he meant that boat racing is about finding the quickest way around the course, not match racing a boat to give them dirt, to win a race it is the boat that sails the quickest around the course. I shall reaffirm that tacking on other boats or because of other boats actions is rarely a valid reason for tacking.  The main reason for tacking should mainly be to allow you to fulfill your strategy to get around the course as quickly as possible. It may be to take a wind shift or to go for pressure, or to avoid current or hitting the lay line too early.

The main goal for a sailor while tacking is to maintain as much speed possible in the boat, both going into the tack and exiting it.  There are several ways of achieving that, the most common requires minimal use of the tiller and instead assisting the boat to turn by heeling the boat at the right time (except for strong winds), in order to use bow steering and minimize harmful drag on the boat. You may ask yourself “how do I know my boat maintained good speed?”; the answer to that is by feeling the boat, an average sailor should be able to tell whether his boat is slowing down or accelerating, many times the rudder will give you an indication by making you feel pressure mainly at the end of the tack (in case you did something wrong).

In most boats (in our case the Laser) tacks should be differentiated according to wind speed or more to say the mode of sailing. We discuss 3 main tacking modes:

  1. Light wind tacking = Roll tack.
  2. Semi hiking tack (half roll)
  3. Strong wind tack (in many cases, survival)

Roll tack

A roll tack is a form of tack used to increase the speed of the boat during the tack and many times while exiting the tack by heeling the boat. Even though exiting the tack faster then entered is considered illegal it is rarely that sailors are being penalized for it since it is almost impossible for the jury to measure the speed difference.


So, how do we roll tack? The main purpose of a roll tack is maintaining speed whilst using as little rudder movement as possible. The first step is heeling the boat to leeward to initiate the boat luffing up. At this point you also start to push the tiller gently to assist with the turn, the sailor must maintain that leeward heel until he is almost head to wind. As the boat reaches head to wind the sailor must roll the boat as aggressively as they can to windward, this will pump the sail and maintain the boat’s speed. As the boat keeps turning and baring away to a close hauled position, the sailor must maintain a relatively big heel to the boat whilst slowly dropping the main-sheet and crossing to the other side of the boat; once the sailor has crossed they must roll the boat again as aggressively as he can to initiate the final pump of the roll tack while keeping the tiller of the boat centered and the main-sheet released to allow flow off the sail (allowing the leech to open and push the boat forward rather than sideways).


Half roll

The half roll tack is mainly dependent on the sailors’ weight relatively to wind speed, it is usually done on the higher end of semi hiking conditions, before the sailor needs to depower the sail a great deal and can still effectively roll the boat.

The initial stage is similar to a roll tack; we use a small leeward heel to initiate the boat luffing up. The next step differs in the manner that we can no longer roll the boat at head to wind and still control it (in most cases you will capsize), what we should do is once the boat reaches head to wind start crossing the deck slowly, allowing the boat to slightly heel as we do so as the boat reaches close hauled the boat has enough leeward heel to allow us a controlled roll which will cause the boat to accelerate, again the main focus points are to use as little as possible rudder movement and to allow the leech to open up and allow flow of the sail as we roll the boat at the end of the tack.

Tacking in strong wind

Tacking in strong winds is different to the types discussed earlier mainly in the manner that we can no longer roll the boat and must keep the boat flat at all time to avoid capsizing (keeping our mast dry), again, the main purpose is to maintain as much speed as possible during the tack.

Strong wind will be described as conditions in which your sail is fully de-powered and many times using the main sheet to keep the boat flat. The only time we will heel the boat in this case is entering the tack, this time you will need a very small leeward heel that will immediately cause the boat to start luffing up, once that happen the boat should be flattened, find the amount of tiller movement that will allow the boat to complete the tack but will also allow you to cross safely while keeping the boat flat. During all parts of the tack you must keep your boat flat, that means you need to cross fast enough and drop the main-sheet so as you reach hiking position on the new tack your boat is still flat and by pulling a little main-sheet it may start heeling to leeward.

The added video shows you a good example to each mode of tacking. Even though these examples are far from perfect, try paying attention to the little bits involving each tack and think what should be done differently in each of them in order for the tack to be better!

The next time you go sailing try to think about how to keep the boat going fast and let us know if you discover anything new about yourself.

At Toplevel Sailing we teach the basic principals of successful sailing and take different bits of our sailor’s maneuvers that will yield the biggest improvement for their sailing at any given time.

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