The Animal Art of Hiking

Until around four decades ago hiking was viewed as a low returns skill to be treated with some cynicism as it was too physical to be a valued part of the art of sail racing. Yes, people hiked, but not with anything like the intensity that they do today. Hiking technique has become increasingly important across the classes, and certainly in the Olympic/WS development fleets Laser (so reliant on physical skills!), 470 and 420 are always seeking new levels to get the maximum leverage possible.

In this blog we inspect how the animal art has developed, and give some indication of possible gains that everyone can make.

Why is hiking important?

Hiking is the sailors ability to enforce a lever on the boat in order to keep it flat or prevent it from capsizing in strong winds.

In order for a boat to go fast it is desirable to have as much power as we can handle generated by the rig. The “marriage” between power and management of the boat can be determined by the settings of the sail, the sailors height, weight, fitness, talent and by the sailor’s hiking technique.

The principle is similar in trapeze boats as well, the further the sailors head is from the center of the boat the bigger lever it produces and the boat can carry more power while staying flat. More importantly, by carrying more power and creating more leverage on the centerboard, the foils can start operating in such a way as to drive the boat not just faster, but also at better angels upwind.

Sailors height – the tallest the sailor the further he can get his head away from the center of the boat and create a bigger lever hence handling more power then a shorter sailor

Sailors weight – the heavier the sailor the more weight is away from the center of the boat and the lever is bigger, but also seen as a disadvantage in lighter, marginal hiking winds where the lighter sailor can hike, and the heavier one can’t.

Fitness – in order to hike properly a high level of fitness is required, since a beat takes 10-20 minutes the sailor has to keep hiking hard for a long duration of time, main muscles required are quads and abs

Proper hiking technique

Being tall enough, heavy enough and fit enough is very important but will not ensure effective and long lasting hiking.

To ensure we hike properly we first have to remember that our aim is to get our heads as far away from the center of the boat as possible. That will be achieved by keeping our body as straight as possible while hiking, many sailors starts bending or leaning in when they start to get tired, or simply hike crossed legged because it is easier.

To keep our body straight we start with pointing toes, hooking our feet into the hiking strap with the toe end, rather than the ankles. The knees are kept straight and back straight so that if we look towards the knees we are able to see the knees and toes on the same line, also try to stretch your neck out as far as possible, every centimeter counts.

When we keep our body straight as a plank we might start hitting the water with our butt or back, hiking strap tension plays a big role in that as well as ensuring we stay perpendicular to the centerboard, our suggestion is to start with a relatively loose hiking strap and start adjusting it shorter for 2 reasons:

  1. Our head is lower than the deck (losing leverage)
  2. Our body hits the water

The complexities of hiking are further enhanced in waves by the need to shift our weight forwards and backwards to avoid excessive bow splash. We do this whilst hiking flat by rolling the body, and angulating forwards when needed at the waist – never upwards!

Hiking strap tension will change between different conditions, for example in steep choppy conditions we will be forced to keep our body slightly higher the flat water, as hitting the water with our body will slow the boat down significantly.

A near perfect hiking posture, the best we were able to locate in our files, missing stretching the head further out

During our training at TopLevel Sailing we train our sailors to learn the benefits of proper hiking and allow them to develop their own styles within the boundaries of getting as far out of the boat as possible. We ensure our sailors develop the proper fitness necessary to hike for as long as needed dependent on the class they sail, and also focus on injury prevention of this incredibly physical and often underplayed part of sailing to win.

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