Aggression Pays, Sometimes

We have all read copious amounts of wisdom about sailing being a matter of coaxing the boat through various conditions, listening to what she wants to do and then using some kind of gentle psychic powers to magically steam ahead of all the opposition and win.  

This blog is about the brutal truth.  Understanding under what conditions you can make the boat “run free” and under what conditions you have to power it down the channel of driving that boats will allow.  Some boats are very forgiving – their vmg is almost equal whether you are high or low mode, which is usually around a 5 or 6 degree difference in height, and a considerable difference (usually over 10% in most classes) in speed.  A boat which allows for both styles of driving is unusual, but not as rare as people think because we can set up boats so they do feel forging and have a wide channel to drive in. However wide this channel, big waves and big breeze means that we must understand when we have to get physical and use aggression to take distance from the opposition.  


Most good sailors can tune together in the same class, and on the classic 10-12 knot seabreeze days appear to be of almost equal speed assuming the water is flattish.  It is when we get conditions of large wind velocity changes and erratic chop or erratic waves that we see massive gains being made by the really good sailors as compared to the very good ones.

The secret of sailing these rapidly changing conditions upwind is to anticipate change.  It is easier than you think. When you are in a lull you know that the next change is going to be an increase in velocity, and you can prepare for that.  Observation is key – look very carefully from where the next pressure is coming. When the pressure gets close, depower the rig with the kicker adjustment (and sometimes pulling the cunningham), and as soon as the pressure hits, hike or wire to the extreme and the boat will shoot forward against the opposition.  The less you have to sheet out or pinch to keep the boat reasonably flat, the greater your gain will be. How is this done? From the extreme hike or wire, a rapid shoulder movement downwards will squirt the boat forward and the acceleration means that you are using the new apparent wind generated rather than fighting it.  The boat knows who is the “boss” and responds accordingly by feeling sweet and fast, due to that initial apparently aggressive move which created the opportunity to keep driving in that channel where vmg is at an optimum.


We now see that to accomplish gear changes in variable wind we need to practise:

  • Anticipation
  • Understanding how to depower the head of the mainsail approximately the correct amount for the new breeze.
  • Understanding that the jib must be finely adjusted (eased then trimmed) to accommodate the changing apparent wind.
  • Using a burst of strength to bring the boat under immediate control during the acceleration period.
  • Keeping the boat flat and fast during and after the acceleration.
  • The above are the key issues to making the most in technical terms of large velocity changes.


Downwind the same applies.  When the gust hits if we keep sailing the same angle we will cause the boat to heel, creating drag and therefore losing speed.  By anticipation of the change we can keep the boat flat, and by using our body weight and sheeting aggressively to the new breeze we can establish a speed advantage over our opposition.


For a single hander the changes are accommodated by adjustment of sailor’s position in the boat, accelerating as fast as possible and using the speed to gain depth.  Speed gives depth.

For a double hander the teamwork of adjusting angle and sheeting the kite to the new angle requires both communication and understanding.  Again, speed gives depth, and speed is gained by trapezing technique or hiking hard to accelerate with the gust, then bleeding the boat down to use the speed and increased apparent wind for maximum depth whilst encouraging airflow over the kite.  The mainsail can also be pumped during this change – one pump to force the boat faster, which has to be countered by crew brutality to keep the boat flat.


In big and / or erratic waves the boat speed is constantly changing, as is the windspeed felt when either at the peak of the wave or in the trough of it.  Whilst rig adjustment is not possible for each and every wave, finding the sweet spot where you can physically control the boat at the limit of your strength on the peaks (maximum wind), and using that breeze to accelerate through the troughs is the key issue.  A simple analysis, as we are making in this blog, will assist greatly, and as your skills evolve the conditions will begin to feel pleasurable rather than challenging.


Whilst being a nice concept that we can “encourage” faster sailing in a somewhat gentle manner, this may only work in constant conditions. It’s a different technique, and cannot be adapted to massively changing conditions.  Recognising this leads us to improved technique. When we have the improved technique we then need more strength and endurance.


At Toplevel Sailing we build in a logical manner.  Recognising the place in sailing for physical fitness is a lot more motivating than just going to the gym and not being able to identify where all the gym work is paying off.  Our ever evolving and complicated sport can be made simpler, and knowing when to be physical and understanding why you need to be is a big part of understanding gains.


Pete Conway


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