Sailing Higher and Faster
There is a considered observation that we either have high mode or low mode sailors at the top of any fleet. Sailing high or low mode has individual advantages in different conditions, so we have to look carefully at what we mean by high or low mode. The purpose of this blog is to discuss sailing styles and blow some setup myths apart.
Most people think that a high mode sailor pinches, meaning they steer high and slow the boat down in order to gain their height. This may be true at club level, where we will see “pinchers” going slightly sideways through the water and making impossible angles to the wind, but at high levels the helmsman speeds the boat up, takes height until they feel the boat is slowing too much, and then frees off again to gain speed, and repeats the cycle. A “low mode” simply involves freeing off and finding more pressures.
With the knowledge that pinching is slow high mode, but not “real” high mode with speed AND height, we can now establish less of a difference in the needed rig setup between a high mode and low mode sailor. The difference is in driving style at the highest level, not sheeting significantly harder or using more kicker or tight jib trimming.
In order to go high with good VMG you need speed. Speed gives the daggerboard grip in the water. You develop speed in a low mode, then climb. Yes, you need to make sure that you are pulling the boom to the centre line on conventional boats and skiffs, but you never need to close the top leech to gain height, especially in the medium and light winds, because the speed penalty counts a lot against you when that happens. Essentially a full jib gives speed, and a leech which stands up but is not closed at the head gives height. Working between the two sails and trimming subtly will make your mode changes easier. When you are sailing low the apparent wind increases, the wind goes forward, and the sails are trimmed in. As you go higher the boat speed decreases, the apparent wind moves more towards the beam, and the sails must be eased very slightly as you slow down. Obviously at that point you must steer slightly lower to get the tell tales flying as there is no other logical action available. A pincher is the sailor who just keeps the sails ground in and is happy to go slow and high, and often sideways to an extent, and doesn’t free off to re-establish airflow and speed. They simply don’t have the VMG to win races.
In the Laser and Finn, and classes with travellers, you don’t need to choke the leech, but you do need to trim the sail in the tightest manner possible before choking the leech as the height increases. It is easier to regain speed as slight easing of pressure on the mainsheet also makes the sail deeper, which re-establishes airflow quicker as you free off. The tiller movement is small and subtle.
Planing boats are very difficult to move between modes. The conventional pincher will not survive as their VMG will be totally inadequate, so the empathy between height and speed has to be sharpened. However with the three mast controls on a 49er and other skiffs it is relatively simple to set for a slightly higher mode than on a single shroud setup. The height that some people gain through rig setup is significant. However the style of skiff sailing is such that unless you can reach pressures first across the course you are not going to perform well through a regatta. There is therefore a real challenge of judgement (and compromise) to decide when to go at your highest mode, and when to sail lower for pressure. Again the sail trim is sensitive, although probably less so than in displacement classes, but the steering is more critical.
Now we come to race challenges caused by different mode sailing. On a Laser a top sailor has to have a high mode survival where they can combat the pincher who tries to ruin their race immediately post start. All boats suffer through being pinched off, and slower boats contentiously suffer more. The pincher who makes a good start to leeward from the startline can ruin anyone’s strategy during the first minute of the race. The most annoying thing is that they have that initial momentum, their daggerboard is therefore working better, and their height appears impressive though their VMG becomes less than impressive compared to the fleet after less than 30 seconds. They don’t care about the other 60 bots getting away, they just want to make you tack. When that happens you use every millimetre to leeward to try to match their speed, and then try to work your way out of the battle of the losers. The experienced sailor will know when it’s not possible and tack early before being held up too much, looking for the next lane back onto starboard. Although this situation can occur at any time during a race, the start is the most negative part of being above a pincher. After that, being above a high mode sailor is relatively easy to deal with. Again the difference between a high mode sailor and a pincher is huge – the pincher is slow, the high mode sailor has good vmg but sails in the most awkward (for everyone else) manner, despite the fact that their skill must be acknowledged. Laser sailors have to develop this mode to survive boat on boat battles, even if they are naturally attacking sailors who enjoy pressure hunting by sailing fast and relatively low – usually only about 3 or 4 degrees lower than the high mode sailor.
On displacement boats such as the 470 and 420, the situation regards the pincher is similar to the Laser, but not quite as expensive. The size of the fleets are usually a little smaller, so more lanes exist. In addition to that the pincher on a two person dinghy fleet is significantly slower than a good sailor, so the situation is more easily handled, though the same principles apply. Equally a high mode style of feeling the boat slowing sufficiently enough for you to free off a few degrees to re-establish speed is easier to feel than in a Laser, and the skill is a huge and necessary weapon to develop in training.
Skiffs need to be comfortable sailing their own race, in their own style. It does mean that high mode sailors win a lot of boat on boat battles, but they do pay a greater price by not crossing as many pressures as the low mode boat. Pressures give velocity lifts in all classes. Generally the faster the boat, the greater the lift in pressure. Logic tells you that when sailing high and a little slower you simply won’t reach as many pressures as the boat that is sailing a free course. The tradeoff is relatively obvious.
The conclusion to this blog is that any sailor must develop their own style and judgement. Boat setup is relatively secondary to the subtle trimming skills and feel needed to achieve height. It takes a lot of time to maximise your skills, and is worth focussing on during training to develop both modes so that you can compete in all conditions.
At Toplevel Sailing we encourage these changes and skill development. It is easy for a fast sailor to continue without increasing their weaponry by developing a wider range of style. We make sure that sailors can identify the best style for every condition, and understand the trimming and different sail shapes needed to achieve each style for each condition.