Finding Gears

Finding the Gears

Anyone who has sailed against top sailors will know that many times you can be approaching half way up the first beat, and either in front of or in touch with some of the regatta favourites – often alongside them. A minute later the top sailor will have climbed on you, hit a gust of wind that you can’t reach, and gone from high mode to extremely fast forward compared to yourself, and from feeling great, being in touch or ahead of the good guys, you’re suddenly a hundred metres and forty boats behind them within around 90 seconds. This blog is about beginning to understand how they do that, so you can start to do it too!

We learn to sail, then we learn to sail better by making fewer errors in both balance of the boat (usually sailing flat and evenly) and sheeting so the tell tales fly, and steering so we are using only the correct amount of tiller movement to prevent turbulence from the rudder, and then we learn to handle different combinations of wind, waves, and wind angle to the waves. By the time we’ve done all this, we’re pretty good sailors, winning club, regional and sometimes national level races and regattas. What could possibly go wrong if we enter the international arena? Nobody could be too much better than the guys who are at the top of the national rankings. But they are better. Apparently a lot better, because they make the boat do what its not meant to do, whether its a Laser or a skiff.

To understand top sail racing we need to understand the massive benefits that a little more breeze (pressure) or a lift give to us. The standard starting point is that a typical (large but common) lift is around 15 degrees. If we take the header during that phase of the wind, we halve our boat velocity made good (speed towards the mark). Equally, if we get a typical 20%, sometimes 50% increase in wind speed (a gust) we increase our speed by a massive factor compared to those sailing outside the gust.

This overview indicates two significant areas of difference between a top international boat and the rest of us. Being on the lift, and technical gust/lull response are key areas for improvement. Most people who are at top national level will be somewhere near the speed of the top guys assuming consistent wind. When there’s a change, the top guys fly off.

What causes this difference? When we learn to sail we are defensive against gusts, sheeting out and luffing. Many people carry on doing this through their entire career. The top dogs learn how to increase speed and THEN increase height. Because they are going faster, they climb higher and quicker. Equally, when they enter a lull, they keep the apparent wind going for longer, taking them further across the lighter wind area than the normal mortal.

Anticipation of change through observation and understanding is a critical skill to develop to find these winning gears. In this way the leading sailors understand the key moment to change gear. We call it management of change. The top sailors manage the change. The normal sailors react to it. The difference that enables them to manage the change and normal sailors to react to it can be as little as five seconds of observation time.

The descriptions above refer to the start of “finding gears”. There are many more techniques and adjustments that we teach at Toplevel Sailing to produce real, tangible results. We hope this blog will encourage you to play with the concepts and share the fun.

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