Symmetrical Spin Trim
One of the huge issues that people struggle to understand is that racing involves going in circles (laps) so downwind form is every bit as important as upwind when taking training needs into consideration. The fact that we all worry about losing distance on an upwind should never mask the importance of the downwind.
We all tend to focus on upwind, because there’s no doubt that its vital to be towards the front at the top mark. Also in conventional classes of boats with symmetrical spinnakers the potential losses on the upwind generally far exceed the opportunities for gains on the downwind. However, the gains on the downwind can still be huge in certain conditions, and get you back into play in a big way. My friend Kevin Burnham (double OL 470 Gold with Paul Forster) tells the story of Athens, where towards the end of a tight regatta they rounded the top mark outside the top 15, and could see any medal going away from them. Kev said he buried his head in the kite, followed Paul and just kept the luff curl going as finely as possible. He didn’t look anywhere else till the leeward mark and then realised they’d taken the lead. When focus can produce that gain in a small high class fleet, we begin to understand the importance of the kite trim – downwind the trimmer of the kite is key to speed.
So when we start learning about kites, what are we bothered about? What’s the priority and how do we make adjustments in those priorities according to conditions?
Essentially kites tend to put fear into the first time user. Let’s focus this article on the people who can already launch a kite, adjust the pole, are familiar with barberhaulers and can raise and lower the pole competently and bring it backwards or let it go forwards without too many collapses. What we’re about now is gaining speed.
The first skill we focus on is trimming. If you can’t trim, it doesn’t matter how well set up the kite is, it’ll be slow. Trimming is a combination of skills – the first one is that the luff of the kite must always, but always be on the point of curling. If the kite is oversheeted you lose masses of power and often collapse it. The main focus of the trimmer is to keep their eye on the luff, and with small sheet movements check that its on the point of curling, where the cloth literally bends into a sausage right at the luff. The second trimming skill is to realise that fast downwind sailing isn’t about straight lines, but moving up to get pressure and speed, and then going down with the extra speed and pressure. As this happens the guy (windward) hand must allow the pole to keep an optimum angle for the kite to carry power, and move small (usually) amounts with the helm change of direction. Practising these skills for many hours is essential to going fast downwind. There are optimum ranges for the pole – when going hich it should be within a few cms of the forestay. When going deep it should be no further back than under 90 degrees to the centre line of the boat. Powering the kite generally gets more difficult the further back the pole goes.
As regards setting the kite up, here are a few tips. The pole height generally is such that when the spinnaker is in front of the boat (pole quite a long way back), the sheet clew – the one unsupported by the pole – is at the same height as that of the pole. We can adjust this either by resetting the pole height, or with barberhaulers on the sheet, should the boat have them. This symmetry is critical to speed and depth.
The distance back that the pole has to go is a matter of feel by the crew. We can always feel when sheet loads increase – getting them to the max load is only good if the pole is in the right place for the angle you are going downwind. Again, this comes with practise and is accelerated by good coaching, but it is essential to gain the maximum forward drive on the sail. Tuning against other boats really can help this.
We can then look at spin design, what is fast and what isn’t. Kites are always useful on reaches, and give us an incredible speed advantage over those boats not flying, particularly on a tight reach. If your kite is designed full, it will slow you down on reaches compared to those running a flatter kite. The rewards of different designs are important to understand. Generally a full kite is great in light winds and poor on reaches. A flat kite can cost you in light winds but will be fast in all other conditions, especially on reaches.
At Toplevel Sailing our goals are to get sailors to understand that whatever the design of the kite, we can pull it around to make the shapes we want. Its far easier generally to put shape into a flat kite than flatten a full one. Speed is the goal, and fast is most definitely fun!