Sailing Skills Changing Gear
Sailing Today|August 2020
Sailing Skills Changing Gear
Mark Rushall continues his look at how to get there quickly. How to change gear upwind, for racers and cruisers
Mark Rushall
Whether you are racing a bunch of dinghies or keelboats to the next mark or aiming to beat the sun to the yardarm at the best anchorage in the bay, “changing gear” can be a key item in the sailing toolbox for “getting there quickly”.

In this feature I’ll again use the example of two boats from the Rushall fleet: the light and agile RS200, and the somewhat heavier and mature Honeybee, Ragdoll: a 4.5-ton long keelboat built in the 1960s. The principles we’ll discuss apply to the full range of sailing craft, but every boat and rig has its own specifics: if you are serious about the practise of “getting there quickly” I’d encourage you to play with the controls and adjustments available on your boat to get a feel for their effect on power, trim, and balance. For the purpose of the feature, I’ll describe the gear-changing process for these boats and allow you to extrapolate or interpolate for boats of varying complexity.

What do we mean by “changing gear”?

We are talking sailing techniques, not dress etiquette here. Wind and sea state continually change in strength, direction, and characteristics. A part of gear changing is steering, trimming sails and adjusting crew position to make the most of the changing opportunities.

The other part of gear changing is choosing to sail in a different mode to the one that either takes you in a straight line to the destination or when beating or running, at a different wind angle to the theoretically optimum one for the conditions.

Gear changing upwind

You can usually tell how well a dinghy is set up and being sailed from the angle of heel: unless wind is very light, an upright rig, or even a touch of windward heel, with tiller very slightly to windward looks cool and suggests that trim is good. Dinghies with very low freeboard may have to accept a small (but constant) leeward heel so the crew is not dragging in the water.

Most keelboats get their righting moment from being heeled: as a keelboat coach, I’d be looking for a constant angle of heel, that provides a discernible but comfortable amount of weather helm (tiller to windward, top of wheel to leeward).

In both cases a little weather helm shows that both underwater foils are contributing to lift, and prevents the bow sliding to leeward each time there is a lull. The optimal angle is very boat dependent, but if the boat is at a normal angle of heel but it is hard work steering, or there is a lot of noise or wash off the rudder, there is almost certainly too much weather helm. If you are having to push on the tiller, or the boat bears off significantly when it comes upright, there is not enough.

If we are going to make gear changing work upwind, we need the “static” settings to be right for the lower end of the wind ranges we’re experiencing, and use steering, body movement, and dynamic controls to keep the heel angle constant as the patches of increased pressure come through.

In the simplest case, the only dynamic controls are rudder and sheets: that’s the case with the Honeybee: if the delta between gust and lull is too great to stop the sails backing more than 20% back in the gusts, we’ll have to compromise a little and set up for a higher mean wind speed, and use our gear changing to ease the pain in the lightest of the lulls.

The 200 has additional dynamic controls of kicker and cunningham, more sophisticated dinghy rigs might add jib cars, bridles, rake, rig tension. The sky is the limit for keelboats, too, with backstay, main traveller, jib cars, jib halyard tension, kicker, cunningham all potentially adjustable dynamically from the cockpit.

Sailing through the gusts

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August 2020