Advanced Heavy Air Crewing Technique

by Jesse Falsone

“We were slow upwind today in the breeze. My driver has to learn to steer in heavy air!”
I hate to say it, but I’ve used this excuse in the past. Well, as true as it may be, there are things the savvy crew can do about it. One of the more advanced crewing techniques has actually little to do with movements in the boat, and more with getting the boat properly tuned and trimmed for heavy weather sailing. On the wire, the crew has a very good vantage point from which to observe many different indicators (or “cues” as sailing coach Rod Haegebols likes to say). Using these cues, the crew can guide the driver on such critical trim parameters such as heel, fore/aft trim, rake, shroud tension, Cunningham, outhaul, and the vang/sheet combination. The goal should be to create a tune and trim condition whereby the driver can focus on the basic elements of helmsmanship without the distraction of deciding which strings to pull and when to pull them.

The biggest speed differentials between boats occur in heavy air. The physical demands of sailing in strong winds detract from the driver’s ability to make timely and accurate changes to the boat. Upwind, the goal should be to make the boat “easy to sail” such that you can go at 95% speed 100% of the time. Never having a slow moment is critical. Making the boat easy to sail simply means that the team is not overworking itself, causing premature fatigue that can lead to a loss of speed or a boathandling mistake. A poorly tuned boat will require additional trimming and forceful tiller movements resulting in poor speed and/or VMG. 

The characteristics of a boat that is easy to sail is one in which the team can seamlessly change between point and foot modes without dramatically slowing. On a 505, you need the ability to push the bow up and down depending on the wind and wave conditions. As the sea state increases, this ability becomes even more important. Going into foot mode, the objective is to accelerate quickly without undo weather helm or the boat wanting to tip over. Transitioning into point mode, the objective is to either punch through a nasty wave set without a dramatic loss in speed, or to secure a proper lane without losing VMG. There’s a groove that must be established to realize these things, and here’s how the crew can help in getting into it:

1) On my boat, I generally get the rig setup before the race starts, and optimally we’ve already sailed a bit upwind to test the settings. I have found that we are generally raking more and earlier in the wind spectrum. With a light guy like Chris Behm driving for me, we might be back at 25’0” in a steady 18 knots of wind. As it gets up over 22, we might be back at 24’9 or further. The first reef goes in at 25’2”, especially if there are waves. I’ll also get the cunno and outhaul on, and get the board set, with gybe stopper in when we are planing hard upwind. Make sure you get the ram on the right number before trimming the vang because the ram has a dramatic effect on leech tension. Finally, I’ll then make sure my jib lead is set correctly and barber on as necessary. I have recently found that more barber really helps you put the bow down in heavy air and waves, and opens the slot in the main while it’s off centerline. I use a standard US jib lead track system, but it seems to me that lead position is really important as you increase rake. On my boat, the lead is effectively pulled forward as the barber tension is increased.

2) Once you are sailing upwind, observe the heel angle and the fore/aft trim. Is the boat flat or nearly so? If the driver isn’t hiking hard enough, make a suitably derogatory comment. Make the necessary adjustments to sail the boat nearly flat and move your weight back a bit to keep the bow out (thus reducing wetted surface and reducing the bow-up force created by water on the lee side). Make sure you adjust the trapeze such that you don’t get pegged by waves while the boat is sailed flat. Trapezing too low in heavy air might force the helm to sail with more heel, and that’s not good.

3) Now take a look at the end of the boom relative to the transom corner. This is a major cue. Is the average position well inside or outside the corner? If so, you either have the rake set incorrectly, or perhaps the vang is not right. Your goal should be to keep the average position of the boom at the transom corner in overpowered conditions. If the boom is constantly inside the corner and the leech seems too open, have the driver pull on some vang. Conversely, if the boom is way outside the corner and puffs cause the main to wash out completely, you may have too much vang or not enough rake. Having said this, it’s critical that you don’t allow the mainsail to wash out because it’s the power coming off the lower portion of the sail and the leech that balances the boat and allows it to track correctly upwind. If your main is constantly flogging, this is a big cue that you’ve got something wrong!

4) Next take a look at how the driver is moving the tiller and trimming the mainsheet. Some very fast drivers use quite a bit of tiller movement in heavy air, but as Mike Holt says, that movement is merely what is necessary to find equilibrium in the helm, and is actually not dramatically steering the boat. The mainsheet should be generally moving one full arm length in and out unless a big puff or lull causes additional trimming. If the driver consistently has a large range of motion in the sheet, it’s usually indicative of large changes in course (first they start pinching and have to trim in hard to keep the boat balanced, then they foot too much and have to ease dramatically). Extremes on vang can cause these large course corrections, and the end result is poor VMG. It also could be that the mast is not raked enough or the board is too far down for the conditions.

5) Once you are certain that the driver has the sheet/vang combination correct and the boat is reasonably easy to sail, the crew can concentrate on jib trim, which becomes especially crucial in very heavy air. In normal heavy air conditions when simply luffing the main will keep the boat on its feet, the range of jib trim is smaller – perhaps an inch or two depending on your mode. I personally like to correlate my jib sheet trim setting (numbered settings on the tank) with how the upper leech trims relative to the shroud. For instance, my point mode might have the jib leech just outboard of the shroud while my foot mode will allow the upper leech to twist off more and be a few inches off the shroud. However, once the puffs start hitting the mid-20’s, it may become necessary to “burp” the jib momentarily by quickly easing a few inches in the puffs, and in some extreme cases, momentarily flogging the jib altogether for that crucial nanosecond. I can only emphasize here that the jib sheet must be easy to uncleat quickly to make these reflex changes. My advice is to not use a riser under the jib cleat, and to try using your back hand for the release. There is no question that this is a difficult skill to master.

6) Once you’ve got all of the above working, you need to decide how you’re going to pick your way through the wave sets. In other words, you need to decide when to go into “point” mode, and when to put the bow down and let ‘er rip. In my experience, when confronted with some large and steep waves, it’s usually best to point into them more to keep the bow from being shoved around, and to keep a nasty wave from toppling the crew. Often, these steep waves come in sets, and once you drill through them, a flatter section appears allowing you to put the bow down and light the boat up. Going fast has the net effect of creating better flow over the foils, which in-turn, helps you point. So, it’s always best to go into that next big wave set blazing as you turn up slightly. The crew can really help call wave sets and guide the driver on where to point the bow. I find that doing so also keeps the team engaged and working together, and the chances of a rogue wave hurting you diminish greatly.

So, now you can put that excuse about your driver being slow in breeze to bed – at least upwind. You have all the information you need to get your driver pointed in the right direction and going warp speed. Next time you’re out on the wire in breeze, don’t just stand there like a vegetable thinking what a great lever you are – do something that will help your team get to the weather mark faster. Similar principles apply on the run and we’ll look at that next.