October 07, 2012

Fast Handling vs. Natural Handling

by Pam
I’m trying to connect some dots but I’m missing the line that connects them.  Perhaps someone can help me.

Dot 1 - Frank Bethwaite’s theory of fast handling (leaders) versus natural handling (followers).  I’m sure my description is an oversimplification and doesn’t do justice to Frank’s work but here goes.  Essentially, few people have learned fast handling techniques (coordinated movements of body, sheet, tiller, etc.) and the majority of people sail with natural handling techniques (more tiller movement, less coordinated movements). Frank discovered this difference with his sailing simulator when he took a group of follower adults and in a matter of hours, had them sailing competitively with world champions (on the simulator).  However, when they hit the water, they were awful.  So he got on the boats with them and watched them sail, then took the helm and showed them what they were doing (natural handling) and then showed them how it should be done (fast handling).  Basically, they were sailing like the majority of sailors … uncoordinated movements of body, sheet, tiller, etc.  After he showed them the difference, a whole new world of sailing opened up to them and they went from the back of the fleet to the front and from not always enjoying sailing to loving it.  Page 321, Chapter 24 - A New Way of Thinking,Higher Performance Sailing.

Dot 2 - Doug and I were out one Wednesday evening double-handed on a Laser and we took turns at the helm.  I was handling the boat just fine, keeping it flat, reacting to the wind, but I wasn’t fast.  Doug handled the boat like it was an extension of his body.  I could feel, see and hear the difference the boat made as it went through the water and it was fast.  Now this is just observing straight line boat speed.  It isn’t possible for me to observe him through tacking and gybing because I’m too busy trying to squeeze my growing behind underneath the boom and vang.  But I’m sure there is a difference between the two of us in the maneuvers as well.

Okay, Dot 1 (Frank’s theory) and Dot 2 (Doug/Pam handling differences) connect perfectly.  But, here’s the thing.  I don’t weigh as much as Doug.  In fact, I don’t weigh as much as the boat so my body movements are negated once the wind is just a touch beyond light.  Frank says the best way to learn fast handling is to go out when it’s windy and have someone that knows fast handling go with you and observe, teach and show you the difference.  When Doug is on the boat in wind, I have control, when he’s off, I’m in survival mode.  Yeah, I know, sail a Radial or 4.7 but bear with me, I have another dot.

Dot 3 - Doug and Eddie recently competed in C Scows at the Championship of Champions.  Essentially, they sailed as well as I do … 17 out of 20.  Doug would call home and tell me how it went and I swear it was like listening to myself.  He had no “feel” for the boat and no matter what he did, he couldn’t find the “feel”.  Most of the settings on the boat were set and taped in place since the goal was to test helmsmanship.  They copied the things others were doing but they were still slower.  They tried something different every race and boats that won in the previous race suddenly became a pig with Doug at the helm.  He kept saying, I don’t get it and I can’t get a feel for this boat.  He wondered if they were too light being double handed because this boat is always sailed at a heel and they struggled to hike enough on the low side (light air series) to heel the boat. 

Dot 1 - fast handling vs. natural handling.  Dot 2 - I sail more with natural handling because the boat does not always respond to my weight movements so it’s hard to get a feel for the boat and coordinate movements and weight is one of the things I see Doug use the most for fast handling.  Dot 3 - Doug, who has excellent fast handling technique on dinghies could not get a feel for a boat that outweighs him and does not respond to his body movement.

So, what is the fast handling transition from small boat to big boat?  It can obviously be learned and perfected.  Is it coordinated movements with crew or does the skipper have to learn better natural handling technique and abandon trying to use fast handling technique or is it something else?

Now everyone, including Frank, has told me that I can’t be competitive in a full rig at my weight.  However, what is the transition from small boat to big boat and can I make it on a small boat to a small boat with a bigger sail?  After all, when I asked Frank if I could be competitive in a full rig, he didn’t respond with a flat out no.  He weighed the possibilities and talked about hull size, weight, sail size, physics, 18 footers being scaled to skipper size, and then very gently said probably not.  But Jeff Linton once told me that while I probably can’t be competitive in higher winds, I could certainly try to become a more competent sailor and stay on the course in windy conditions and then, through an entire series, the law of averages would give me a shot at being competitive in years when the wind is on the lighter side.  So, I’m back to the missing line to connect my dots.  Does anyone have an answer?


  1. Hallo Pam,

    Dot 3.
    Have a look at Robert Scheidt in a Star [that outweighs him]. He certainly thinks it's going to respond to his body movements. My experience in a two man keelboat the last couple of years suggests this is the case too. But it's taking a long time to find the same groove I can slip into in the Laser. One weekend or even a week isn't enough.

    Joining the dots.
    We have a very fast, not very heavy sailor at our club who wins Standard races at home but always sails Radial at National and International events. On a lake he can make up for weight by using other things - the things Doug seems to use - and the average windspeed over a year is lower. On open water he just can't physically keep up with the big guys; their technique is equal to his and they just weigh more.

    At 68kgs I've switched over to the Radial forever more and given my Standard sail away. Both sails are a challenge in lighter winds, and the good Radial sailors just as difficult to stay with.
    And when it blows I'm the one in the yellow boat with a big grin :)

    Keep writing your thought-provoking blogposts, both of you.
    Regards from NL, Andrew

    1. Thanks Andrew! I may be joining you on switching to a Radial but I imagine I'll torture myself a bit longer trying to sail a full rig.

  2. OMG. Best blog post about sailboat racing ever. It's the secret of the universe. It's the mystery of boatspeed. How do some people know it and some don't? If you can find the answer and communicate it in simple language you will totally revolutionize sailboat racing (or maybe ruin it for ever - what would be the fun if everyone knew the answer?)

    I'm with Einstein on this question. It's all relative. Most of the people I've been sailing with the last few days in Menorca must think I have some magic "fast handling" secret. But at home in Rhode Island, I'm the one watching in awe as much more natural Laser sailors than me disappear over the horizon.

    1. Thanks Tillerman! My goal this next sailing season is to grab a video camera and sail double-handed on a Laser with Doug and film the differences until I can figure out what he's doing different and then learn how to duplicate it. Oh, and figure out how to explain it in very basic terms. Perhaps, along the way, I'll move my top wind range a notch higher than it is now.

  3. HI Pam ... it is now some time later.

    You had a lot of questions and interesting observations.

    It is time to revisit them in light of the time that has passed since?

    Best wishes
    Michael Storer


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