November 13, 2012

Laser Cheat Sheet - Sailing Fast - Pressing

By Doug 
Laser Cheat Sheet

Before I started sailing at night on a Dallas lake, I couldn't win anything above a local club event. After learning how to sail at night, I won my first national championship and started getting top 5 finishes at the Laser Master Worlds. The improvement was from learning the "feeling" for what my Laser was trying to do, and how to react with my four controls (mainsheet, tiller, weight in/out, and weight fore/aft). Sailing at night is impractical for most, but almost everything in the fast column of my cheat sheet, I learned at night.  

A little background - there were several reasons for my sailing at night. These included "me time" after the kids were in bed, the beauty and the solitude after a long day, and a way to escape the brutal summer heat. But there was one more reason that can be seen at the end of the movie Wait Until Dark. As described in IMDB, a killer is chasing a blind Audrey Hepburn "leaving us with the question how does a blind woman defend herself?" The answer is that she leveled the playing field and actually gained the advantage by turning out the lights.

So, the other reason why I sailed at night was because, while my vision has always been a problem, it was rapidly getting worse and I was on the way to going legally blind. Sailing at night was empowering because I did not have to see the sail to learn how to improve my sailing.

Sailing downwind was fairly simple. The obvious question sailing upwind is "How can you sail if you cannot see the sail?" Good question, because you cannot see its shape or the telltales. The answer is that you do not need to see the sail. Here's why.

The purpose of the sail is to deflect the wind. The trick of course is to deflect as much of it as possible so that the wind is deflected parallel to the centerline of the boat. Too little and you can be underpowered, and too much and you can be overpowered, so you want as much as possible until just before you're overpowered. This deflection is invisible, but you can feel it... on your butt and the back of your legs.

A small puff hits you and the boat heals, and you can feel the increased pressure. The puff ends, the heeling stops, and you can feel the pressure drop. Everything that happens up there is felt down here. But we have an advantage over keelboats because we can prevent a boat from heeling by, you guessed it, putting more pressure on our butts and the back of our legs.

Hiking pants dull the feeling, so I only wear them when it's windy.
Here's how Pam described this when I first taught her: pressing is a subtle weight shift to where you feel the boat on the back of your thighs. This didn’t make any sense to me so Doug had me sit and feel the pressure on the back of my legs. No biggie. Feels like my legs sitting on a chair. Then he said to keep my upper body straight and he proceeded to slightly push me backward and in order to maintain my balance and stay upright, I had to increase the pressure on my legs. Definite difference.

Understanding this increased pressure at the right moment helped me develop a new way of sailing a Laser, something I call "pressing." It's the awareness of what's going on "up there" and my conscious effort to control it "down here" in order to squeeze every drop of boat speed out of the conditions as they constantly change. Boat speed is like squeezing juice out of an orange. An average sailor gets a certain amount, a good national sailor will get more, and a top international sailor will get even more. And in a class that is so equal in so many ways, the top Laser sailors are the ones who get those extra few drops of boat speed.

The recent Championship of Champions reminded me of how important this is. The regatta was held in C-Scows - a boat that I had never sailed before. I never did get a feeling for the boat, and my results were that of an very average sailor at a national championship.

So, try focusing less on what the sail looks like and more on the pressure on your butt and legs. It's a great way to develop better boat speed.

But if you're sailing by feeling and not looking at the sail, what else are you looking at? The answer is simple - everything else. The water, the competition, the compass, the angles, the waves, etc. In addition to boat speed, pressing gives you an increased awareness of what's going on around you. 

That way, you're not using your new boat speed to just go faster the wrong way.


  1. ... instead just steer the path that gives you the same continued pressure on the back of your legs

    1. Hmmmm. I've never been able to keep the pressure for long. For me, the trick is finding the pressure and then trying to hold it as long as possible. Five seconds is a lot and then it's a new search for it again.

  2. You mention **4** controls: mainsheet, tiller, weight fore/aft, weight in/out. Do you not normally adjust kicker/outhaul/downhaul continuously? I have been told that this was necessary, which is why a good set of control lines was very important.

    Apart from the Laser (which I only just started) I sail an Enterprise dinghy, and there I pretty much use only the kicker, rarely the outhaul, and never the downhaul. So I'm curious whether you think they are important for Laser racing!

    1. A good question! I might adjust the kicker (vang) and downhaul once every minute or two, but the four you refer to are adjusted continuously. The outhaul is only adjusted when there's a significant change in wind speed.

      The Enterprise is a heavier, less responsive boat, so you'll find this way of sailing quite different.

    2. Thanks for the quick reply! Yes, starting out in the Laser feels like I've never raced before... but going back to the Enterprise after that makes me feel I know more what I'm doing. Definitely a good learning experience.

    3. Laser sailing is IMHO the purest form of racing. Welcome to the class!


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