February 27, 2014

Radial or Full Rig - Part 3

by Pam
So what happens if you are a light weight sailor but, for whatever reason, you end up sailing the full rig? Can you be competitive? Can you even sail the bigger rig in a breeze?

In Doug's case, the answer is yes and yes but maybe the top three in a breeze might be too hopeful … maybe not … time will tell. He can definitely hold his own downwind and even gain, but upwind, he's going to be overpowered and hiking for all he's worth. He'll have to be fitter than his competition.

In my case, I had the unfortunate experience of being in a full rig in too much wind and the answer was no and no. Doug had sailed by me between races as the breeze built and had me pull on the controls as tight as possible. Flatten and torture the sail but let the main out upwind and hike like mad. I made it upwind but going downwind was terrifying and ultimately it was the downwind that blew me off the course. Competitive wasn't possible at my weight, survival upwind was possible but downwind was my undoing.

I kept looking for answers and kept asking questions and eventually had the opportunity to ask Jeff Linton, Frank Bethwaite, and Julian Bethwaite. They all had answers.

Jeff Linton was referring to me sailing a Sunfish in a breeze. He essentially said that I should get really good in the light stuff and learn to survive in the heavy stuff and stay on the course and let the law of averages work in my favor. If the series was more light than heavy, I've got a shot at being competitive. But I had to learn to survive in the heavy stuff and stay on the course.

Frank Bethwaite said that I really wouldn't be competitive (top of the fleet) but surviving and staying on the course was possible and he'd written about it extensively:

"Some years ago I coached several mature and experienced sailors on the 59er, and I was astonished to find that so many of them were unaware of the steer-for-balance principle. More accurately, most thought they knew what it meant--and that they would be able to use it naturally, if and when it became necessary. But when faced with real speed and a sudden gust they turned the boat the wrong way and simply "lost it."

Only a handful of experienced sailors know how to control a sailboat at speed and get peak performance while doing so. Most top sailors believe they know what steer-for-balance is, and they believe they can do it. But when put to the test, they don't know and they cannot do it."

The article goes on to recommend training techniques to learn the steer for balance technique which would make staying on the course and surviving much more likely.

Julian Bethwaite essentially said the same thing as his Dad, keep the boat under the sails and you'll stay upright. There is an interview of a somewhat legendary episode in which he proves it's possible to do just that:

… with rival groups looking to put out the message that it wasn’t possible to sail the boat [the 49er] in more than a Force 3 (7-10 knots) …

… Bethwaite took the boat out for a spot of singlehanded sailing. Albeit he set off upwind in just 4 knots of wind, not particularly challenging – until the [Guarda] Ora started rolling down the lake and left Bethwaite with a 15-knot sleigh ride back down to Torbole.

At this point Bethwaite, a former 18-foot skiff world champion, had a decision to make. Do the sensible thing and drop the sails while he waited for a tow back to shore, or charge back downwind in too much wind with too much sail area. In his words it was “No guts, no glory!” and he hoisted the gennaker for a rapid return to the sailing club. He even gybed the boat, survived it and then dropped the gennaker and rounded up immaculately, right in front of a crowd of dignitaries that included the ISAF President of the time, Paul Henderson, and the Kings of Greece and Norway. Bethwaite admits that if he had tried it again it might not have worked out so well, but his singlehanded escapade was yet another piece of the jigsaw that slotted nicely into place and saw the 49er go on to win the Garda trials comfortably. 

Paul Henderson stepped in and said the 49er was definitely in [the Olympics], and so asked ISAF Council to vote one of the incumbent classes out.

So, while I'm never going to be Julian Bethwaite, it's still nice hear and see an example of just how possible it is to sail downwind with too much sail and too much wind and survive, gybe and thrive. When it warms up a bit, I believe I'm going to take Frank's advice this year and spend some time crashing the boat and learning the steer for balance technique.

As Doug learns to be competitive at a lighter weight, I have a feeling that he'll naturally find a few techniques that might compensate for being lighter than his competition, besides being fitter than everyone else. When I first met him, I was sailing a Butterfly against mostly men as I was learning to sail. I'd match their sail trim and point with them and they'd leave me behind. Doug stepped in and pointed out the obvious. I didn't have the weight to trim and point the same way they did. Since I was hiking much earlier than they were, I could start feathering into the wind instead of footing and low and behold, I had the same speed but was pointing significantly higher. Win, win! It worked so well I had to actually start paying attention to the course board before the start instead of just following the leader all the time.

Stay tuned for Doug's adventures and see what he learns this year. 


  1. Thank you! This series has been great and has provided me with some insights and also confidence. i'm only 64kg and have recently swapped to sailing a full rig, mainly because the club where I sail (Belmont 16s in NSW) scores all Lasers equally irrespective of rig. We have one female sailor who also sails the full rig and she regularly "chicks" the fleet, so the full rig is not an escape route for us males!

    I know I have to be fitter than most, work on that and play the averages. Above 20 kts, I know I won't be competitive upwind, so will look to the downwinds to claw back any losses. My strength has always been downwind anyway so the full rig doesn't necessarily scare me so I will try to transfer those same techniques to the bigger rig. Hopefully they work! My aggressive approach on the downwinds sometimes ends with the sails under the boat, but again its the averages thing and 80% of the time in above 20 kts I haven't capsized downwind, at least in the Radial. I have yet to find out if the full rig will be any different to the Radial downwind in a big breeze, ie. you still need 100% concentration and quick reactions in terms of sheeting and body weight movements. Even when I'm fit, I still find the big breeze downwinds more taxing than the upwinds and by the bottom mark I'm really sucking them in.

    So far I find that when I can keep clear of other boats I am better off. If I put myself into close positions with other boats, for example a windward position that requires me to match the boat speed of the leeward boat, I know I will be vulnerable. Knowing this, I will have to work extra hard to ensure I have a hole to leeward on the start line. not always easy in a good fleet! Likewise on downwinds, I have to choose a course where my better boat speed isn't nullified by slower boats in front who use blocking tactics. It's one thing to catch up but overtaking is another matter, so separation for me is key.

    1. Thanks - these are some really good comments here about making adjustments based on your relative weight.


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