March 11, 2014

Sailing in the Middle of the Fleet - Sailing Downwind Part 1

By Doug
Many of these blog posts start with questions from Pam. Her latest ones were "How do you play shifts downwind" and "Why didn't you do more sailing-in-the middle-of-the-fleet for downwind?" So, here goes.

Going upwind, when everything is even neither green nor red has the advantage:

But this seldom lasts for long. When the wind shifts to the right, green is on a lift and red is on a knock (or a header) and should tack:

And then the wind shifts to the left, green is now on a knock and red is on a lift. Green should tack:

So a rule when sailing upwind is:
·         if the wind helps you to head up on a lift, that's good because you're heading closer to the mark.
·      if the wind forces you to bear away on a knock, that's bad because you're heading away from the mark and you should tack.

There's nothing new here because this is something that most middle-of-the-fleet sailors know. But when you're going downwind, the shifts are harder to feel because you're going with the wind and your sail will not stall, so it's not as sensitive to these changes. Knowing how to play the shifts represents a great opportunity for middle-of-the-fleet sailors to make gains. (A word of caution: the following is how I sail a Laser or a similar boat with just one sail - other boats will do things differently).

Going downwind when it's steady, neither green nor red has the advantage:

When the wind shifts to the right, green might trim the sail in a little and red might trim out a little:

And then the wind shifts to the left, green might trim the sail out a little and red might trim in a little:

This is one correct way to play the shifts downwind, but most middle-of-the-fleet sailors will not notice these shifts and will not make the correct adjustments. If you do, then you'll gain a little.

But when there's a bit of wind, there's a much better way to play the shifts going downwind. Let's start by looking at the fastest point of sailing - being on a reach:

Anytime that you can set your boat up for a reach you'll gain speed. Let's look at this a little more closely:

The wind flows from the leach to the luff of the sail and pushes the boat forward. But here's a really interesting fact - the same force would be generated even if the wind was coming from the the opposite direction:

So why is this important? Because if you rotate this diagram 90 degrees, red is on a run, but the force on the sail is the same as though it's on a reach:

This is called sailing 'by the lee' (leach to luff vs luff to leach) and there are so many reasons why this is really fast that we'll have to cover this in another post. But for now, just remember that that sailing on a reach is really fast.

So when the wind goes right, instead of red trimming the sail out as we have seen above, it can be much faster to trim the sail in:

The wind goes right, one red trims out....                the other trims in.
When sailing downwind, I'm always looking for a way to trim the sail in relative to the wind. Red on the right is the fastest, and green is the slowest and should jibe and sail by the lee ASAP.

And the opposite is true - when the wind goes left, instead of green trimming the sail out, it's much faster to trim the sail in:

The wind goes left, one green trims out...                  the other trims in.
So when the wind is above 10 knots, the rule when sailing downwind is:
·       sail the course that helps you keep trying to trim the sail in.

It's simple! I look for this all the time - I try to sail by the lee as much as possible because it's an easy way to look for speed. It does not always work and I probably jibe more than anyone else in the fleet, but there's always something to try to get extra boatspeed.

It's fast! Using this simple trick, a middle-of-the-fleet sailor can actually start to have the speed of a really fast sailor. How fast? Like Tom Slingsby on his way to winning the Laser Worlds in Perth:

World-class speed sailing on a run... with the sail trimmed in.
Check out this video starting at 20:00. When Tom is on a run, he does everything he can to trim the sail in to sail by the lee. Here's how the wind is moving across Tom's sail at this moment:

There are lots of other ways for middle-of-the-fleet sailors to improve when sailing downwind. We'll look at these in detail next.


  1. Great series - keep the pearls of wisdom coming.

  2. Interesting. Ive never tried sailing by the lee with the sail pulled in that far but I see your logic..

    1. It does not always work, which is why people trying it keep trying different things. The key is mainsheet tension.

  3. Great post. What's your thoughts on taking main sheet from boom or from the ratchet block?

    1. Good question. For years, the top guys took the sheet directly from the boom and everyone copied them, including me. Now, the top guys take it from the block and everyone copies them, including me. So maybe it'll go back to the boom again one day.

      The one time I now take it from the boom is when it's very light and I'm about to jibe. This way, the sheet cannot get tangled and not run though the ratchet block at the end of the jibe.

  4. Great stuff - read this last week and used it yesterday to gain on those around and in front of me on every run. (Full rigs, 8-10 knots, flat water) When the rig was 'pushing' we were all going the same speed, with booms at either side. As soon as I got it 'flowing' it was clearly faster, even if it feels pretty odd - must be 'fun' in waves and breeze!

    Hadn't realised just how far I had to sheet in when by the lee to make the rig work.

    Thanks for the great tips, from both of you.

  5. Awesome - when are you coming over to the UK to do some coaching?

    1. No plans, but I'll be in the area for the Master Worlds in the fall. But if you want the very best Laser coach, search for Brett Beyer on this blog. Out standing coach and person.

    2. I sailed against Brett in Cork 2001, so know how quick he is. I will also be in Hyeres and plan for a week prior to the Worlds, though from what I've read you'll be in Standard and I'll be in Radial GM.


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