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Sailboat Racing Basics

Getting your boat ready for sailboat racing can be overwhelming depending on the extremes to which you go. There are fanatics in any sport, but finding what works for you and your boat each year is very exciting. Sometimes you are looking only for that tenth of a knot more speed to place yourself closer to the top, toward first place. You might find that bit of speed in a backstay tensioner, cunningham, fairlead cars, boom vang, or main traveler. Sometime they just need upgrading for ease of motion to set the sail shape.

Speaking of sails, you just might need new ones made of kevlar or mylar that come in all sorts of designs for the best sail shape! Or you might just want to go as you are, being as competitive as you want in sailboat racing is up to you. That tenth of a knot could only mean a tack at the right time or the puffs of wind you maneuvered into to draw yourself closer to the lead! Sailboat racing is great fun and all of you are welcome to enjoy or torture yourself in your quest.

Bottom Preparation

You boat's bottom should be smooth throughout. All through-hull fittings should be built-in or faired-in, leaving no abrupt areas for the flow of water to be, as I say it, upset. This causes a backwash, which slows the water passing under the boat, which in turn slows you down. Leading edges of your keel and rudder must be smooth and uniform. The trailing edges are just as important. The less "wake wash" you have, the better job you have done on your bottom. "Wake wash" is that white water and/or splashing noise (rustling) right at the rudder or stern of the boat that you hear as your speed increases when sailboat racing. At low speeds, you hear and see nothing at the stern as you cut smoothly through the water. The trick is maintaining this as long as possible with your speed increasing. A smooth antifoulant finish is also essential and there are plenty to choose from. Ablative types are popular in the sailing world. They get smoother as you sail. Popular, too, are the hard finishes which can be sanded to perfection.

Topsides

The sides of the boat should be smooth and waxed. All through-hull fittings should be built-in or faired-in to allow for least resistance when heeling when sailboat racing. We just wanted that water to flow and not be "upset" in any way. No lines or other items should hang over the sides to touch the water. Clean and smooth is the order of the day in sailboat racing.

On Deck

Here is where it gets complicated, and since we are talking about the basics, that's where we'll keep it. All these sailboat racing items have to do with sail shape, at different points of sail. We will start with the run (downwind) and work our way to close-hauled on the basic items needed. On the run, you are moving downwind which tends to make the boom on the main sail rise. This allows the wind to spill-out of the main, making it less efficient and slowing you down. The boom vang, which is attached from the mast or mast base to the boom, allows adjustment on how high or low you want that boom. Keeping the main sail flat (boom down) is more efficient and easing on the main halyard or cunningham gives the main sail a little scoop. The cunningham,(like a boom vang) is attached to the lower end of the main sail luff. This allows tensioning (moves the wind forward in the sail) or easing (moves the wind aft in the sail) to adjust the draft in the sail. Its use is from the run to the close-haul positions. Another nice little item is the back-stay tensioner, attached by a car like item between the twin backstays. On a single backstay, a wheel like or hydraulic item is used. These devices tighten down on the back stay bending the top of the mast back the middle forward. This adjusts the tension on the forestay and flattens the main sail, bringing the draft aft. This is used when going to windward, with the wind picking up and the boat heeling a bit. The main traveler adjusts the angle of the main sheet to the boom. You can give the main sail a twist by putting the traveler to windward in a light air to pull more speed or take out twist by seizing the traveler as the wind picks up. The tell-tales o the leech should stream back evenly by putting more or less twist in the main. There are an array of other items to address in sailboat racing which boggle the mind, but these are the basic ones to start with. Experimenting here and there with these and other items will fine-tune your boat, giving it the extra speed or pointing ability needed to stay on top! Now let's get out on the water!

Putting It Together

Sail out to an open area, preferably with steady winds for your performance testing to bring to the sail race course. What we are going to do is actually apply the laws of physics and tweak it by using the items we have onboard. Scholars have worked in this field for their entire lives, and here we are going to play with it, making it work best for our boat! Wow, that's wild! Now, let's get to work on sailboat racing. Get your boat to a close-hauled position, making the jib and main sail tell-tales stream back evenly. Make a note on your speed and compass course, staying as close to the wind without luffing. Tack and note down your new course and speed. This now gives your tacking angle in degrees to the wind and which tack is slower. Additional mast tuning may be in order, weight distribution below or crew placement above might help. Again, don't be afraid to experiment! Now put those readings aside for later reference and let's get back to that close-hauled position with tell-tales streaming back evenly. Adjust your new equipment, one item at a time, noting speed increases or decreases and then do it in combinations for each tack. Mark lines with red or green tape (red port tack, green starboard tack) where speeds were at the optimum and note these new readings. These new adjustments have not only brought you more speed, but have also tightened up your angle to the wind. On other points of sail your adjustments are mainly concerned with the maximum speed. The tape is there to get you to the best adjustments quickly and can also be modified during the season. Don't forget your weight distribution.

On the Course

Here again it gets busy, but we'll stay to basics. Get off to a good start in sailboat racing and stay with the pack applying your newly found bag of tricks, making your boat give her best! The start is up-wind where you have lines marked to put you at your best. Small adjustments might still have to be made because of bad air from boats ahead or to your sides. The next part of the course is usually a broad-reach. Again, lines have been marked for optimum speed. The wave action and puffs of wind can provide an advantage of pushing your boat to new speeds. Do the same on the downwind run, the crew can stand and again be aware of weight distribution, keeping it as far aft as possible. Rudder movement should be kept to a minimum on all points of sail especially downwind. It puts the brakes on and we don't need that! When an adjustment has to be made, do it smoothly and slowly, and try to anticipate.

Conclusion

Try to use the biggest jib you can (helps in speed and pointing ability) and keep that slot between the main and jib open! Don't backwind the main sail. These are the basics for the cruiser class and if the bug bites you deep, there is a spinnaker division in sailboat racing!

There are so many variables on the course that gives one an advantage here, a disadvantage there. Keeping your speed up, getting local knowledge, and building a strategy will certainly be a plus in your overall standings. Feel the forces, and may the trophy be with you!

Find everything you need to prepare for sailboat racing, look over this area.