High Point & Super Speed By Gordy Bowers
D uring the sailing season, the most common problems racers voice is ”I can’t point high” or “I was pointing high, but we weren’t moving fast”. The key here is recognizing that when sailing upwind, how high you point depends on how fast you go and vice versa. When the boat’s moving really well, you can easily head up to point. Conversely, if you’re pointing well, it’s easier to come off for more speed. Once you understand that the pointing/speed problem is two faceted, the next questions is how to point or drive most effectively. Sailing success incorporates three basic areas: (1) The boat’s trim relative to the water; Is the boat heeled to weather or to leeward, and how much? Is my weight too far forward or aft? (2) The set and trip of the sails: Are the sheets trimmed too tight or too loose? (3) The steering: Am I pointing too high or too low? Am I oversteering or understeering? In my early sailing years, I mistakenly thought steering was most important, so I devoted a great deal of thought and practice to it. My next insight as a beginning sailmaker was that sail design and its trim was everything. I reasoned that you can only steer where the sails will let you, and that’s all there is to it. More recently, my bias towards aerodynamics (sail trim and design) changed in favor of hydrodynamics (hull, keel and rudder shape). My interest shifted to controlling the way water flows past the hull, keel and rudder by the use of your body. Now I realize that there is no one secret to boat speed. Steering, the sail’s shape, as well as the boat’s trim all collectively contribute to speed. Consider this hypothetical situation: Imagine the wind’s blowing ten miles per hour, you’re sailing upwind and you want to point higher. Your first response is probably to steer up into the wind. The problem is, assuming your sails are properly trimmed, the main and jib will luff unless you trim the sheets tighter. As you point higher and trim tighter, your sails will have less power. Consequently, your boat will flatten out or possibly heel to weather unless you move your weight slightly inboard. Conversely, if you want more speed, you must head down, ease sheets and hike harder to keep your boat at the proper angle of heel. All three elements are involved. You should also be making these adjustments simultaneously for a smooth transition from average pointing to high pointing, or from average to super speed. Any delays in the adjustment sequence will only slow the rate at which your boat can adapt to your desired course. Furthermore, you must adjust all three basics harmoniously. If you want to point, and only steer higher without adjustment to sail and hull trim, you’re only using one out of three weapons at your disposal. Steer higher and sheet the sails tighter and you have two of our three basics. Clearly, by using all three basics hull trim, sail trim and steering - you’ll quickly accomplish your ends of pointing high or going fast. After you acquire a basic grasp of “How To” point higher or lower, a careful analysis of “When” to point higher or increase speed is next. The following has proven helpful to me when racing upwind. DRIVING OFF 1) Sail fast in light wind (0-4 MPH) and heavy wind (16 MPH and up). When boat speed is low relative to wind speed, you must drive the boat through the water so your hull, keel, and rudder can get a good hold on the water (and generate lift so the boat will not slip sideways). 2) Just before the start you need quick acceleration so you’ll be able to point just at or slightly after the gun. Remember you need speed before you can point! 3) When trying to go over the top of the boat or group of boats just to leeward, if you can drive there, it will consolidate your position and give you a safe tactical and strategic position. You will not be forced to tack off into an area you don’t want to go. 4) Drive if you anticipate a header. The boat ahead and to leeward gains.
5) Sail fast just before the puff hits. Speed here will stabilize the boat, prevent heeling, and allow you to make a smooth transition to high pointing. 6) Accelerate after tacking, especially if you make a bad tack which has slowed the boat. 7) Drive after you smash into big waves. here again, your boat has slowed considerably and you need to get your speed back again. This is particularly true when the wind is very light or very heavy and your boat more easily loses its grip on the water. HIGH POINTING 1) Medium wind (4-16 MPH). Now the boat has a good grip on the water because your speed is good. Pointing ability is what separates the winners from the also wons. 2) Point high just after the start. If you’ve done a proper job of getting speed before the gun, now’s the time to point very high to get away from boats on your lee quarter. 3) Sail high when trying to come up under boats on your weather side. Pointing here can give you freedom to tack when necessary. 4) Point if you anticipate a lift when you are pinned down by other boats or when you want to stay in touch with the fleet. 5) Point after the puff has hit and your speed topped out. 6) Point high before tacking, thereby reducing the amount you boat needs to turn. Most sailors drive the boat too much, especially in flat water and medium winds. 7) Point high when the waves are very small and do not slow the boat excessively. If your boat is going fast in these conditions, use this opportunity to take a bite up to weather. This technique is most effective in medium winds where short chop alternates with smooth spots. After you understand the “when’s” and “how’s” as they relate to pointing high or driving off for speed, you should review your races. If the race was bad, my advice is to go back to the basics. This approach is common in other sports, also. In hockey, it’s skating, shooting and stick handling; in football it’s blocking and tackling; in tennis it’s forehand, backhand and serve. After a bad race or series, I find errors in my approach to one or all of the basics. Remember that the basics are not that simple. Within each area there is a wealth of complexity in the amount and rate with which you change the basics. For example, sail trim can be broken down into sheet tension, mast bend, foot and luff tension, traveler adjustment, and their relationship to each other. It is often said that the difference between a beginning and expert piano player is that the novice uses only one finger and the expert uses all ten. We all start with beginning level of competence mastery, but there are no real limits to what you can accomplish, be you a piano player or sailor!
Long identified with inland lake sailing, Gordy Bowers of Bowers Sails, Inc. has enjoyed a long and very successful sailing career. His many championships include five C-Scow, two E-Scow, MORC and DN titles. Also recognized for his teaching abilities, Bowers was selected as the Head Coach for the 1988 U. S. Olympic Yachting Team.