“Ask Ullman” is our newest feature. It is your chance to ask Dave Ullman any question about racing. We’ll post the Q and A’s monthly, so get yours in now!
Q: There is a rare group of people that have almost a supernatural speed advantage downwind (e.g., Ben Ainslie in a Finn, Buddy Melges in a Soling). What are these people doing differently than the rest of us?
A: The first thing about really successful sailors is their ability to concentrate. Many sailors will work hard up the windward leg, but as soon as they get to the top mark they will relax. The Ainslies and Melges’ know that this is the time that they can make the most gains and they really turn on the focus.
What they look for is this – they are always aiming at a low spot in the water within a boat length of them. They go for the spot, catch a wave and gain a boat length. At the same time, they are also looking beyond a boat length for waves and are willing to sail by the lee or heat things up a little to get to an area where they know that they can catch a good wave. If you are able to surf and your competition is not, you will make huge gains.
Sailing VMG is also extremely important, but you have to know instantly what your angles are. This comes with time in the boat and experience. You can’t simply know unless you have put in the time. The experienced guys and girls have a gut instinct and it shows. They know their angles instinctively.
If the wind is light to moderate, sail in a non-aggressive manner; but when the wind picks up, be aggressive. Work the boat, look for waves to catch and puffs to use to blow by the competition. It all pays small dividends, but over the length of a downwind leg small dividends add up to big gains.
Q: Can you describe your priorities after rounding the weather mark and hoisting the chute? Are you more focused on which side of the course has more breeze? Or what the competition is doing?
A: If you are only thinking about your priorities after you round the windward mark, you have already lost the race. Long before you get to the windward mark you need to have a game plan in place. You need to know which side is closest to the leeward mark and you need to know which side of the course has the most wind. All of this is evident as you are going upwind and probably will not change once you round the mark. Pick your side in advance and stick with it until there is a very good reason not to.
If you are able to bear away at the top mark to be on the right side of the course, now is the time to protect your position. Do not let the boats coming up from behind with more wind roll over you. If you have to gybe at the top mark, you also need to protect your position. But be careful to sail within your angles. It’s easy to start to heat things up only to find that you are sailing too much extra distance.
You also want to look for breeze and to have a gut feeling if there is enough wind to get you up on a plane. There is no point is hunting for wind if it barely increases your boat speed, but on the other hand if you see a line of wind and know that you will be able to get up and plane, it’s a very good trade and well worth going for.
The biggest gains are made sailing off the wind. Many sailors concentrate like heck going up the windward leg only to gain a boat length or two, yet downwind they can make up to ten boat lengths by just being a little smarter and concentrating just a little harder than the competition.
Q: Here’s a big question. I am a new keel boat owner, having started racing a Young 88 in Wellington, NZ in the last year. I am placing about half way through a mixed class fleet of 20 boats. We are still perfecting our trimming, and gradually improving crew work. Our class rival beats us by a good margin, having a well honed judgment of putting his boat in the right place, and seemly just getting that extra bit of speed. What are the three specific things as skipper I should focus on the most for a quantum improvement?
A: Unfortunately there are no three specific things to focus on. There is no quick fix. Winning races – indeed improving your overall position within a fleet – is all about making small gains. Working hard to get the little things right and working hard to minimize mistakes. A small mistake can cost you a lot of distance.
Probably the best thing you can do is hire a coach for the day. You need to spend more time in the boat, but there is no use simply spending time in the boat if you don’t know what you need to improve on. Hire a coach, have he or she give you some good pointers (generally speaking these could range from tricks on how not to oversteer or understanding and maintaining the optimal heel for your boat in different conditions). Then go out and practice on what you have been taught. You’ll show immediate gains with the help of coaching.