Downwind Sail Trim

As You Begin Your Downwind Leg

Loosen up the boat:
  • Backstay off
  • Outhaul slacked
  • Cunningham off
  • Main halyard loosened until speed wrinkles appear
  • Jib down (or halyard slacked if racing non-spinnaker)

Light Wind

In light wind it is critical to keep the boat moving at all costs. As soon as you begin to attain any appreciable speed the apparent wind will fall towards zero. Heel the boat heavily to leeward to improve the main shape and it's holding ability. This is particularly critical when sailing without a chute. Keep the crew movement to a minimum to prevent damping out the speed. Keep a light hand on the tiller. Pay particular attention to the masthead fly. Repeat the following ad nauseum:
  • Heat up
  • Gain speed
  • Soak down
In exceptionally light wind, e.g. <5 kts, move the crew as far forward as possible to get the transom clear of the water and reduce windage by putting some of the crew down below (which might make them seasick!) In this situation the driver should be sitting as close to the front of the cockpit as possible with the tiller extension fully extended.

Without a chute

90 degrees apparent is about as low as you can go without starting to stall out. When sailing with a genoa, keep the clew down to improve sail shape and drive.

Alternatively, wing the Genoa out and forward with the spinnaker pole (or a whisker pole if you have one) and ease the main out just short of the spreaders. Grab the main sheet wraps directly between the boom and traveler to get a better feel for the main tension. The goal is to use your arm to keep constant tension on the main sheet. As the pressure goes down, either from lack of wind or water action, bring the main in slightly. Ease it back out in the puffs. Avoid pumping the main (unless you want to be protested)! The jib sheets should be played the same way with a single turn around the winch if necessary. If the driver has all of the controls (in which case he will be steering with his toes) there is no communication needed to coordinate the slight adjustments of the main, jib and helm which will (should) be in almost constant motion (ok, not too much tiller motion if possible). This is feasible in winds up to approximately 10 kts depending on your strength, above that shift to using the main ratchet and a crew member for the jib or risk suffering a dislocated shoulder or torn rotator cuff. You should be able to get to about 150 degrees apparent using this technique.

Medium Wind

Heavy Wind

If you dont normally wear life jackets, this would be step number one. Our foredeck guys also wear harnesses in the heavy stuff and at night.I believe sailng in Cape Town qualifies me to write about heavy air sailing. Let's say heavy air starts at 25 knots and ends at 50 knots.
Dont be afraid to reef. Control at 35 knots with a full main is marginal. If there is going to be a lot of windward work, a single reef in 35 knots is well worth considering. If it is a short beat, followed by a long downwind leg, then leave the reef out. If the wind scenario is worsening towards 40 knots, then definitely stick in a reef. Dont even think about a spinnaker over 35 knots, unless it is a storm chute.

Just before the weather mark ease the kicker/boom vang otherwise you will find the boat very difficult to turn at the windward mark to go down-wind. (The boat will want to continue going upwind) Uncleat the main and let it run freely as you go into the turn. We put a stopper knot in the mainsheet to prevent the boom ever touching the shrouds. It will stop at that point of its own accord. If you fail to do this the chances are you are going to botch the turn or stall if you are going into a gybe. At the same time the headsail must be eased progressively. A smooth, fast downwind turn is crucial to maintaining speed. Keep your crew on the rail till the last possible moment if you are going into a gybe-set - i.e. the flatter the boat, the easier and faster the turn. Even better if you can induce heel to windward.

Dont rush your kite hoist. Settle down and take a breath. Assess your options. Backstay 70% eased (but not fully). Put some Kicker back on if you can handle the helm OK. Drop the Traveller fully down to leeward. Dont worry about the main outhaul - just leave the foot flat, as you will be going plenty fast enough and the hassle to pull the tension back on at the leeward mark is not worth the miniscule speed advantage you will have. Check the burgee for apparent wind angle. If it is forward of 110 degrees, dont waste your time with the spinnaker. Chances are high that you will spin out. First check out your position relative to the competition. If the angle seems a bit tight, we usually sail a little high to gain a better/easier downwind angle. Know your limitations. You will not carry a spinnaker much closer than 110 degrees apparent in heavy air and then you will need 500 kgs (1100lbs) of crew to do that. Being furthest to windward also gives you the clear air advantage to the bottom mark, but be aware of the opposition who are not going to fly a spinnaker attacking you with luffng rights.

Once you are happy with your position, check that your crew are all ready for the hoist. Try to hoist just after a gust. The boat will be going fast (less apparent wind). Now there must be no hesitation at all. The mastman must assist the pitman by rapidly hauling down on the spinnnaker halyard in long overhand pulls where the halyard exits the mast. The bowman assists by pulling the spinnaker by the armful out of the hatch. Whilst that is happening, the trimmer must start pulling the guy around so the clew of the spinnaker is about 2 ft to windward of the forestay. The helmsman should hold the boat on a lower course during the hoist to help blanket the spinnaker. During the downwind leg, the main trimmer should handle the spinnaker guy, whilst the helmsman temporarily handles the main. Otherwise the mastman can trim the guy if he is competent enough.

The moment the head of the sail reaches the sheave, the mastman must call UP! Now steer 10 degrees higher to help fill the kite. Try to get it to fill smoothly and not with a sudden jerk or snap. That is when spinnakers burst in strong breeze. Rather over trim the kite than under trim it in this wind strength. Avoid a spinnaker collapse at all costs. The consequences are very wet and very expensive! The moment the kite has set, get your crew to shift their weight towards the back of the boat and position them to keep the boat as flat as possible. Our rule of thumb is to have everyone aft of the front of the cockpit. This lightens the bow considerably and prevents the bow submarining. All the crew should be sensitive to boat trim. Encourage them to move their weight inboard or outboard rapidly according to balance the boat's movements/heel. (like you would do on a Laser)

Have a crew member with the kicker control line to hand. He should be watching the angle of heel and boom height above the waves like a hawk. He should be working on the kicker non stop and also on your command of "WEATHER HELM!" - Easing the kicker timeously can save you from many a broach.

Above 30 knots we usually dont drop the headsail if it is a shortish leg. Below 30 knots it is worth the risk of sending the bowman up to drop the blade. On heavy air days, have your lightest crewmember on the bow. Trying to steer a J27 in 35 knots with waves, with a local version of The Hulk up front is spectacularly difficult.

Your chances of broaching are highest during the hoist and during the strike and when you have just come off the plane.
Our boat starts planing at 10.8 knots. You will hear the telltale sound of the foils vibrating just before the boat starts planing. The moment the boat planes, all the trim work and helming becomes much easier.
Now settle down and enjoy the ride. Get into a groove where you are able to sustain high speeds. Get a crew member to call the gusts approaching from behind. Start turning down BEFORE the gust hits you. It doesn't matter if you are sailing below the mark. You can always heat up the angle after the gust has passed. Talk to your trimmers and tell them what you are doing. As the gust eases off, head a little higher and try to keep the boat on the plane. The trimmers must sheet in as you change heading. Talk and laugh a lot! Communicate.

If you are unable to sail an approximate rhumb line course to the next mark and are sailing lower than your intended course, rather keep the kite up until you reach the point where the angle to the mark is approximately 100 degrees. Strike the kite and two sail reach to the mark. Even though it is much slower than flying the kite, you will still be doing around 9 to 10 knots and if there are waves to surf, it is possible to keep the boat planing; plus you will have covered the major portion of the leg at a very high average speed. It also gives you enough time to sort out the 'knitting' in the cockpit and set the boat up nicely for the next leg.

Do the same with big waves. As the boat plunges over a wave, and the stern is lifted up, head up and trim in. As soon as your speed increases (surfing) trim in harder and turn square down the face of the wave. The apparent wind will move quickly forward and cause the spinnaker to collapse (bad, bad, bad!). Keep the sails sheeted tighter whilst surfing. As the speed comes down, ease sails accordingly. In very strong winds if the boat starts gyrating (rolling) from side to side, you can oversheet the spinnaker which depowers it and holds the clews down in a stable manner. The simplest way is to just pull the spinnaker sheet tweaker line down to the deck. The guy tweaker line should already be in that position. If you feel things starting to get out of control, remember that you have more control over the boat on a broad reach than on a square run. It is better to sail away from your course and stay in control, than have a bad broach on your correct course. Be optimistic. Fortune favours the bold. Inevitably opportunities present themselves allowing you to get back on course.

Gybing: You have two options in the heavy stuff. The first is a "granny tack" - A strike, followed by a tack, followed by a re-hoist. It is slow, messy and very uncool, but what the heck, we have done a few over the years. If you really dont have the confidence to gybe, it is an option.

Option 2: Gybe conventionally. Get your crew mentally prepared for the gybe. Pick your moment with precision. You want to gybe when you are going fast (less apparent wind) and preferably in a lull and going down the face of a wave. Start bearing slowly onto a square run. Make the call and do it loudly so everyone can hear the command. Your job as skipper is to gybe the boat decisively, but keep your rudder movements to a minimum. There must be no hesitation and the boat MUST be flat. EASE THE KICKER FIRST! When the main gybes over an eased kicker will allow a lot of pressure to ease out of the mainsail. The main trimmer MUST start bringing the sheet in otherwise you have to turn too sharply to get the wind to hook the leech of the sail into a gybe. Your crew must be ready to change sides instantly as the boom crashes over. If you allow the boat to heel, the boom WILL hit the water and the boat WILL broach. The pitman must ease the old guy tweaker and pull on the new guy tweaker. It is important that he does this quickly, otherwise the spinnaker will want to sky. The change in pressure with the sail lifting will initiate a broach. The moment the boom crosses start correcting the rudder and get the boat to go as close to DDW on the new gybe, as you dare. This requires a good deal of anticipation by the helmsman. In short, keep the angle of gybe as small as possible. Watch your foredeck guys and DO NOT sail above DDW until they have the pole in on the new gybe. Once they give you the thumbs up, make the call to your trimmers and start heading higher back onto your chosen course. Remember to get the kicker back on.

Rather do two long gybes, than four or more shorter ones. Every heavy air gybe creates the opportunity for a broach. Rather sail conservatively. Save the multiple gybes for light to moderate air. Remember that the J27 has a long and droopy boom. The name of the game is to keep it out of the water. The two golden rules are (1) keep the boat flat whilst gybing and reaching and (2) ease the kicker timeously.

Strike early rather than late. In this sort of breeze there will be a mess of ropes in the cockpit and you will need more time to sort things out and get the boat ready for the upwind leg. Have a mental checklist: Ease the kicker a bit, backstay on hard, outhaul on, cunningham on, traveller down. Approaching the leeward mark, gain a little height (if you can) to allow the last hundred meters to be sailed almost DDW. Seconds before the STRIKE command is given, start turning back towards DDW. The idea is to blanket the spinnaker as much as possible. If the headsail is down, first hoist it and winch on sufficient halyard pressure. The bowman goes to leeward and reaches for the spinnaker clew/sheet. The trimmer hauls down on the leeward tweaker line to bring it within his reach. The mastman must stay on the rail helping to keep the boat flat. The bowman gathers the foot into his arms and pulls both clews downwards, collapsing the kite in one fluid motion. He then jumps down into the forehatch taking the kite with him. The mastman now removes the pole. If things are very hectic, we sometimes keep the mastman on the rail and leave the disposal of the pole to the bowman once he has packed the kite away. This is OK to do, if your hardened up course is your favoured tack. If you need to tack soon after rounding, obviously get rid of the pole as soon as possible.

On the STRIKE command, the trimmer frees the sheet completely whilst the pitman releases the halyard completely - he must be well prepared and ensure there are no knots in the halyard. Sometimes we throw the halyard overboard to trail neatly behind the boat and uncoil itself in the water. It works like a charm. Try it. The trimmer controls the guy to allow a smooth collapse of the kite and retrieval down the hatch. We always found it superior to launch and retrieve through the forehatch, but others prefer the companionway. Stick to what you are used to.

Everyone, except the bowman should be back on the weather side as you round the leeward mark. In this windspeed there will be chop so you will need to keep your speed above 6 knots to punch through the waves. Dont pinch. Sail fat and fast and only start going for point once you are at 6,2 knots steady.

If the breeze is too strong to carry a spinnaker, pole the blade out on the windward side. That will give you a faster, more stable ride than if you leave it flapping behind the main. If you are gybing from a reach to a reach, you will not be carrying a spinnaker in 35 knots anyway. Turn fast and decisively and ease the boat onto a square run. Apply all the principles above and gybe with the smallest possible rudder movement to maintain speed. Settle down on the new gybe, get everybody on the windward rail and start trimming for height to get back onto your reaching course. In heavy breeze it is much more important to sail fast than to sail for position - so just forget about doing a snap gybe through 180 degrees right at the mark. You will end up boom in the water and screwing up to windward - and that is SLOW. If there are boats to windward of you, you could end up colliding with them and losing a protest. In other words - just dont do that!

Oh yes, remember to shout: "HEEEEH-HAAAH" as the boat starts planing. Have fun!

If you are caught out in 50 knots plus, you will be in survival mode. CLOSE THE COMPANIONWAY SLIDE AND PUT THE WASHBOARD IN SECURELY. In wild seas and 'mast in the water' broaches, the water level will be perilously close to flowing into the cabin. Start preparing for that scenario at around 35 knots. It is extremely arduous performing even basic tasks when the wind is above 40 knots, so always err on the side of safety. Chances are you will have one or more crew members feeling seasick as well, so be prepared.

Get the main rolled up (if you can) and sail just on the blade (up and down wind). Most races will be abandoned in this sort of wind strength so your objective will be getting the boat and crew safely back to harbour/harbor. If you have a storm jib or a number 4 on board and your crew are willing to rig it, then go for it. Forget about the outboard - it will be totally useless. I have had the J27 out in 55 knots peaking at 67 knots with just a blade up and we were being flattened (mast in the sea) every 20 seconds. It was scary. If ever there was a test of the J27's seaworthiness, it was that day, so if you can go smaller than the blade, then do it - the earlier the better.


Before The Next Leg

Remember to tighten up the boat before you begin your next upwind leg!

  • Giga Hurts
  • Smackwater Jack
  • Tesser