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Boat Handling With Jon Emmett ALL RELATED BOOKS

Boat Handling With Jon Emmett

Book Extract

The phrase ‘boat handling’ refers to any skills that are not directly related to straight line speed.

These can often be practised on land where the boat is securely tied to the trolley, and you can analyse very carefully what is best to do with your hands and feet with no risk of a capsize.

The important thing is to be able to perform near perfect boat handling manoeuvres under pressure as this gives you lots of tactical options. For example, if you know that you can tack under someone without being rolled, or if you can gybe quickly making it hard for someone to cover you (or easier for you to cover them). You do so many tacks and gybes over the course of a race: if you can make each one just one third of a boat length better, cumulatively that is a huge distance by the end of the race, and many fewer points at the end of a series.

It is also worth noting that slow speed boat handling skills, like those required pre-start, are very important too. It is not all about achieving rapid acceleration: being able to slow down, hold position and turn without going over a start line are all very important.

Practice makes perfect so, if you think of all the boat handling that you do during the course of a race, it is obvious that boat handling drills are an essential part of any campaign. When sailing high performance boats for the first time, just being able to get around the race course in the upper wind range can be a real achievement (and it is perhaps worth making sure that your first couple of sails are done in light to medium breezes!).

It is advisable to get your boat handling to a reasonable level before you hitch your boat up to go to your first open meeting as you cannot race effectively if your boat handling is not up to scratch (your strategy and tactics will be compromised if you cannot tack / gybe or get around the marks efficiently).

That old cliché: ‘time on the water’ is definitely true when it comes to perfecting boat handling but remember that the more specific and demanding you make your training exercises, the greater the potential improvement. By doing a good range of exercises (rather than simply going out and tacking and gybing) it is possible to keep motivation high, and old skills can soon be remembered again with intensive practice. In fact, practising boat handling can be an excellent way of developing specific fitness (like doing fast spinnaker hoists and drops).

Don’t Apply the Brake
Using the rudder to correct the steering of a boat (forcing it to sail in a straight line when it wants to luff up or bear away) makes the rudder act as a brake. Therefore, any boat will probably be sailing at its fastest when using minimum corrective steerage.

Even in classes like the Laser, where you do lots of downwind turns, you still want to do this with minimal rudder movement (instead using the crew weight and sheeting to get the boat to turn).

Remember that when you are sailing in a straight line the boat needs to be kept flat. You can prove this to yourself by (briefly) letting go of the tiller and seeing if the boat carries on in a straight line.

When the boat is turning corners, you will, of course, need some rudder movement, but as much as possible you want the rudder to follow the boat’s turn (which is caused by crew weight and sheeting) rather than aggressive pushing or pulling of the tiller! Often the more body movement the better, as this is your opportunity to put some energy into the boat. You need to be controlled but aggressive – so big movements but remember to keep them smooth.

The first thing we need to do is define what a good tack is (much like before the days of sat navs we used to have to look at a road map to decide the best route to take before setting off). A good tack is simply one where you continue to make maximum progress upwind. For example, if you try to tack too quickly, then you are likely to lose speed in the tack.

There will be times when you simply need to tack as quickly as possible, perhaps because you overstood a layline, or you needed to tack to cover or break cover, but this is always for tactical reasons and normally you want to do the best tack possible (although you may go into footing or pinching mode later).

The exact actions of a tack are, of course, dependent upon the class. A heavy keelboat may well maintain its speed very well, whereas a catamaran may lose its speed dramatically, and this will be reflected in the speed of the turn. Different classes of boat will have different optimum pointing angles (and top speeds) in different conditions.

A good run-to-run gybe follows the same principle: you need to continue to make maximum downwind progress. So the speed, and indeed turning angle, may vary widely from class to class as well as across the wind speed range.

A good reach-to-reach gybe is simply about getting the boat going as fast as possible in the new direction, as quickly as you can! When rounding a mark, a wide entry will allow a narrow exit so, assuming you have room, this is the preferred method. If it is extremely windy (and you are in safety mode) you may want to do a run-to-run gybe first, then head up slowly.

In both tacks and gybes there are really three points:

  1. A slow smooth turn directly up or downwind: although the boat is slightly slowing, it is now pointing very close to the direction of the next mark (up or downwind).
  2. A large roll when the boat is either head to wind or directly downwind: the amount of roll is dependent upon the class of boat and the wind strength. 
  3. The second half of the tack / gybe needs to be fast: rolling the boat flat, sheeting in and moving the crew weight to the normal racing position as soon as possible. Exiting the tack the rudder must be straight, so that it does not act as a brake.

Remember: the tack or gybe does not need to look pretty. It doesn’t matter if you are not clipped onto the trapeze or whether you are holding the mainsheet hand right up in the air. As long as the boat trim / balance and sail setting is good, you will have good speed. You can worry about putting the tiller in the correct hand and tidying away the sheet later (as soon as you reach full speed).

Tacks and gybes actually have much in common: the movements of the hands and feet are to control the speed of the turn and the power in the boat. As the wind speed and rate of turn increase, these movements also increase, and the exact movements of the hands and feet will remain similar. In light winds you need to use lots of roll to power through the turn, whereas in strong winds you need to move across the boat very quickly to control the power.

Wind speed Boat handling type
Light winds Lots of body movement and sheeting to push the boat through the tacks and gybes. (A bit of Elvis Presley: Rock and Roll!)
Medium winds Continue to push the boat around the corners as ‘hard’ as you can. The key is to get the crew weight to the new side as soon as the power comes on.
Strong winds Safety first – there is little benefit in pushing too hard. Highly focused steering and crew positioning are crucial. If necessary, allow extra time to do the manoeuvres.


If the conditions of the day change, you not only need to adjust your rig for straight line speed but also to think about changing your boat handling. Sometimes (class dependent) it is not possible to change the rig during the race, so you may have to make large changes to your boat handling to compensate for being very over or underpowered.

The key area is transitions which may happen in a race. For example, in 25 knots you may ‘tack as normal’ whereas in a gust of 30 knots it may be sensible to do a ‘safety tack’. Likewise, if the wind drops you need to remember to use more roll in the middle part of the turn. Training in extreme conditions (very light or very windy) is an excellent way of improving boat handling and will of course make things seem much easier (when not sailing in extreme conditions).

When sailing downwind you are always looking for the route of least resistance and this means looking for the gap in the waves, so that you can carry on surfing without loading up the rig by turning into the bottom of the wave in front. The better the conditions, and the better the sailor, the more time you can spend surfing and often your speed is determined more by how many waves you miss than by how many you catch. Remember it takes far less energy to continue to surf than it does to get the boat to surf in the first place.

Even if it is possible to go over the waves, you are always looking for the lowest point to cross. When you start going over the waves you may start to jump clean over, so you need to be even more careful not to bury the bow in the wave in front, as hitting it at speed may lead to a pitchpole. At the point when you are going straight over the waves, you are now focusing on steering a straight line to the next mark, to minimise distance sailed, just like you would in non-surfing conditions.

When you need to steer over or to catch the waves good top and bottom turns become really important, especially in marginal surfing conditions. You need to position the crew weight perfectly so that the boat is finely balanced to go in one direction but can be easily steered by a small change of bodyweight to windward or leeward.

By moving the body weight to leeward the shape of the boat encourages it to head up without having to use the rudder. When the boat is on its new course you can then roll the boat flat. This uses the energy of the crew to steer the boat rather than the rudder, which can slow it down.

Similarly, by moving the body weight to windward the shape of the boat encourages the boat to bear away without having to use the rudder. When the boat is on its new (desired) course you can then move the weight in to flatten the boat.

When the boat is going in a straight line you should be able to let go of the tiller and the boat will continue in a straight line. Most classes of boat will sail fastest with minimum corrective steerage, as use of the rudder creates drag. So you steer the boat with body weight and sail setting rather than using the rudder.


Your position fore and aft is dependent on the wind strength: the lighter the wind, the further Forward you sit; the stronger the wind, the further back you sit.

The more kicker you have, the easier it is to make the boat head up but the harder it is to make it bear away and vice versa.


Advice from Olympic Gold Medallist (Laser class) Paul Goodison
Boat handling is the one area where everybody is capable of doing well; it is all about practice and keeping sharp.

I try to break down each manoeuvre into several sections so that it is easier to analyse. For example, a leeward mark rounding would be split into entry, transition and exit. Each one of these areas can then be broken down further. It is important to master the first stage before trying to perfect the next stage, as an error early in the manoeuvre may affect the end.

There is no better way to train than just repeating the manoeuvres until they are perfect. Try to be very critical when things aren’t quite right, and aim for perfection. Each small gain in boat handling leads to a much bigger gain on the race course; everybody will make small mistakes, so it’s all about trying to minimise these errors.


© Not to be reproduced without written permission from Fernhurst Books Limited.

Coach Yourself to Win is written by gold medal winning coach and 4 times world champion in his own right, Jon Emmett. It takes you through the 12 fundamental elements of successful sailing.

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