MAKING GAINS DOWNWIND: Your Instruments Aren’t Your Only Instruments


Last Thursday night during our evening racing series, I got pushed over the line early and had to restart. There were only three boats in our class—it’s still early in the season—but it was still good competition. We worked the shifts and the current on the first leg of a windward/leeward race and, by the time we got to the top mark we were two lengths behind the second boat and probably 14 lengths behind the leader. The challenge we faced was how to making gains two leading boats on the downwind leg.

Spoiler Alert: we did pass the second-place boat and almost nipped the leader on elapsed time – but we did win on a corrected basis. But what are the things we did that made the difference? Here’s a list:

  1. In the lulls, we heated up our course and burned down in the puffs. Sure, that’s not rocket science; however, we know enough not to get greedy in either direction. If we went too high or too low, we’d be sailing a poor VMG and could have hurt ourselves.

  2. The trimmer, tactician, and I (on helm) shared a steady conversation of data inputs. The tactician called puffs, the trimmer indicated increases and decreases in pressure on the sail/sheet, and I let them know if I was heating up the course or soaking to leeward.

  3. We didn’t let ourselves become mesmerized by the instruments. Sure, they help; but they provide data...not decisions. And, their readings lag behind the actual boat changes. We gained by “seat-of-the-pants” sailing. Feeling the boat slightly heel or flatten. Listening to the volume level of the water rushing past the transom. Getting our heads out of the boat...watching how we were doing versus the competition. If you only watch the instruments, you end up over steering. Most of the times if you sail by the speedo, the speed will crash and you’ll have to turn up a lot to get your speed back. But if you can hear or feel the speed going down, you can correct when you have only lost a few tenths.

    Soaking down promptly when our speed increased allowed us to pull even and three lengths below the second-place boat. When it was time to gybe we were ahead.

  4. We avoided small boat traffic when we could. With the smaller boats starting first, you end up having to wind your way through a crowd sometimes. We picked our holes better than our competition.

  5. We didn’t get tense. OK, a Thursday night beer can race isn’t the America’s Cup...but you can still get worked-up if you’re not careful. After we restarted, we left that faux pas behind us and returned to our game plan which was to tack to port soon after the start.

  6. Finally, we were sailing with we had a great time and, in the end, when we corrected out to win our division, we rediscovered why it’s called a beer can race.

    See you next Thursday night???


This video shows two sprit boats gybing their asymmetrical spinnakers and is a good compare and contrast exercise to learn about the best way to gybe an asymmetrical spinnaker. Watch the video and listen to the commentary. The video ran on UK Sailmakers Facebook page on April 23rd and one of our Facebook followers, Long Island Sound Sailor Wes Bemus, added a lengthy but very informative and instructional comment to that post. Here’s what Wes had to share making us all a little smarter about gybing an asym.

It may be worth cautioning your readers that a premature spike can make a gybe worse if the mid-girth of the kite is not pulled most of the way through before the spike. CHECKMATE and JOSS’ bow crews were both pulling from too far forward on the boat. Once the clew reaches the midbow position on the foredeck, they’re spiking the sail before the majority of it has rotated through. This makes the gybe slower by powering up the sail area above the middle of the sail that is still on the old gybe. You’re also slowing down the overall rotation of the sail around the boat by pulling the sail down and not aft before spiking. 

Good rule of thumb: anyone overhauling the sheet from ahead of the shrouds on a gybe is not improving that gybe.

What would also improve this gybe and overall sail trim would be a tighter tackline. You can see the sail falling to leeward with 6” of tack eased up in those conditions. After coming through the gybe, the sail will fall to leeward further into the mainsail’s lee and then take longer to power up and pop through with a saggy tackline slacking luff tension. If the sail wants to rotate to windward after the gybe, then it’s okay to ease it back out once the boat is at speed at its VMG angle. Another rule of thumb: even if it was working for you before the gybe, bone down the tackline before a gybe.

Also, CHECKMATE’s helm did not follow the kite through the end of the Gybe appropriately for the windspeed they were experiencing. The boat and main gybed before the kite came through and blanketed the spinnaker from filling on the new gybe. Furthermore, as the kite was loading up on port at 0:44, you see the helmsman turn down just prior to the “spike” from the female crew. Turning down depowers the sail and makes her spike take longer to have an effect on the sail. This S-turn driving is good for the traditionally windy conditions in Fremantle, but with no whitecaps and three crew on the low side, they should have been more comfortable using the wind angle pressure to pop the kite through and accelerate the boat out of the gybe. Any heel angle generated from doing so can be flattened out for more acceleration by a nice roll from the crew.

Finally, there’s nobody grinding on the new spinnaker sheet for the trimmer, which would help him get those last 3-4 feet in quicker as the helmsman turned up out of the Gybe to flip the luff through without needing a spike. Investing in an 8” handle does wonders.

Thanks, Wes. Good points made and lots to be absorbed. And, as we’ve said in previous posts, practice makes perfect and articulating boat handling best practices in this manner help us all become better sailors.


Before heading to Australia in December 2017 for their first Sydney-to-Hobart Race, the crew of Andrew Weiss’ CHRISTOPHER DRAGON had a briefing session with renowned ocean racer Richard duMoulin. Rich has over 25 Bermuda Races, a couple of Trans-Atlantic races, a few Fastnets, and at least one Hobart Race in his breaking the 100+ year-old Tea Route record sailing with Rich Wilson on a trimaran from Hong Kong to New York nonstop. In short, Moulie knows what he’s talking about. With a good deal of the Hobart Race expected to be downwind, duMoulin explained how to recover quickly and safely from the three most common types of spinnaker failures one could encounter at sea. Spoiler Alert: all three recoveries involve being set-up for a letterbox takedown.

A spinnaker in the water has a good chance of ending badly. Yachting World photo.

A spinnaker in the water has a good chance of ending badly. Yachting World photo.

In the Letter Box take down, the spinnaker is pulled over the boom and under the foot of the mainsail before being stuff through the companion way hatch.

This clip shows the tack line shackle opens un-expectedly on the Santa Cruz 70 WESTERLY. It can and it does happen!

  1. If the halyard breaks or halyard shackle opens—The most immediate danger in this scenario is the sail falling into the water in front of the boat with you sailing over it. Immediately the helm should steer closer to the wind to get sail alongside the boat rather than in front and underneath it. If done quickly, the sail will float on top of the water avoiding damage.

    The quick crew response is to snug the retrieval line, blow the tack and sheet, and execute a letterbox. Pulling the sail up and over the boom drains the water off the sail making it easier to retrieve. Interestingly, during the Hobart Race, Weiss’ crew encountered this exact situation—the letterbox was pre-set, the sail was retrieved safely, and the same chute was used again later in the race.

  2. Tack line breaks or the shackle opens—In this situation the helm bears off quickly to keep the sail in front of the boat while still aloft. If allowed to fly aft on the sheet, it can be difficult to control and ripped easily on the end of the boom. With the bow turned down, snug the retrieval line and do an immediate letterbox takedown.

  3. Sheets disconnect or the clew blows out—This is the most difficult of the three because you’ve probably lost the retrieval line attached to the clew. Someone will need to quickly run a new retrieval line to the tack of the spinnaker, bring the new line aft and run that line over the boom, and use that line for your letterbox. The helm must quickly determine which way to steer, especially on a sprit boat, so that someone can safely reach the tack and attach the new retrieval line. This happened in the 2019 Voile de St. Barths on the Marten 49 SUMMER STORM. The tack shackle released unexpectedly and our bowman quickly rigged a take-down line to the tack and we used it to pull the chute down into the companion way. There was no time to get the line through the slot between the boom and the foot of the main.

While this is a post on retrieving problem spinnakers, it’s also a testimonial for always being set-up for a letterbox takedown while sailing offshore. Remember, with the letterbox you can avoid a forward hatch take down which risks getting water down the hatch. And, you don’t have to have anyone on the bow (except for the blown sheet situation). Note: when setting-up for a letterbox for an asym chute, make sure the tack line is long enough that it will allow the sail to be fully retrieved with the tack line still attached. Either that or have in-place a remote trip line for the tack such as a Martin Breaker.

If you’re going offshore to race or do a passage, always have a retrieval line on the clew led over the boom to a snatch block on the windward rail and back to a cockpit winch. By tailing the retriever line on a winch, you prevent the sail getting blown overboard if the crew loses control of the sail. To watch our video on letterbox takedowns, click HERE.


The Salona 44 ANGER MANAGEMENT rounding the Organ Pipes off Tasmania’s Cape Raoul. Storm Bay is living up to its name with the wind blowing 35 knots forcing ANGER MANAGEMENT to sail with a double reef and No. 4 genoa.

UK Sailmakers Fremantle’s Geoff Bishop, a life-long sailor and has numerous Sydney-Hobart Races under his belt. When asked to sail the race again with his customer Tim Stewart (Esperance, WA) and his crew who did not have a lot of offshore experience, Geoff was wary. Doing the fabled Hobart Race with a raw offshore crew seemed unwise until Geoff and the lads adopted a different approach.

Here’s Geoff’s report on the race:

Close up of ANGER MANAGEMENT’s carbon X-Drive main with two reefs. The Lazy Cradle contains the mainsail’s loose folds.

Six months before the 2018 Hobart race, Tim Steward called me explained that he and eight mates wanted to tick off the Sydney to Hobart yacht race from their bucket list. I had sailed aboard Stewart’s Salona 44 ANGER MANAGEMENT at Hamilton Island the year before, they decided that they needed more UK Sailmakers’ sails and me to help them sail the race safely.

My thought was that we had a great bunch of blokes who lacked significant offshore experience—they'd never raced at night and never raced with a watch system. We managed to eliminate fire drills and high-stress situations, and they didn’t miss a beat!

ANGER MANAGEMENT sailing with her massive A2 and X-Drive mainsail.

Rather than risk crew or boat, heavy weather gybes where done by dropping spinnakers and re-hoisting. Headsail changes where bare-headed. We anticipated upcoming manoeuvres, we communicated effectively, and thus we succeeded. We got to the finish in a very respectable position; but, importantly, there were no breakdowns and the crew could hold their heads high.

On the first night, Anger Management was sailing downwind with the S4 in about 28 knots of wind, we where really doing well and at the front end of our fleet. Our helmsmen were steering well in the heavy air and the boat was recording its highest speeds, records were being broken. When it came time to gybe, the looks on everyone face changed from excited fun to absolute fear. I was reminded by the bowman that they had never had a spinnaker up in this wind speed plus many the crew had never ever sailed at these speeds and certainly had never gybed at night before. A quick reality check was needed; the headsail was hoisted, the spinnaker was dropped, the gybe completed, and then the spinnaker was packed and re-hoisted.

We found out that a lot of boats blew out sails that night, sails that would be needed later in the race.

It was awesome to see so many of the crew’s family members and supporters on the jetty to welcome them in. Memories made during the race and the following days in Hobart will last a lifetime. The speech from Tim and emotions from everyone on the dock after we arrived reminded me of how much of effort this dream had taken to make it possible not just from the sailor’s but the families and sponsors as well.

Tim Stewart commented, “As for the crew (Russell Bridge, Dylan Pinchin, Chris Ratliff, Mark Quinlivan, Robbie Johnston, Colin Maloney, Stuart McIntyre, Geoff Bishop, and Mark Wheeler), you couldn’t have asked for a better team. Not once did anyone whinge or complain about what was needed or being done, and when things weren’t going our way they just sucked it up and got in with it. Of course, this is all made easier by a constant stream of bad jokes and non-stop crap being talked about. I always knew when we put the crew together that we could rely on each and every one to play their part.”

When the sun rose the day after we finished, the team was excited to see a lot of racing yachts on the dock who had finished after us, they certainly loved their Hobart experience and where able to be proud that they didn’t just do the Hobart they raced all the way and finished way above where they thought they would.

For me, I was surprised and proud to see the amount of support this boat and crew had from their local community of Esperance. They had become one of the most supported boats in the fleet. In fact, a two-page spread in Yachting World Magazine featured Anger Management approaching the Organ Pipes. Their bucket list had another tick.


When you first learn about the Race to Alaska (R2AK), you quickly learn this really is not your grandfather’s yacht race. As the regatta’s website states: “No motor, no support, all the way to Alaska.
The physical endurance, saltwater know-how, and bulldog tenacity to navigate the 750 cold water miles from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska.” What you have to understand, however, is that “no motor” doesn’t mean “no power.”

Power? What power?
Simply put, anything short of an engine or motor. These sailboats are (of course) rigged with sails; but many have oars. Some have paddle wheels or propellers...powered by humans! The race starts in June 3, in Port Townsend and goes north...largely taking the inside passage to Alaska as centuries of native Americans and gold miners did. This was the first and now is North America’s longest wind & human-powered race. And there’s a cash prize!

Cash Prize
You, a boat, a starting gun. $10,000 if you finish first, a set of steak knives if you’re second. Cathartic elation if you can simply complete the course. R2AK is a self-supported race with no supply drops and no safety net. Any boat without an engine can enter. Last year 37 teams were accepted and 21 finished.

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Teams...did you say teams?
There are currently 30 teams registered and their names are not to be believed! One of the UK Sailmakers powered teams is Team Shut Up and Drive from San Francisco. Sailing a Beneteau Figaro 2 will be Nathalie Criou, Satchel Douglas, Neil Roberts, Tanguy De Lamottem, Justin van Emmerik, Robert Dieterich, and Jeremiah Edwards, Brett Bova. Seen in the photo below, Nathalie’s comments follow:

“We have entered Race to Alaska (and Oregon Offshore Week and the Swiftsure as primer races and to learn about the Pacific Northwest) and we are equipping our Figaro 2 with new sails and a twin pedal drive to compete in the event.”

Being ready – Anticipating
“Thanks to UK Sailmakers, we will be leaving with a pretty-full sail inventory for a Figaro 2 as we anticipate encountering pretty much every kind of condition: no wind at all (pedal drive, no sailing) to light air (UK Sailmakers’ genoa and mainsail, or a bowsprit with an asymmetrical spinnaker), to medium air (UK genoa and mainsail and large symmetrical spinnaker off a pole), to heavy air (reefed UK mainsail, jib, and perhaps even Storm Jib or a small symmetrical spinnaker). And, if the wheels really come off, we’re also looking into a Trysail.”

Why did you select UK Sailmakers’ sails?
"After a year of racing and four genoa failures, we were looking for a high-performance sail that would survive blustery San Francisco conditions and give us a balanced sail plan with our big mainsail. We needed a jib that can stay up into the 20- knot range, but still have shape in lighter air. We couldn't be happier with our new UK Sailmakers Titanium genoa."

"Oregon Offshore Week, Swiftsure and R2AK have significant upwind portions and given its size, the mainsail on a Figaro 2 has a huge influence on performance. Our challenge is that we need a sail that will be light, maintain its high-performance shape as long as possible, and still be solid enough to allow us to race in very heavy weather conditions. The compromise between performance and durability is one of the hardest to achieve in sailmaking, and the combination of carbon and Endumax is really exciting.”

Follow Team Shut Up and Drive at:


Anyone who has been on the water in past years has seen the growth of the cruising (and racing) catamaran market. With many checking in at 50’+, these dual and triple hull boats have redefined how sails are made for them. Here are some facts that will improve your multihull sailmaking smarts.

Why Multihull and Monohull Sails are Different?
With the increased stability multihulls enjoy due to the two or three hull configurations (ok, they can capsize but stick with the storyline for now), multihull sailplans can develop relatively heavier loads than monohull sails. When a monohull heels, more of the wind spills off the back of the sail. Multihulls can stand-up to loads that would over power a similarly sized monohull. As such, the sails made for multihulls are different. How, you ask?

How the sails differ
Let’s start with the sailcloth itself. Because the loads are much more on multihull boats, UK Sailmakers chooses the materials based on their ability to stand-up to excessive aerodynamic pressure. Hydranet Radial is the most widely used fabric and currently the most popular in multihull boats. However, UK also manufactures X-Drive® sails for performance-oriented multihulls from time to time because X-Drive sails have demonstrated their ability to maintain shape and, thanks to their continuous yarn construction, avoid catastrophic seam failures.

Dubois 60 Catamaran.jpg

Other Differences
Multihull sails differ from monohull sails from the design of the sail to the equipment used in finishing them. These sails differ a lot in the production and finishing techniques that can range from full-length battens to leech tension adjustors to headboard systems that will allow you to put a cover over a fathead main. Designs vary from sail to sail and the lack of backstay gives us the freedom to design a wide roach. Also, there are differences in the twists and roaches on the other sails. Because these boats don’t sail as close to the wind as monohulls...but at greater speeds, multihull sails tend to be designed and built with less draft.

And, whereas sail weight is often a factor on monohulls (racers and cruisers alike) sail weight is a little less important for multihulls with greater consideration given to managing the loads developed.

UK Sailmakers Turkey is enjoying a booming business making sails for larger multihulls. The competence of their machine park and the size of our stitching table gives us an advantage in this market.

Next time you see a large multihull sail by, take a moment and see what differences you can notice in her sails.


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Here are two photos from the start of the 2019 Patos Island Classic race in Sydney, BC, on the east side of Vancouver Island. The winds were in the high-teens. 

On the left is a C&C 35 with her overlapping genoa sheeted in tight; her mainsail luffing and the boat heeled way over. This is not a fast set up. Heeling so much doesn’t allow the keel to produce enough lift and the boat goes sideways. While the shape of the genoa is flat and smooth, the boat is out of balance because the mainsail is luffing so much. This makes steering a straight course difficult. Trying to get away with a sail that’s too big for the conditions is not fast!

On the right is Stuart Dahlgren’s Santa Cruz 70 WESTERLY—on the breeze with a Uni-Titanium® No. 3 Genoa and the world’s largest X-Drive® mainsail. Both sails are from UK Sailmakers (Stuart runs the UK Sailmakers Northwest after all). He’s got the bodies on the rail, a down-sized headsail reflecting the wind conditions, and the boat is pretty much on her feet roaring upwind. 

Maybe this was a situation where this is the only good headsail aboard...or they didn’t have time to change it. A better alternative to luffing the main would have been to quickly throw a reef into the main to reduce sail plan power. Had they reefed, they could have trimmed the main to a point where the leech was flying, providing the “point” that only the back end of the main provides. 

Next time you’re warming up pre-start, don’t only look at the line and which side of the course is favored; look at your sail plan vs. the wind predictions and be ready (not afraid) to make a last-minute change. Oh, yeah, if you race and you don’t have good heavy wind sails, talk to your local UK Sailmaker. Having the right sail for heavy air will help extend the life of your light wind sails along with getting you to the finish line faster. 

Andrew Madding photos


Texan Mark Belanger sails his Hunter 430 out of Houston’s Lakewood Yacht Club on Galveston Bay. Mark is a cruiser who single-hands his boat regularly and has been sailing for years with a set of old Dacron sails. Ask Mark and he’ll tell you that he’s had it when it comes to lugging around, hoisting, furling and generally dealing with old, heavy Dacron sails.

Mark also races on his friend’s Hanse 455. Not a racing boat, per se, but since UK Sailmakers Houston suited-up the Hanse with a new set of Carbon X-Drive® sails, the Hanse has been having its way with most of the more traditional racer/cruisers.

Back to Mark. So, you’re the guy crewing on an OPB that has a brand-spanking new set of X-Drive sails. All you can say to yourself is how envious you are of those sails. They are light; their shape is beautiful; they are known for durability, and they are affordable. Sail envy!

But, when it comes to his boat and his pocketbook, Mark is still a single-handed cruiser. He talked to the folks at UK Sailmakers Houston about his options. Mark was in luck. The Loft Manager explained that UK now offers X-Drive Endure® performance cruising sails made with narrow Endumax® ribbons instead of carbon yarns as on his friend’s Hanse. X-Drive Endure sails have tested nearly as well as carbon in strength and stretch resistance is much better than Dacron, which means cruising sails can be made with the same performance as racing sails while having a clean, classic white appearance.

In addition to providing great-looking performance sails that are light and extremely easy to handle, UK Houston also redesigned the Hunter 430’s sail plan balancing the boat for Mark. He no longer has to fight weather helm every time he goes sailing...and that’s another real plus.

Summing it all up, Mark said, “I wanted something from my boat that gives me performance, is easy to manage, and is nice and light. For me, buying X-Drive Endure sails was a no brainer. Unless you’re trying to save money by buying the cheaper Dacron sails, X-Drive Endure is the solution.”


The Santa Cruz 70 WESTERLY coming off the starting line flying her Uni-Titanium No. 3 and X-Drive mainsail. The trimaran DRAGON is just to leeward. These two boats had a great battle all the way around the 67-mile course. Andrew Madding photo.

The Patos Island Classic is the Vancouver Island Racing Series’ opening regatta sailed on three different courses: the 67 nm Long Course, the 43 nm Short Course, and for those not wanting to sail past dark, a Day Course. This year’s start was postponed for two hours due to winds of 35 knots gusting into the 40s at start time. The Day Course was cancelled, but the two distance course fleets eventually started. Three boats stood out for their performance on the long course.

The Course
This is race is known for fickle conditions and lots of strong currents and is sailed through islands between Vancouver Island and the Mainland (see charts). Patos Island, the race's namesake, is a small American island and the course is sailed quite a bit along the border between Canada and the U.S. Interestingly, Patos Island can be rounded in either direction which is normally a big tactical factor as there are quite strong currents around the island and often a wind shadow on one side.

The 67-mile Long Course adds a rounding of Beaumont Shoals.

The Race Goes To – WESTERLY
When the race finally started, it was still blowing in the 20s; but quickly dropped to into the low teens for most of the race. Overnight, the wind died to almost nothing for a few hours before filing back in to the low 20s.

Stuart Dahlgren, owner of the Santa Cruz 70 WESTERLY noted, “This is one of my favorite races; I really like that you can decide for yourself which way to go around Patos. With the course going through a lot of narrow passes, the wind can present quite a challenge. I’ve done it eight or nine times and I have recognized many patterns. For instance, while the windward end of the starting line was favored, I knew to start at the leeward end because that got me to the more favorable current first as we sailed out of the Bay."

Monohull vs. Multihull
Aboard his trimaran DRAGON, Duncan Gladman, found himself in a match race against Dahlgren’s WESTERLY. Gladman reported, “We thoroughly enjoyed our 8.5 hour battle with Westerly around the course. We were unable to get by them until we gybed around Stuart Island on the Patos layline. The angle to Patos was good for DRAGON as we were able to peel to the J0 and leg out on WESTERLY in flat water with favorable current and 12 - 18 knots of breeze. Rounding Patos, and going on the wind, we knew holding off WESTERLY would be very difficult. Sure enough, they reeled us in and rolled by to leeward (always a painful experience!) as we passed South Pender. Stuart then put the big blue boat into point mode and pulled out in front and to windward. We both tacked onto starboard approaching Canoe Rock, but we sailed into a light spot while WESTERLY vanished into the darkness.

WESTERLY went on to finish first in Class One and first overall on the Long Course. DRAGON won Class 0 for multihulls.

Dufour 34P INVICTUS, finished second overall. Andrew Madding photo.

What about the smaller boats?
Vern Lhotzky's Dufour 34P INVICTUS finished first in Division 3 on the Long Course and second overall. If the wind hadn’t shut off, they would have been first overall. Lhotzky had ordered a bunch of new sails from UK Sailmakers: an Endumax Titanium main, Endumax Titanium AP No. 1, a carbon radial laminate No. 3, a Drifter, and a new symmetrical light/medium running spinnaker. So he could use them in this race, UK Sailmakers Northwest put in a rush order and delivered the five new sails an hour before the race. No time to test or try was out of the bag and go!

Vern said all the sails were great, “The new UK Sailmakers Drifter was the clutch sail when the winds went lite overnight, helping keep us keep up with much faster boats. We were ugly fast! We had a rock star aboard, a great crew and some really fast sails. We used every sail in our inventory. I just ordered a new UK Code Zero yesterday.” While the close delivery was a sailmakers nightmare, the sails not only fit perfectly, they were fast.

J/35 MOONLIGHT MILE was first overall on the short course. Andrew Madding photo.

On the Short Course
The Division 1 of the 43-miler was swept by UK Sailmakers powered customers, who took the top four places. Sailing with a mix of older UK Sailmakers sails, John Vassallo sailed his J/35 MOONLIGHT MILE to first in Division 1 and first overall. He was followed by Kim Hutlet’s C&C 35 Mk III QUERIDA, Steve Lipscomb’s Hotfoot 31 BORDER REIVER and Jeff Lloyd’s Bavaria 40 PRAIRIE DANCER.

A Baker’s Dozen UK Podium Positions
The 2019 Patos Race was a great one for UK Sailmakers’s customers. Thirteen boats finished on the podium. Not a bad way to start the season.

Andrew Madding Photos


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Ensign Padin?

Ensign Padin?

BY Buttons Padin
While in the Navy, we junior officers of the deck would monitor approaching ships by tracking their position on the surface search radar screen with a progression of grease pencil dots on the screen. We were always the center of the screen, so all the tracking was relative to our course and speed. We would then use a tongue depressor as a straight edge (yeah, pretty fancy tools in those days) to connect the dots and determine if the contact would pass ahead or behind us...and its CPA (closest point of approach). If the CPA was less than one mile, our standing orders were to wake the Captain at any hour of the day. Crossing situations with ships at sea can be messy if not anticipated properly. In sailboat racing, however, you rarely have the luxury of tracking an approaching contact in such a disciplined manner.

Think Trees!

Here is a series of images from the start of the Caribbean 600 where quickly and accurately tracking relative positions was critical. The Pogo 12.5 HERMES, on port tack, encountered two starboard tackers just off the cliffs near the port end of the starting line. HERMES managed to thread the needle and make it through rather than having to tack back toward the cliffs. But how did she know she would make it? How could she be sure she wouldn’t get tagged with a foul at the start of a 600-mile race?

Note the tactician moving to where he can see the crossing situation clearly.

HERMES did not have some young Ensign below glued to a surface search radar scope in this crowded part of the race. Instead, if you look carefully, you can see her tactician watching from the stern during the whole crossing situation making sure they were crossing cleanly. When racing inshore, the best way to figure out a crossing situation is to watch what happens to the shoreline in relation to the other boat’s headstay. If that boat is moving forward against the shoreline, she is crossing you. If the other boat’s headstay is moving backwards on the shoreline, you are crossing. If the shoreline is not moving, and you are the port tacker, it is time change course; either tack or ease sheets and duck.

Watching the shore line is called “Making Trees” because you are either making them or losing them. If you are racing along a city front, you can be making buildings. Your crew can have some fun. Sometimes when the bearing is changing slowly, I tell the helmsman, we are making leaves – instead of whole trees. The speed at which the horizon appears or disappears is an indicator of how much relative gain you’re making (or losing)...your CPA.

The second option is when there isn’t a shoreline behind you. In this situation you can use a hand-bearing compass. If you are on port tack and the bearing numbers on the other boat are increasing, you are crossing. If the degree readings are getting smaller, you are falling behind. If you don’t have a hand-bearing compass, use something fixed on your own boat as the fixed position against which to judge the relative movement of the other boat. You can use the leech of the jib or a station to leeward or a fixed fitting on your boat as the base. Remember, if your boat changes course, you'll have to start free on checking the bearing against that part of the boat.

OK, you’ve determined your relative position is moving ahead on the other boat, but what is the CPA? This is the tough part of the equation. If you’re only gaining trees slowly, chances are you may not have enough of a lead to get your stern past her bow. If you’re not making any trees at all and the range is closing (what we called SBDR in the Navy--steady bearing, decreasing range), make sure the folks on the rail are ready to tack.