Sensible Tips for Improving Speed

By David Dellenbaugh. Republished by permission - Speed and Smarts

Unless you are lucky enough to sail every day, there are a few things you should do before each race if you want to be fast. One of the most important is to regain and refine your sense of feel, which is critical for understanding what the boat needs.

Besides becoming “one” with your boat, there are many ways to streamline the process of getting up to speed. Fortunately, the science of boatspeed is not as mysterious nor as technical as many people think. Good boatspeed can be achieved by any sailor, regardless of his or her level of experience. And the best part is you don’t even have to understand sailing theory in order to go fast. You just need some common sense, good observational skills and a learning attitude. Here is a “tuning for speed” checklist:

Practice a lot (if possible)

In order to be fast you must be smooth at boathandling, sail trim, changing gears, steering and much more. Those skills obviously cannot be perfected on your way out to the starting line, so try hard to find time when you and your teammates can go out practicing, ideally with another boat that wants to improve as much as you.

Utilize existing resources

When you’re trying to improve your speed, you don’t have to start from scratch. There’s a lot of information already available about how to go fast in almost any boat.

For one-designs, the best source of information is usually a sailmaker’s tuning guide (from your own sailmaker or others). Many of these are now online, which means they are easy to get, and they’re updated frequently. I recommend setting your boat up exactly like your sailmaker recommends, unless you are already very fast. Once you make this set-up work, you can try changing things and experimenting.

Other people in your class or fleet can also be excellent resources on boatspeed. Most sailors love to be considered “experts,” and they are usually very willing to share what they know. All you have to do is ask! After every day of racing, make it your policy to invest some time talking with the top sailors (skippers and crews) about their secrets to going fast. If you do this consistently, you’ll be amazed at how much you will learn!

Make sure your boat works

It’s hard enough to go fast when your boat stays in one piece. But if something breaks, it can upset your entire rhythm and kill your speed. So treat breakdowns as your enemy.

Before the season starts, go over your boat with a fine-toothed comb. Check all the places where you have the highest chance of a breakdown: your boom vang, hiking straps, hiking stick universal, clevis and ring pins running rigging, etc.

During the season, inspect these items before each regatta and then re-check them every race morning before you rig your boat. If you sail more than one race on a windy day, it’s not a bad idea to check some of these things between races. When it comes to break-downs, you can’t be too careful or too prepared.
In order to prevent breakdowns, treat your boat with respect on the water. In heavy air, for example, don’t make any unnecessary jibes. When you’re vang sheeting, ease the vang before you bear off around the windward mark. If you need more genoa luff tension, don’t just grind the halyard up with the sail fully loaded. Never scull with your rudder, always rinse your fittings with fresh water, and never let your sails flog unless it can’t be avoided. Remember, if you work on your boat, your boat will work for you!

Use other boats to help you!

It’s very important to understand that in almost all kinds of sailboat racing, the only way to truly judge your performance is by comparind it to the performance of other boats. In other words, boatspeed is relative. Of course, your instruments (if you have them) can help you sail faster. But even the most sensitive instruments cannot measure the subtle differences in speed and pointing that are so critical in sailboat racing. The only way to measure those is by guaging how you are doing compared to one or more other boats.

Almost every serious racing campaign, from the Olympics to the America’s Cup, uses two boats to leapfrog forward. So when you are trying to get up to speed before the season, or before any individual race, a big part of your plan should involve sailing with another boat.

Focus on speed priorities

There are many factors that contribute to good performance, and almost no one has enough time to optimize all of them. So identify the key elements and try to prioritize your time and resources to work on these.
Three obvious priorities are sails, rig tuning, and hull finish. Your sails, in particular, play a vital part in boatspeed. There are three reasons why every sailor should treat his or her sails with tender, loving care. The first is to maintain their fast racing shape as long as possible. The second is to prevent sail failures that could cost you a race or series. The third is to reduce the cost of replacing sails.

In the ideal world you should have at least three suits of sails: one beat-up suit for practice sessions where speed doesn’t matter (e.g. when you are practicing maneuvers); one pretty good suit for practice sessions where speed matters; and a new racing suit. Of course, not everyone can afford this, but if your resources are limited, put sails near the top of your boatspeed priority list.


Photo by J.H. Peterson

Quantify your trim settings.

If you want to improve your speed, you must be able to identify fast tuning and sail trim settings and then reproduce them from race to race, regatta to regatta and year to year. You won’t make much progress if you are fast one week but slow the next because you forgot how your boat was set up. This idea of reproductibility is a key building block for better speed.

In order to reproduce your settings, you must label and code all your sail controls. For most boats, you can do this with a few basic tools (see above) including a tape measure (for rake, jib lead position); a tension gauge (for rig tension); and a magic marker/tape or a number strip (for calibrating your backstay, outhaul, jib halyard, cunningham and so on).

Place a mark or a number scale on each of your key controls so you can see its setting while you are sailing. Whenever you feel like the boat is “in the groove,” note the corresponding trim numbers and record these in a notebook for future reference. The next time you go racing, start by setting your controls at the numbers that were fast for similar conditions in the past.