The Importance of Changing Gears

By David Dellenbaugh. Republished by permission - Speed and Smarts

My favorite sailor, Buddy Melges, is fond of describing one of the secrets to his many successes over the years. "You just have to present your boat for Mother Nature" says Buddy. What he means is that you must change the trim of your boat and sails so you're ready for whatever puffs, lulls or shifts Mother Nature sends your way.

Buddy grew up sailing on the small, shifty lakes around Wisconsin and he knows that 'changing gears' (adjusting the setup of your boat) is absolutely critical to keep going fast. You can't trim your sails for maximum performance in seven knots of wind and expect that same trim to work when the wind increases to nine knots or drops to five.

I have always liked Buddy's use of the word "present" to describe this process. In order to "present your boat for Mother Nature" you must get it all ready before Mother Nature arrives. In other words, you have to anticipate the changes that are coming and make the necessary changes before they reach you.

For example, if you first become aware of a puff when you feel your boat start to heel over. it's too late.

You are already losing power, failing to accelerate quickly. and turning your rudder too far to fight excess windward helm. You didn't present your boat for Mother Nature.

Instead, you should have seen the puff on the water before it hit you. This way, you could have change gears (by hiking harder, dropping the traveler, getting a little extra backstay etc.) just before and as the puff hit. The energy that was previously wasted (because it went into heeling the boat and/or spilled off the sails) is now used to move the boat forwards.

The Car Analogy

One of the best ways to improve your boatspeed is to increase the percentage of time that you spend sailing in the right "gear" For the sake of simplicity, sailors often describe a sailboat, like a car, as having several gears. These cover the range of upwind sailing and are described below.

First gear is used to accelerate when you are going slowly, while fourth gear is used to handle excess power when you are cruising at full speed.

Third is used when you have maximum pointing, and second is a transition from first to third.

These four gears are not defined in black-and-white - they are simply helpful guides. Honestly, I don't know of any sailor who says, let's shift into second gear now"

But I know many good sailors who anticipate changes in conditions and continually make all the trim adjustments on the next two pages.

Obviously, you don't have time to make every change listed for each gear. So you have to prioritize. The key settings are the ones that will have the biggest immediate impact - like your mainsheet, jib sheet, boat heading and position of crew weight The most important thing is to be proactive not reactive. Be sure to present your boat for the wind and waves that are coming.

Upwind Gears



First gear is the mode to use when you are going relatively slowly and you need as much power and punch as possible for acceleration.


Second gear provides a transition from the power of first gear to the pointing of third gear. It is a good overall compromise in moderate conditions.


Use first gear for

  • Straight-line sailing in very light air
  • Light air when you have more waves than wind
  • Whenever you need to accelerate from a very slow speed and you don't have much power
  • After tacks
  • Coming off the starting line
  • Punching through motorboat waves
  • Sailing in bad air
  • When you want a very wide 'groove'

Use second gear for

  • Flat-water sailing in light or very light wind
  • Medium breeze when you have a lot of chop
  • Whenever you're close to full speed but still need to accelerate
  • When you need to be in "foot" mode
  • When you're in first gear and you want to shift up to point higher
  • When you're in third gear and you need to shift down to go faster.


In first gear, "press" on the jib (i.e. bear off far enough) so both the windward and leeward telltales flow straight aft. lf the windward telltales lift at all, you are sailing too high. If the leeward telltales stall, you are sailing too low.

In second gear sail with the windward telltales lifting up somewhat from a straight back position. This could be anywhere from about 10 degrees to 40 degrees above horizontal.

You should not see any luff in the front of the jib.


  • Mainsheet eased
  • Boom at or just below centerline
  • Mainsail twists so the top batten angles slightly to leeward
  • Top main telltale flying
  • Backstay slack
  • Outhaul eased
  • Cunningham loose enough so lower main luff has wrinkles
  • Jib sheet eased
  • Jib lead forward
  • Jib twists so mid-leech angles a bit to leeward
  • Jib luff tension loose so there are hints of horizontal wrinkles along luff
  • Max headstay sag
  • Mainsheet trimmed so top batten is parallel to boom
  • Telltale at end of top batten bows almost all the time
  • Traveller pulled to windward so boom is trimmed on cenlterline
  • Outhaul slightly eased
  • Cunningham slightly tensioned or slack to maintain some horizontal wrinkles
  • Jib lead in "normal" position
  • Jib sheet trimmed so mid-leech is parallel to centerline.