Match racing always puts a premium on tacking. The seventh and final race of the 1988 Canada's Cup was a perfect example. Going around the last leeward mark, we had a half-boatlength lead over the Canadian boat, Steadfast. All we had to do was hold them off on the three-mile beat to the finish, and we'd win the series.
The crew of Steadfast didn't make things too easy. They decided early on that their best chance of winning was to tack us to death. So as soon as they'd cleaned up their spinnaker gear, they started to tack. And tack. And tack.
At first we were able to camp right on their wind, and we pushed them back. To get clear of us they did a double-tack (two quick tacks), and that didn't help them either. But as soon as they got out of phase with us (on the opposite tack), they settled into a good tacking groove. Now they were starting to gain slowly. They did a little better job of handling their boat, and we worked frantically to improve our rhythm and slow their gains.
By the time we got up near the finish, the two of us had done 55 tacks, and we were still clinging to a small lead! Steadfast almost got by us twice, but each time we were just able to hang on and force her to tack away. We finally crossed the finish line 11 seconds ahead, and that gave us the series. Fortunately, our tacks had been good enough to hold on when the going got tough.
The psychology of tacking
Tacking -– the process of going from closehauled on one tack to closehauled on the other -– seems like a fairly simple maneuver, but it actually involves a complex set of adjustments to your helm, crew weight and sailtrim. These become especially tricky if you're tacking in big waves or a lot of wind, if your crew is numerous or inexperienced, or if you have to tack suddenly.
The first and most important thing to remember about tacking is that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Except in a few cases where you can roll-tack a dinghy in light air, you'll always lose distance when you tack. Therefore, the decision whether to tack or not should never be taken lightly. You must be convinced that the advantages of tacking will outweigh the disadvantages.
What are the advantages? Well, tacking can help you take advantage of windshifts, stay in clear air, and sail toward the next mark. What are the costs of tacking? This depends on wind and sea conditions, the type of boat, and the ability of skipper and crew. In moderate air and flat water, a keelboat like an Etchells-22 may be able to tack without losing even half a boatlength. But in light air and lumpy seas, a less efficient, lighter hull like a Flying Scot could easily drop two or three boatlengths. And you can double these amounts if your crew work is not good.
So, before you decide to tack, think a minute. Is this move really necessary to implement your strategy or execute your tactics? Will the potential gain be worth the distance lost in the existing conditions? If not, or if you're in doubt, it's probably better to be patient and save a boatlength or two.
Once you've decided that tacking is the right move, don't just push the helm over and climb across to the high side. First take a look around. If you tack right now, will you smash into a wave in the middle of the tack? Will you wind up in dirty air? Will you foul another boat? You have to be sure of a few things:
Tack at full speed. First of all, you have to be moving before you can turn the boat. If the water isn't flowing quickly over your rudder, then turning it will do more for braking than steering. So don't tack unless you are up to full speed. People like Dennis Conner are masters of what's called "down-speed tacking," or tacking at less than full speed. This can be a great tactic in match racing when you're just behind the other boat. But it really has no place in fleet racing.
Look for a flat spot. There's nothing like a good, square wave to kill your speed in the middle of a tack. So before you turn into a tack, scan the water to windward and ahead for a relatively flat spot. In wavy conditions it's smart to avoid spur-of-the-moment tacks. Leave yourself some extra time to pick the best places, and you'll be amazed how much you can gain on the competition.
Stay clear of other boats. One of the potential pitfalls of tacking is getting mixed up with other boats. Remember that Rule 41.1 says you must stay clear of your competitors while you're in the process of tacking. So make sure you don't tack into the oncoming traffic. You also want to be sure that once you complete your tack you'll have clear air. Tacking is costly enough by itself, but if you end up in bad air at the same time it can be very depressing.
Preparing to tack
Of course, there's one other question you must answer before you actually begin to tack: Is everyone on your boat ready for the maneuver? I remember one tack in a heavy-air Thistle race where I did things a little too quickly. My middle crew, who had been droop hiking on the windward side, couldn't pull himself up before the boat turned, and he ended up in the water on the new leeward side. Needless to say, this didn't help our speed or our psyche.
Anticipation. The best way to prepare for tacking is to be ready for it any time. In the ideal world, we always have at least several seconds of warning before a tack. But in reality there are times when you have to throw the tiller over and hope everyone makes it across the boat.
Your goal, therefore, should be to maximize the warning time you have for any tack and minimize the number of crash tacks. To do this, you must look ahead, anticipate, and have contigency plans in mind. For example, let's say you're sailing on port tack on a collision course with a starboard tacker. Your crew doesn't know whether you're planning to tack or duck behind this boat (since they can't read your mind). The wrong thing for the skipper to do is wait until the last second and then say "Tacking." A better approach is to outline the situation ahead of time: "If we don't cross ahead of that boat, we'll tack to leeward of him."
By anticipating this type of situation, you can buy yourself some time and turn those last-second tacks into works of art.
Communication. The whole subject of contingency planning brings up the importance of good on-board communication. Sailboat racing is a team sport that requires precise cooperation among skipper and crew. Nowhere is this more critical than in tacking maneuvers.
A good tack requires precise turning of the helm, shifting of body weight, and trimming of the sails. The skipper is the orchestra conductor; he or she sets the tack in motion and then trusts each crewmember to play his or her part. The basic communication goes as follows:
Skipper: "Ready about?" (a few seconds before the tack)
Crew: "Ready." (each crew answers)
Skipper: "Hard-a-lee." (pushes the helm over)
For the sake of expediency, I usually modify this procedure slightly. I tell my crew that when I say "Ready about," I'll assume they're ready unless I hear something to the contrary (e.g. "No," "Hold on," or "Wait"). This saves time and works best with a skilled crew that is usually ready to tack at a moment's notice. Don't try it unless you've discussed it, however, because silence often means the crew didn't hear you or is confused.
Once you've found a good reason to tack, and you've picked a good spot and prepared for the maneuver, you must execute the tack. The actual mechanics of what you do with the helm, weight, and sails are critical for helping you come out of the tack with as much speed as possible.
Three ways to turn
Remember that tacking requires a very abrupt turn, and that whenever you turn the boat, you slow down. So the primary goal when tacking is to minimize your loss of speed. How can you do this? By using all the turning techniques available to make the boat's turn as gentle, smooth, and painless as possible.
As I've described earlier in the book, there are three basic ways to turn any boat. The first and most common way is by using the rudder. Unfortunately, as we know, the farther you push the tiller to one side, the more of the rudder's surface area is exposed to the flowing water, and the more the rudder will act as a brake.
A second turning technique is using your sails. By adjusting the trim of your main and jib, you can turn the boat around its underwater pivot point. For example, if you want to turn toward the wind (such as when beginning a tack), you should overtrim your main and undertrim your jib. By sheeting hard on the main, you increase windward helm, which makes the boat want to head up. And by easing the jib, you relieve pressure on the forward part of the boat, making it easier to swing toward the wind.
A third way to turn your boat is by using crew weight to affect heel. Because of their underwater shapes, most boats tend to turn one way or the other when sailed with heel. If you heel a boat to starboard, for example, it will turn to port. If you heel the boat to port, it will turn to starboard.
Going into the tack
They say in bobsledding that the way you enter a turn has a lot to do with the way you exit it. The same is true with tacking.
Pre-roll. In most classes, it pays to heel the boat a bit to leeward to help turn the boat into the wind. This lets you begin the tack with a smooth, gradual turn and minimal use of the rudder.
Rate of turn. Most tacks should start slow and end fast. As you begin the tack, let the boat almost turn itself into the wind. Just before you get head- to-wind, at the moment the crew moves to roll the boat, push the helm over harder. Turn a light boat more quickly than a heavy boat, and when you're in waves you have to spin harder than in flat water.
Mainsail trim. As you begin to turn the boat into the tack, trim the main a little beyond your normal upwind setting. This firms up the leech, gives you a little extra windward helm, and makes the boat want to turn faster into the wind.
Rolling. Any boat, no matter how heavy, can benefit from roll tacking. To roll the boat through a tack, the entire crew should hike or lean out on the old windward side just before the boat reaches head to wind. The biggest mistake is rolling the boat too soon; if you do this, you will actually work against the boat's tendency to turn toward the wind.
Jib trim. Don't let the old jib sheet go until the boat is almost head to wind and the entire sail has started to luff. If you release the sheet too soon, you'll lose the extra punch you get from keeping the aft part of the sail full as long as possible. (Before you release the old sheet, make sure you have the new one in your hand.)
Face forward. As the crew and skipper move from one side of the boat to the other, they should turn in a way so they face forward. This keeps you looking in the direction you're going. It also lets you watch the sails and maintain a good sense of balance as the boat heels.
Slide aft. As the skipper and crew make their first move of the tack, it can actually help to step aft slightly. This raises the forward part of the boat a little, which lets the bow swing more easily through the water and reduces the chance of hitting a bad wave.
Coming out of the tack
The way you come out of a tack is also critical for maintaining speed.
Roll it back. When you're roll-tacking, make sure you complete the tack by moving to the new windward side and hiking the boat flat. Do this very gradually in light air and more forcefully in a breeze. Remember, Rule 54 allows you to bring the boat only back up to its normal heel angle for sailing (and no further).
Balance the boat. In anything but full-hike conditions, one or more crewmembers should end up in the middle of the boat as you come out of the tack. By being in a crouched position facing forward, they can easily move either way to finish off the roll and adjust the heel to the way it was before the tack.
Jib trim. As soon as you release the old sheet, start trimming the new one. You want to come out of the tack with your jib eased just slightly from the normal upwind setting. After a tack, trim the sail so this mark for the normal trim setting is not quite to the cleat. This will help the skipper find the correct angle for exiting the tack.
Exit angle. The helmsperson should turn the boat enough so you come out of the tack on a heading slightly lower than closehauled. With the jib and main eased slightly, the boat should accelerate quickly on this course. As you gain speed, trim in the sails and head up so you hit closehauled and full speed simultaneously. (In roll tacks, the boat should return to its normal heel angle at about the same time, too.)
Get into the groove. After a tack, the most important thing for the helmsperson is to get back into the upwind groove. Let your crew do the looking around while you focus hard for a minute or two.
Improving your tacks
One of the toughest parts of tacking is knowing when you're doing it correctly. Some of the motions are so subtle that it's difficult to know the difference between a fair job and a great job. Of course, the bottom line in tacking is how well you perform against other boats on the race course. Unfortunately, this is not as easy to measure as something like straight-line speed.
One of the best techniques is watching yourself on video. Get a friend in a motorboat to follow you with a portable video camera (if you don't have a motorboat, put the camera-person on the end of the dock and position your tacks accordingly). Then review the tapes with your crew; you'll be amazed at how much you can learn, especially if you can compare your tacks to those of your fleet or class champion.
There are other ways to improve your tacks. Since tacking requires a high degree of coordination among crew, the best use of your time may simply be to practice. Another good idea is getting involved in match racing. The tacking duels will give you a great chance to measure your performance against one other boat, and you will undoubtedly learn about much more than tacking.