Getting the Best Speed from Your Steed

Getting the Best Speed From Our Steed
By Dave Ellis

PHRF racing is based on the relative speed of various classes of boats as observed over many events. Supposedly, a boat with great sails and a clean bottom, driven to its potential, should be able to sail to its assigned rating.

So, to do well in PHRF class racing we must have the speed to match the boat’s potential. If a J/24, for example, has sails several years old, a bottom that has fissured and cracked from drying out on the trailer and has a few dings on the keel from trailer rash, it would be difficult for it to sail to its 174 or whatever your PHRF rating area assigns.

What are some of the things we can do to get more speed from our steed?

Starting with the hull, yes, smoothness helps. In 1985 there were four identical 26-footers in Offshore Sailing School’s spring racing program. For four weeks they were all the same speed. Then one of the boats started coming in last in every practice race. Bill Shore was the guest instructor that week. He said, “Let me demonstrate how to race this boat.” He came in last.

Steve Colgate ordered the staff instructors to jump in the cool spring water to clean the bottom. There was a sort of jelly on the hull and foils, no barnacles. As soon as the cleaning was done, that boat did as well as any other. It had a different paint on the bottom that allowed the growth. Just a little goo made the difference.

Weight is a significant factor in a boat’s speed. A gallon of water weighs about eight pounds. Beer weighs the same. Drink it and put it on the rail, not in the cabin. All those extra sails below, the extra tools, ancient, waterlogged PFD’s, take energy to move.

Our engine for racing is, of course, the sails. If you have older Dacron sails, take heart. There is an advantage to low-tech sails. Unlike modern materials and laminates, Dacron sails can be coaxed into a decent shape for many years.

The Dacron mainsail will tend to have its draft gravitate aft over seasons. So you will have to apply a little more luff tension, either through more halyard tension or a Cunningham if you have one. Pull tension until the draft is about 45 percent aft if you have a genoa jib on your boat. A little farther forward if you have a blade jib.

Put wool ribbons on the top two battens. They should stream aft about half the time when going upwind. If they stream all the time, you probably need more downward mainsheet or vang tension. There is too much twist.

Sight up the back of the mainsail to make sure the top of the sail is not hooked to windward of parallel to the boat. This is especially important if your foresail does not go to the top of the mast. A fractional rig needs the mainsail above the jib to not hook and sometimes to twist off slightly even when not overpowered.

If you sail non-spinnaker, put an additional woolie or telltale two-thirds of the way up the sail and halfway between luff and leach. Make sure the LEEWARD telltale is streaming aft. Especially on a reach this shows the amount of twist to put in the main. If it is not streaming, let the boom lift until it does. It works. After Greg Fisher showed us this secret, my reaching speed improved so much that my Windmill was measured after an event. They thought it might be underweight.

As for outhaul on the main, if you have a big foresail, you need very little shape to the mainsail down low. An inch or two is usually plenty upwind. Any more and there is excess drag. Wind speed is slower down low, so that part of the sail will be Sailing in a header. A flatter sail down low is faster in most conditions. In a blow in waves you want some more shape down there as the upper sail is twisted off and not helping you along.

As for the foresail, use the halyard to get the draft about 30 – 35 percent aft.

Jib twist is controlled by sheet fairlead position. The sliding car should be set to make the telltales break just slightly earlier at the top than at the bottom of the sail. Generally, slide them forward slightly in light air and chop and then don’t pull the sail in as far. Slide them back a bit from nominal and sheet harder in a blow to match the twist in the main when de-powering.

Again, another telltale is needed, this time a few up the leach of the foresail. If you look under the main up at the back of the genny and see any of these telltales bending around the outside of the sail, you have pulled the sail in too tightly. If only the top one is not streaming, you need to either let the sail out an inch or so or, more likely, the fairlead car needs to go back a hole or two.

On most of our PHRF boats, except perhaps the J/24, which has to be sailed flat, and sport boats, the boat must be sailed “fat.” Don’t pinch. The sails in most breezes are doing the best they can, but speed is needed for the keel to work.

Once I was re-certifying for teaching the sport along with a group of instructors. I was the only racing guy there. When Sailing a Hunter 46, I found I was going to weather at the same speed and height as our accompanying Hunter 35. Later another skipper took over. He fell off five degrees from what I knew to be optimum. A few minutes later we left the 35 in our wake. Embarrassing, but it taught me that big heavy boats need to be sailed differently than an SR Max or Martin 242. This is especially true with any wave action on the water.

Good speed can make our tactics and strategy look great. Think fast!