Sailing a Fast Reaching Leg

Sailing A Fast Reaching Leg
By Dave Ellis

Unlike one-design boats, our PHRF races often have reaching legs. What can we do to our boat and steering to get an edge on free legs of the course?

Let’s start with light air. The boat needs power from the sails to move all that weight. So we need to make the sails fuller. The genny’s halyard can be slackened just enough so that little wrinkles start to appear at the luff. Don’t overdo it, but this allows the draft to go aft a bit and makes the jib a little fuller. If your backstay is adjustable, loosen it. Keep it a little snug on smaller boats since the mast slops around and shakes the sails if it is completely unsupported. Don’t forget to tighten the backstay to keep it snug as the wind increases, but never to upwind, mast-bending tension.

The genny needs to be led outboard of its usual upwind fairlead position. A snatch block clipped to a stanchion base, or a hole in the outer deck combing can be used. It should be clipped forward of the upwind position, too. If it were legal to put a whisker pole to leeward on the foresail, that would be very fast. But the rules-makers stopped that decades ago, because if the jib dipped in the water, the pole, unlike the mainsail’s boom, would not give. Something else would. But it gives you an idea of what we are trying to accomplish with the outboard lead. The rules also preclude leading the foresail outboard of the shear with a special strut or gadget. You can use your foot. You can lead it over the back of the boom on a high-cut genny. On really wide boats you can make the reaching lead just right. Strive to make the back portion of the genny not hook in toward the boat very much as it would to a great degree if it were led to the usual upwind position.


Set the foresail so that the telltale ribbons (the telltales just aft of the luff) all break on the windward side at about the same time. Err on the top ones breaking first. You will find that you will have some twist in the sail when the ribbons are all behaving.

As for the mainsail, again, make it full. Loosen the Cunningham, if any, and also the halyard a bit, as you did with the genny.

The outhaul should be loosened. If your main is on slugs or boltrope in the boom, let it out until wrinkles just start to appear on the sail along the boom. If your main is loose-footed, don’t overdo it. With too much slack, say over six to eight inches off the boom in the middle, you are just losing projected area to the wind. This is especially the case in a drifter, as the wind down low is even lighter, perhaps stopped. Then the bottom of the sail is just drag and you want LESS shape down there.

If you have a topping lift or lifting boom vang, snug it up to raise the boom just a bit. Otherwise, in light air, the weight of the boom pulls the main down and closes off the top area of the leach. You want twist in light air, as the wind aloft is faster and effectively is in a lift up there compared to the slower, headed air down low.

As for steering, if the jib suddenly luffs in light air, when on a reach don’t turn the boat. Instead, smoothly pull in both sails to match. It could very well be that you have simply sailed into less wind velocity. Until the boat slows, you will luff. No point in steering away from your destination and turning that big brake under water, the rudder.

More subtly, watch those leeward telltales. When they drop, you need to ease the sails. You may have to then head up slowly if it’s not a velocity increase. If both telltales drop down your boat is well low of the best direction for the sails. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether the helmsman or sail trimmers are to blame.

As the wind increases, the halyards get tightened. The boom needs to be pulled down with the vang instead of lifted. But the idea is still to keep the top battens parallel to the boom, not twisted off and not hooked to windward. That telltale two-thirds up the main and halfway between leach and luff is the key (see “PHRF Race Tips” in the April, 2006 issue for placement of these telltales). Make sure the leeward ribbon is flowing. If not, let off some vang for a little more twist. Make the genny match.

Steering becomes an issue as the breeze and waves increase. The best advice Sailing coaches give is to ANTICIPATE what the boat is going to do. On a broad reach, for example, any time a wave heels the boat to leeward the boat will tend to head up. Steer down as the heel begins, not after the boat has begun to turn. You will use much less rudder.


Conversely on the other side of the wave the boat heels to weather. Anticipate the lee helm and steer up a bit. You will be see-sawing the helm much less than the skipper who waits for the boat to round up or down. Without waves in a blow, if you find that your tiller or wheel has to be constantly held or turned more than seems comfortable to keep the boat going straight, you are slowing the boat by the rudder. Even huge ships monitor their rudder angles for best efficiency,

Try easing the vang, twisting the main off a bit to heel less, keeping the foresail powerful. The lower part of the sail will still work. This causes less drag than the entire mainsail slogging.

It is the heel that is causing the weather helm, so depending on the boat, often reefing the main or going to a smaller headsail, or both, will be faster than slogging along over on one side with the rudder straining to keep the boat going straight.

In puffy conditions, light air or heavy, remember the mantra: “Up on the lulls and off on the puffs.” Make gradual turns to the new course a few degrees up or down. Don’t overdo the down on a little light air puff until the boat has picked up speed. If you are going well and have a lull, hesitate on heading up in light air until that speed has come down to nearly what you figure it will be on your slightly higher course in the new, lighter breeze.

Reaching is the fastest point of sail. Make yours a little faster.