Sailing Downwind

Thread starter #1
Post all your favorite tricks/techniques for sailing fast downwind

My two favs

When sailing in slightly heavy air, pull up your centerboard a little bit, and then start pumpin A LITTLE, not MUCH. Your boat will rock, which is fast. If anybody protests you for rocking, just say that you lost control of your boat. You can't do this a lot, but only a few times can still be quite good.

Another has to be "s" gybing. it RULES.
#3, roll gybing, s-curving, planing, pumping, rocking, surfing, kiting, rolling, broad reaching, angles....
The list is almost endless so where do I start? Some of these are obviously legal and others illegal but I'm sure lee sailing has to be discussed in detail since that will gain you minutes: I was 90 seconds behind the guy in front last Sunday due to a slight boat setup mistake (remember to make sure your toestrap line is securely attached....) which lost me lots of ground upwind, by the leeward mark, I was only 15 seconds behind - I had gained 75 seconds on the boat infront just by sailing by the lee!!
What I do, and am pretty good at, is making up lost time going downwind. I don't know anything about sailing by the lee or anything like that so I sail a simple route.

- First, I stay on starboard tack the whole way if I can (depending on wind shifts)

- I heel the boat maybe 20 degrees to windward and ALWAYS heep my knees forward.

- I raise the daggerboard 1/2 way

- left hand (aft if on starboard) is on the tiller

- right hand (bow if on starboard) with main sheet in it and holding onto daggerboard.

You always keep you knees facing forwards so (just like when I posted about roll tacking) you can make quick changes in the heel of you boat. It may be very comfortable to sit with your knees facing to the other side of the cockpit but it can be costly. First, you are in a position much harder to correct the heel of the boat causing you to posibly death roll, and second, it is a lot easier to fall backwards out of your boat. (Trust me i have done that once and it cost me first place to fifth. We all had a laugh about that at the post race B-B-Q and some said I looked like a dog swiming after my boat that continued to sail away since the mainsheet was caught around the daggerboard. Once again, highly funny, highly costly.)

Hey Will, I would love to learn what sailing by the lee is. I'm terribly cofused. : (
Detailed Guide to By-the-Lee Sailing

This post is based on a post I sent to the Laser Mailing List a while ago and so is quite detailed, but has been corrected to take into account errors highlighted by Shevy Gunter and other mailing list subscibers. In addition, this post relates to lasers, although some other boats go well by the lee, the details of this post are laser specific.


Luffing: Steering the bow to the side away from the sail/boom. i.e: When
broad reaching, luffing would put you onto a course nearer a (beam) reach and
when by the lee, luffing would put you onto a dead run.

Bearing away: The opposite to the above statement. Using this definition
makes sense when looking at by the lee sailing in the context of tactical
advantages and rules issues as well as sail trimming.

Windward Side: The side opposite the boom, regardless of which side of the boat is closer to the wind.

What is the "Lee"?

If you sail on a dead run and continue to bear away, letting out the sail, the laser will not gybe as long as the sail is let far enough out. The laser can almost beam reach with the sail on the "wrong" side by just bearing off so far that the wind comes right round to the other side. Once you have beared off to an angle greater than 180º to the wind (further than a dead run) you are sailing by the lee. In other words, if sailing by the lee, another boat could be braod reaching on the same course a you but with the boom on the other side.

Boat Speed Advantages of "By-The-Lee"

Experience has shown that if you zig-zag down a downwind leg, you sail further in terms of distance BUT because sailing on a broad reach or by the lee makes the boat move faster, the greater distance is offset by the faster boat speed. Overall, in most conditions, if you sail side of a dead run and zig zag, you will get to the bottom mark before someone sailing the rhumb line.

The estimates and guesses of the Laser's polar diagram (a graph to show the laser's speed in different directiosn relative to the wind) show that by-the-lee should work in all but strong winds. Experimental findings back this up. In light
winds, to make good gains by the lee, large angles have to be sailed away from
the dead run (up to 35ºish) and as the wind increases, these angles decrease.
In strong winds however, the optimum way of zig-zagging to the bottom mark is
by gybing from broad reach to broad reach.

In light winds, by-the-lee is usually faster than broad-reaching because:

1) The rig provides a windward heeling moment, promoting "kiting" which
greatly improves boat speed.
2) The leech becomes the "leading edge" of the "sail aerofoil". A leading
edge no thicker than the sail cloth is much more
efficient in light winds than the mast which presents a leading edge much
thicker than the sail cloth, therefore creating bubbles of turbulence
etc in the front portion of the sail. So by-the-lee sailing promotes laminar
air-flow which is what sails are best at.
3) If handled correctly, a roll gybe from "lee to lee" will have more speed
through the period of the gybe. You will come out of the gybe with
the same speed as you went into it with but your VMG while the boat is gybing
will be higher. This is allowed by the rules as you exit speed = or <=
your entry speed.

Tactical Advantages of By-the-Lee

You can sail in any direction while staying on starboard tack.

You can sail very low to get inside overlaps before the leeward mark.

You have greater freedom to cover and shadow openents both infront and behind.

What You Need

You will need concentration, a wind indicator on the bow or the gooseneck and tell tales on the sails so you can have constant input from these airflow indicators to tell you where the wind is coming from and how its flowing over the sail.

Boat Handling When "By-The-Lee"

Points to remember:

a) The downwind leg is as stable or as rocky as you want it to be. (There
is an optimum "stability" slightly on the safe side of regular capsizes to

b) You can use the rudder to keep your mast upright and yourself out of the
water/back of the fleet...

c) Tell-tales and wind indicators come into their own downwind. Use leech
tales, steering tufts (wool suck each side of your sail) and a mast mounted
"Mini hawk" at gooseneck level for all round air-flow visibility.
The factors effecting stability are the rudder, the vang/kicker, your weight,
the centreboard and cunningham.

Other Points

I mention cunningham because although moving the draft forward upwind will
keep you out of the water, downwind it will be signing your own death
certificate. Always let your cunningham all the way off downwind.

More kicker tension = More Stability + Less Speed (Sailing is full of

More centreboard in the water = A bit more stability + Less Speed (The
centreboard will only keep you upright when sailing through the water fast.)

Lots of people read Steve Cockerill's excellent article on the "4th Dimension" (link in previous post) and don't believe how much the rudder can effect
boat stability. We all know the laser's rudder is small but this very fact
means that using the rudder doesn't over compensate for the boat heeling one
way, rendering the rudder a much more efficient, effective and less energy
draining method of keeping the boat the right way up. The 4th Dimension
article is well worth a read. To sum up the use of the rudder as a
"life-saver" downwind:

To flatten the boat, push the tiller "downhill".

(If heeling to windward, pull towards you as if you were going to gybe, if
heeling to leeward push away as if you were going to tack)

For a full explanation of how this works (with pictures/diagrams) visit the
rooster site and read the article by using the link in my previous post above.

Using your weight to flatten the boat is effective but can be "too"

By throwing your weight over to the "uphill" side of the boat, you will stop
the boat rolling the way it is but you will initiate another roll to the side
that you have just dived towards. This therefore needs care, judgement and
practice. (Plus quick reflexes)

In conclusion: To keep the boat upright and stable while sailing downwind, use
the centreboard and vang to set the "risk factor" and then use the rudder and
your weight to keep yourself upright. I find that if the rudder is not able
to curb the rolling, I need more vang tension. Only use your weight when you
really need to.

Kiting is very fast in a laser - this is when you heel the boat to windward by about 20º when sailing downwind to reduce wetted surface area and so surface interface friction as well as getting the rig's centre of effort above the boat's centreline resulting in a balanced rudder.

Notes about wind indicators:

A gooseneck mounted "Mini Hawk MkII" will tell you when sailing by the lee as it
will stop pointing into the apparent wind and will just point along the boom
(arrow pointing in the direction of the rig rather than the open sea.)

Steering tales attached near the luff of the sail will not register by the lee
well because of the mast's interference. Tufts set further back will register these changes better.

Use wind indicators to gauge how well the air is flowing over the sail rather
than just pushing against it.

General Boat Handling Notes:

Get on the waves and into the gusts!! Sail towards gusts and pick waves.

I cannot tell you how to catch/ride/surf a wave because the timing is all
instinctive and comes with practice. Just get out and practice when the
conditions are right. Look out for gusts and think about where there is more
wind on the race course as part of your overall race plan. Zig-zag over to
the favoured areas but remember:

Further Distance from the Rhumbline/Rest of Fleet = Greater Potential Gains +
Greater Potential Losses.

Use boat heel to steer the boat and keep the sail trimmed all the time.

What do I Mean by "Trimmed"?

Keep the sail "just on the gybe." This means that if you pull it in any further,
the boat would gybe. By trimming the sail like this, you keep the air flowing
over both sides as much as you can. A well tuned sail will have the leech
flicking but the more the leech flicks, the closer you come to a gybe so when
mastering this technique, keep the sail trimmed well out, just a bit looser
than flicking. i.e. Let it out well past 90º to the boat and then pull in until it starts to flick, ease out, then trim until it flicks again etc etc. Spinnaker guy trimmers do this all the time and jib trimmers do it in reverse.

"Marks + Mainsheet"

I expect you thought gybing just before the leeward mark and then having to
sheet in the 10m of mainsheet was bad.
If gybing "from the lee" onto the new upwind leg, you are turning through an
extra 20: and have about another 1.5m of sheet to haul in.

Add to that the multitude of other boats rounding the mark and you have a
recipe for lots of tangles and a bad mark rounding.

Some solutions have been proposed: Sheet in as you gybe - avoid the transom
tangles and sheet in faster. Or gybe earlier and execute a normal "wide-in,
narrow-out" approach. Both have their advantages but the early gybe is easier
to master so maybe learning the by-the-lee stuff first before moving onto
"crash gybes" might be better. Again, on the water practice is a must.

Gybing From "Lee to Lee"

When you find yourself wanting to gybe from one by-the-lee course to the
by-the-lee course on the other tack, sheet into gybe the boom, then bear away
using boat heel to maintain boat speed. Practice this and you will find
that you can use the boom's "crash" to maximise gybe speed while keeping entry and exit speeds equal as required by RRS 42.3 (a) (I think that's the correct rule but its somewhere in RRS 42.)

Final Conclusion

Get out and sail. All these techniques rely on a mastery of the boat handling
during practice races, training sessions etc before they can be used to
amazing effect at the real events. Try sailing by-the-lee without practice
and you will be slower than those who don't bother, so go out earlier before
the race or choose some races to sacrifice top positions in return for needed
practice and training.

Does this answer your question?
I realise this is not really a beginner's guide so if you want, I'll post another, simplified gude...
No...this is great Will. I just have one question - When you are sailing by the lee, do you sit on the side the boom is on or the side that it isn't on. I ask this because if you are sitting on the side that the boom isn't on than that seems like there is too much weight on that side because of the heel of the boat and your weight.
Thread starter #9
you sit on the opposite side of the boom, because since you let the boom out past 90 degrees with the mast, the boom can't come back, so it stays, and you can get MAJOR heel!! GO FAST!

last winter, i was sailing in a really big wind and scared out of my mind because of how fast i was going. i was completly out of controll. is there anything you can to to get controll of the boat or do you just tighten up all the cunn/outhaul/vang?

Downwind Sail Tuning & Control

NEVER tighten your cunningham downwind. It pulls the camber forward, creating a bulge along th eluff leading to excessive death rolling. Outhaul does not really have a stabilizing effect. For more stability tighten the kicker and push the board down. See my by-the-lee post for how to stay upright. Use your rudder to keep yourself dry.
Thread starter #18
Hey, if you are going fast Downwind, BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE, pull in your sail a little bit and hike off the back. It works, trust me. If you still are overpowered, THEN tighten vang (Kicker :) ) and outhaul a bit.

OH, and have any of you heard of a Blue Jay (Sailboat, not bird :) ) They have the biggest RUdders i have EVER seen, next to an optis of course (Actually bigger)