Dave Curtis On Going Fast
Republished from Speed and Smarts
During the past twenty-five years, Dave Curtis may have won more major one-design championships than any other sailor. He has captured world titles in Etchells, Solings and J/24s, plus national and/or North American championships in those classes and Lightnings, 110s, 210s and Interclub Dinghies.
How do you judge if it’s better to sail higher and a little slower or lower and a little faster?
The answer to that depends somewhat on your sailing style. I have sailed a lot against Judd Smith in Etchells during the past ten years or so. We are both very fast in the class, but we definitely sail our boats very differently. Judd is always higher and slower while I’m faster and lower. But our overall speed comes out amazingly similar.
The higher you try to sail, the harder it is to maintain your speed. So if you are unsure about what angle to pick, a high angle is more dangerous because it’s more critical and less forgiving. It’s usually better to pick a slightly lower course where you will be assured of better speed all the time.
Remember that when you want to point better, the first thing you need is speed. So make sure your boat is going fast first. Once you have good speed, then you can start playing a balancing game between speed and height.
This is difficult in heavier boats like Etchells because they decelerate at such a slow rate. By the time you realize you’re going slow, it will take you 30 or 40 seconds to get back up to speed because they accelerate slowly as well. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because you can point high and look good for a little while!
How should the telltales on the front of the jib be moving? How about the telltales on the main?
In light air, almost every boat wants to have the jib telltales streaming straight back on both sides. The lighter the wind, the more important it is just to get the boat going fast, and you almost don’t even think about pointing. This might hold true up to 5 or 6 knots. If the wind increases just another three knots, however, most boats will go from a non-pointing condition to a high-pointing condition.
When the wind is blowing 8 or 9, now your boat is at (or nearly at) hull speed, and you can start using your speed to make the boat point high. The jib telltales, which were flowing straight back almost all the time at 5 knots, should now be lifting up (parallel to the luff) almost all the time, especially in flat water.
The leech telltale on the top batten of the main is similar. In light air (up to about four knots), you want that top telltale flowing straight back almost all the time. To realize this, you must ease your mainsheet to get a lot of twist in the sail, and you may actually have to make the sail flatter (e.g. with more pre-bend). If it’s too full, the sail will stall sooner, and the telltale is a good guide for this.
When you have 10 knots of wind and flat water, you can trim the main the hardest and be in maximum pointing mode. On most boats I trim the main until the top telltale is stalled (curled around the back of the leech) for all but a few seconds out of each minute. It’s important, however, that the telltale flows straight back at least once in a while; otherwise, the sail may be overtrimmed. If in doubt, try easing the sheet a tiny bit since this will make it easier to keep the boat going fast and in the groove.
In general, as the water gets choppier, you want to have the upper telltale stalled less of the time. And, of course, your mainsail trim depends to a certain extent on the type of boat you’re sailing. An Etchells and a J/24, for example, like a mainsail that is trimmed harder (i.e. with the telltale stalled more of the time) than other boats.
When you are setting up the trim of your jib, what do you look for?
The first thing I do is set up the jib leads so the telltales break as evenly as possible up and down the luff. It’s important to mark the holes in your jib track (and all other sail controls) so you can reproduce the fast settings from race to race.
Another guide I find helpful is a telltale on the top batten of the jib. My rule of thumb is that I don’t ever want to see this leech telltale do anything but flow smoothly straight back. Once your jib trim is in the ballpark, then you just have to sail against someone else before the start and see how you’re going.
What’s the most common reason why people go slow upwind, and what can they do to fix this?
I think the most common reason why boats don’t perform well upwind is that their sails are not trimmed hard enough, especially the main. I’m guessing that people see the telltale on the main’s upper leech and think it should be flowing all the time. But we know if the top telltale is flowing in anything but the lightest air, the main is too far out. So you can’t be afraid to make the top telltale stall. If you don’t trim the main, you won’t point.
On the other hand, trimming too tight is probably the worst thing you can do for boatspeed. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, let it out.” Don’t get carried away, though. The most common complaint I hear from sailors is that they are not pointing as high as other boats. The best way to point higher is usually to trim your mainsail a little harder. However, you must be going fast first. The trick is finding a middle ground where you are trimmed tight enough for good pointing, but not so tight that your sails stall and make you go slow.
No matter how well you know any boat, there will be times when you get completely mixed up on the sail trim. You’re out of sync and slow. This is why I’m a firm believer in using lots of reference marks. I mark my jib halyard, jib leads, outhaul, mainsheet and backstay. I figure if we can get all these in the ballpark, we should be OK.
When we’re going slow, we let everything out an inch or two so we’re in an undertrimmed, bow down, fast mode. The goal is simply to get our speed up so we are sailing faster, although lower, than the boats around us. Then we’ll just start slowly trimming back in again and work on height.
How much do you “change gears” when you are racing upwind and how do you do this?
Once you've got your boat set up so you are pretty fast in general, the ability to change gears is incredibly important – you won’t be competitive without it. When conditions are variable, the ability to change gears will make more of a difference than not having your boat set up right in the first place.
The hardest thing for most people is changing gears when the wind pressure decreases. If you’re sailing along and you get a puff, that’s pretty obvious. People have to scramble up to the rail, the sails tend to wrinkle up, you get more helm and so on. But it’s harder to recognize when the wind dies because you don’t see all the visual signs that occurred with the puff. For example, the sails still look the same without any new wrinkles.
The ability to change gears in a lull is probably more critical than changing gears in a puff. That’s because when you get a puff the boat will accelerate even if you do nothing. Though your sails will be undertrimmed, this is almost always better than being over-trimmed. If you don’t respond in a lull, however, everything will be too tight and that will hurt a lot more.
One of the first clues you’ll get about a lull is having to move crew off the rail. When this happens, you should also start making other adjustments, like easing your main or jib sheet. If the wind changes in small increments (i.e. a knot or two), the first thing I do is adjust mainsheet trim, and that may be all that’s necessary. Sometimes I also adjust the jib trim slightly, and if the wind increases a little more, I might pull a tad on the backstay to match the mainsheet.
I like to keep things as simple as possible, so we don’t make a bunch of adjustments every time the wind changes. I generally don’t touch the cunningham, outhaul or jib lead position. Instead, I focus on the mainsheet, jib sheet, backstay and jib luff, in that order. This keeps us going fast, but still lets us focus mainly on where we’re going.
Why does it often seem fast to race with “speed wrinkles” along the luff of the jib and main?
A lot of people like to trim their sails so they are smooth and wrinkle-free. But that does not necessarily give you the fastest shape. Because sails get fuller and more draft-aft as they age, new sails must initially be flatter and more draft-forward than what is ideal, so they will last longer.
This means that if your sails are relatively new, you must use your controls to make them fuller and more draft-aft. One way to do this is to keep the luff of the sail pretty loose so you have wrinkles along the headstay or mast. This introduces a little more vertical camber in the sail and moves the draft aft. In essence, you are trying to create the ideal shape that will eventually stetch into the sail. As the sail ages, you can reduce the size of wrinkles in the sail.
Other speed-related wrinkles are the longer diagonal wrinkles that appear in your mainsail when you bend the mast a certain amount. We often like to see a hint of these wrinkles to know we have the correct amount of mast bend. If you don’t see these wrinkles, you may not be bending the mast enough to match the mainsail’s shape. The sail is not designed to have these wrinkles, but when you just start to see them, you know you are in the right ballpark.
Where do you put your weight in the fore-and-aft direction?
An Etchells is one boat where you want your weight forward. Since an Etchells is long and skinny, its widest part extends fore and aft quite a bit, so you don’t really gain much by keeping weight in the middle. I put my heaviest crew well forward to keep the bow in the water. This works on an Etchells but not a Soling because the Etchells bow is much more bouyant. That makes it painful to hit waves, so you want to keep the bow immersed.
How much heel do you want for going fast in different conditions?
I don’t like to heel any boat just for the purpose of getting more weather helm. I prefer to sail the boat fairly upright unless it’s really, really light. Then I think extra heel is good to steady the sails (due to gravity) as well as for generating some additional windward helm.
I think the general practice in most boats recently has been to sail more upright. While this may be faster, it is also a much less comfortable way to sail the boat. The boat usually feels better when you have more heel because it seems like you have a little more wind and the boat is easier to steer. When you have less heel, the helm is more neutral, but most good sailors seem to be able to get the boat to go faster. It’s definitely something that takes practice to make it work.
When you have more wind, the optimal amount of heel depends a lot on your boat’s characteristics. An Etchells, for example, will sail fast even with its rail in the water. You don’t usually need to depower the boat just to reduce heel because it is narrow and has a large, forgiving keel shape.
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