You have to train yourself to use your eyes, and this takes practice – Buddy Melges, in Sailing Smart
“Get your head out of the boat” is great advice for racing sailors, especially in small boats with limited (or zero) crew resources. This comes harder for sailors that didn’t grow up with a tiller in their hand. In this article, we’ll try to motivate you to work on this skill and suggest some practice techniques.
Why Get Your Head Out of the Boat?
Winning sailors can sail fast while looking around. After a race, any consistently successful sailor will be able to recall important strategic and tactical details about the race, including who was leading at various times, the major wind changes, the positions of the top contenders. They remember these things because they had their heads out of the boat, watching. Less skilled sailors will have a harder time remembering these things because they spent more of their time focused on sail trim, telltales, steering, compass, and other things in the boat.
What do successful sailors look for?
- Other boats – to determine position, spot changes in wind direction and velocity, adjust strategy, and anticipate tactical situations.
- Wind on the water – to anticipate puffs, lulls and shifts.
- Waves – to keep the boat moving.
- Course – to avoid mistakes, such as overstanding and missing marks.
- Flags, trees, smoke, clouds – to further detect wind changes.
How to Get Your Head Out of the Boat
This is the hard part. Ask successful sailors how they do it and they will often use generalities, such as time on the water. Like anything else, improvement requires focused practice. We reviewed several sources and found the following practice techniques.
Develop your senses by verbalizing
Sail upwind in puffy, shifty conditions. Sail for several stretches of perhaps 5 minutes each. During each stretch, verbalize the feedback you are getting from the boat on one of the following. As you verbalize, make adjustments to keep the boat properly trimmed and moving fast.
- Feel of the tiller: 0 for neutral, 1 – 5 for increasing weather helm
- Sound of waves as hull moves through water: slow, medium, fast
- Mainsheet tension: 1 – 5 for increasing tension
- Hiking force: overpowered, underpowered, max power for the conditions
- Angle of heel: too flat, too high, just right
- Next wind change: predict the next wind change – puff, lull, header, lift
- Sail by looking aft at your wake – angle of rudder to transom, shape of the wake, etc.
Develop the habit of testing
While sailing upwind in relatively steady breeze, or between puffs, practice making small changes in sail trim and steering and try to feel their effect. Several good sailors have said they do this constantly on the water so they can find the groove by feel, while still looking out.
Sail standing up
As a next step, try sailing upwind in a medium breeze while standing up on the windward deck. This may help you look at the water, as well as develop another way to feel the boat.
After you get more comfortable using your senses and testing, go out on a medium day with a crew or another boat and sail with your eyes closed. Use what you’ve learned to self-correct any sail trim or steering errors. Ask the observer to watch for other boats and give you feedback.
Striking a Balanced Helm – Sailing World
Simple Steering Tips – mySailing.au.com – discusses the need to practice sailing blind
Sailing senses: Tips from a blind winner – Yachts & Yachting
Fill Up Your Senses – Speed and Smarts Issue #92