Tips for Tacks


Nabbed off the SAILjazz website:

Tips for Tacks

by Mark Matthews

On land, the most direct route between two points is a straight line. But for landlubbers who are evolving into sailors, this concept is sometimes a difficult one to let go of. In sailing, the most direct route is often a zig zag, and especially true when sailing upwind. One SAILjazz reader wrote to us looking for the best way to tack, we thought we’d weigh in on the subject.

Tacking is one of the most fundamental boat handling skills in sailing--an upwind turn through the eye of the wind. As anyone who has tried to sail straight into the wind will tell you, it can’t be done. The sails simply becomes a flag, robbed of its power of lift and you are left just sitting there in irons wondering what’s wrong. But get the bow of the boat aimed at 45 degrees to the wind, sheet the sails in tight, and away you’ll rocket. The problem is at some point or another a rock, fishing boat, dock, or other obstruction will be in your way and you’ll have to tack. Here’s how the drill goes.

First, there should be no surprises for your crew. A quick way to lose crew is to just shove the tiller over without telling anyone else what you are doing. So pretend your wearing your commander hat and epaulets and bellow the time honored command ‘Ready to come about.’ Hopefully your crew will answer ‘Ready,’ but make sure that they are. This means that they have the winch handle out of the leeward winch and have the jib sheet wrapped twice around the windward winch ready to go. There shouldn’t be any lines tangled around their arms or legs and that the pastrami sandwich has been put away. The boat will be heeling and the helmsperson should be sitting on the high, or windward side, of the boat. Sitting on the high side allows the best visibility on both the sails and any other boat traffic or obstructions around you.

Once everything is set with the crew, bellow out ‘Helm’s a lee,’ and push the tiller over to the low, or leeward side of the boat. Make the tack gradual. This keeps the boat moving with a full head of steam, which will make it more likely that the bow will get beyond the eye of the wind and onto the new tack. Jamming the tiller makes it a scramble for the crew and also disrupts the flow of water on the rudder, slowing the boat down. As the bow of the boat comes into the wind, the boat will flatten out. This is your cue to move across the cockpit to sit on the other side of the boat. The sails will begin to slat and make a bit of a commotion--now’s a good time to keep your head from hitting the boom. Keep the arc of the turn going. The jib trimmer should then release the leeward jib sheet, and begin pulling the jib in on the new leeward side, pulling by hand as much and as quickly as possible before putting the winch handle in and sheeting the sail in tight. The main will remain in the same position--sheeted in tight, and shouldn‘t need any adjusting unless a traveler is involved or the course changes. When sailing tender boats like dinghies in moderate to heavy air, it’s a good idea to have the mainsheet uncleated--just in case of some unforeseen anomaly. But in most instances, the main can remain cleated.

The completed tack. The crew is in new positions, the helmsman is on the high, or windward side, the jib is trim, and the boat is moving with a full head of steam.

The most important factor in any sailing maneuver is wind orientation. Before you start a tack, take a moment and notice what the wind is doing. Is it coming in puffs, shifting the angle that you can point higher or lower? Is it increasing, decreasing, or holding about the same? Are there any boats in your immediate area that you need to watch out for. Are there any boats upwind that can give you an indication of what may be heading your way? If there are boats that are heeling over more than you are, there’s likely more wind coming your way. If there are boats that are sitting upright, the wind may be lightening. Notice where the wind is hitting your face--when you tack, it should be hitting the same place on the opposite side. Also, notice the angle the boat is heeled before the tack. After turning up into the wind, it should be heeled the same amount on the other side. A common steering error for new sailors is to tack and then fall off too much, sailing through a larger angle than is necessary. It takes a bit to get used to--the shifting seats, the commotion of the sail coming over, the new view.

A good guide for how well you’re steering lays right behind you. Look at the wake behind the boat. Is it straight, or does the course meander upwind and downwind? Another great tool is a compass. Sailing with a compass doesn’t mean just looking at the compass, but rather checking it periodically, scanning the area ahead and upwind of the boat, noticing the sail trim, how the tell tales are flying, giving crew any trim requests such as tightening or easing the jib sheets, noting the course the boat is on, and repeating the process. Just after you tack, note the wake--it should be at 90 degrees to your previous course. The compass will also tell you whether your new course is higher or lower than it should be.

A few final words. Naturally, each boat performs a little differently. Some can sail into the wind higher, some sail into the wind a little lower, but after a few tacks you should be able to accurately predict what your new course should be. Depending on what size of boat you’re sailing, here may be all sorts of things the jib sheets can get fouled on--dinghies strapped to the deck, hatches, spinnaker poles, life rafts and the like have been known to foul a tack or two on larger boats. Also too, double check to see that there are stopper knots in the end of the jib sheets. These keep the jibs sheet from going through the blocks and up on deck. If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to tame jib sheets gone wild, flogging in the wind with the full force of the sail, well, you try to only do it once.

Tacking with Grace and Style!

I came across this article whilst browsing the SAILjazz website. 

Sailjazz has tons of information for the cruising wannabe.  I highly recommend it!