Preventing the Death Roll in the Laser

The death roll is the most common way to find yourself swimming. Moments after slamming into the water, the boat proceeds to turtle, leaving a helpless, swimming sailor to scramble to recovery gasping for air through the cold water and frustrating slurs as the fleet passes him/her by helplessly.  I don’t know who first started calling it a death roll, but I have a good idea of why. In simple explanation, the death roll is when the Laser capsizes to windward when sailing downwind.

The only way to save yourself from capsize is using a combination of body weight and sheeting to achieve proper balance; on their own you are likely to flail.

The best thing I can do to help you keep the boat upright, is first tell you WHY your boat wants to roll on top of you.  The key to staying upright and making the boat go fast is balance.

  1. The Laser is most balanced when sailed with opposing pressures of your body hiking off the side and a properly trimmed sail. hint: the greatest opposing pressures on the boat are achieved with more leverage (moving your body weight further from the sails to the back of the boat) If the boat is sailed closer to the lee the opposing pressures are reversed and the pressure for your body is required on the leeward side of the boat. An improperly trimmed sail will force you to make uncharacteristic movements that effect the balance and speed of the boat. Most common is when a boat is bearing away with the sail eased too much.
  2. I have a rule of thumb: Imagine a straight line between your leach and mast at it’s most open* position *(normally 3/4 of the way up your sail) then dedicate to keeping that line perpendicular to the wind’s direction as you bear away all the way to a downwind course.  You’ll notice that once you reach a dead run your boom is not all the way out. Nearly everyone marks their mainsheet so that your boom stops at 90 degrees.  When sailing in breeze downwind, this setting is extremely dangerous and is definitely the leading cause of most death rolls.  If the point on your leech gets in front of the point on your mast, you will initiate a death roll.

Learn this in our downwind clinics

In short:

Now take this into account when changing directions in the boat. When you head up to a broad reach, you must bring in your leech using your mainsheet and move your body weight to windward and aft. When bearing away to the lee – let your sail out as your bear away, but never too much, and lean your body over your feet, pressing on the leeward side.

The only way to save yourself from capsize is using a combination of body weight and sheeting to achieve proper balance; on their own you are likely to flail.


Vaughn Harrison

When Vaughn isn't coaching sailors at our week long, all-inclusive Laser clinics in Mexico, he continues his work with countless Olympians, youth and masters sailors. He coached at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and founded ISA in 2008.