The Most Important Transition for Downwind Laser Sailing

The most important thing to understand about downwind sailing in Lasers is that every time you are off the breeze, there is a certain amount of adaptation required.

There is no one skill or technique used to consistently sail through the fleet, but rather a combination of practices, which allow more dynamic sailors to adjust and accelerate. As each sailor develops in their approach to downwind racing, a ladder of learning must be climbed, which starts with pressing and releasing.

Pressing is applying weight to the leeward side of the boat with your knee inside the cockpit or on the grab rail and/or tiller-hand on the gunwale. When downwind sailing, especially closer by the lee the opposing forces on your sail and boards reverse and the boat tips to windward. Using your weight to stabilize the boat over the leeward side balances the effects and allows the boat to sail straight and fast.

Using this to our advantage:
In lighter to medium conditions, you generally want to sail downwind with a setup that induces lee helm, which is when the boat wants to bear away. The biggest contributors for lee helm are sheeting out, loose vang and windward heel. If you considered taking the rudder out of the picture in this setup, your boat would certainly try to bear away (lee helm). By simply pressing and holding your weight to the leeward side you can stop the boat from bearing away, limiting the amount of lee helm before an inevitable gybe takes place. Precisely in that order of inducing lee helm, then pressing it out before gybe, you can create a big increase in speed, balance and allow for a flatter planning surface in your boat.

Learn this in our downwind clinics

I have just described to you one transition, which we call a ‘downturn’. The downturn is the simplest and most basic way of accelerating, catching waves and increasing VMG. What you do next is more important, and that is setting yourself up for another transition. Pressing will not only stop your boat from bearing away, but it is also used for heading up. How much you press, and where you press dictates how much the boat will head up, and what your next transition might be.

Lets take a look at the rudder:
With lee helm, the boat is bearing away to the lee, behind it the rudder follows, which means your tiller is to windward. When you press and hold your weight into the leeward side of the boat, it stops turning, and the tiller/rudder return to centerline of the boat, driving straight. At this point you are locked in, but the boat still has 2 out of the 3 characteristics of lee-helm (sheet out and loose vang) so it won’t head up any further. Releasing is the next step and the biggest struggle to do without forcing your tiller. With your weight spread out across the boat balancing, you need to take a leap of faith, and press harder into the leeward side with your tiller-hand, foot and knee pushing it down to leeward past flat. What we are trying to achieve is to break the lee helm completely and head the boat up to DDW (dead down wind) or slightly higher. The actual ‘releasing’ effect is when your tiller snaps over to the leeward side as a reaction to the boat completely losing lee-helm.

When you start to catch waves with perfectly timed downturns and releases, your speed is always sufficient enough to give you more options.

90% of sailors I’ve worked with, even very elite athletes still struggle with releasing properly. Between the timing, the amount of weight needed, and use of forcing the tiller too early to head up, there is a huge amount of speed and planning surface that is not being achieved. I often see boats SO close to releasing the lee helm, and just as it’s about to break, the sailor pushes the tiller to leeward forcing the boat to head up for a wave or directional reason but never breaking the lee helm. It’s unfortunate and breaks my soul when all that is required is pushing an extra 15lbs to leeward, and letting the boat release onto the wave and letting the rudder/tiller follow to leeward.

The difference is outstanding the to way the boat looks and reacts. Not only that, but it proves a bit of anticipation is required to get your timing right. When you start to catch waves with perfectly timed downturns and releases, your speed is always sufficient enough to give you more options. Although this is just the beginning to downwind speed, it is the absolute concrete technique for achieving the best speed off the wind.

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.

  • Toshinari Takayanagi

    This appears a very informative article, so I would like to digest better. I have a few questions.

    (1) For the “pressing,” is this the posture I see in the downwind leg in the following YouTube video: London Olympic Laser medal race,, around 24:00. I have also attached the screen shot.

    (2) If so, people do this in rather strong wind but we usually do not need to do it in lighter wind, don’t we?

    (3) For the “releasing,” is it basically put the body weight to leeward side rather strongly and suddenly to create extra weather helm to head up the boat?

    (4) And in this case, do we sheet in?

    (5) How this is connected to so-called “S-turn”? Transitioning from pressing to releasing, and if I further heads up and broad reach (upturn), is this essentially S-turn?

    (6) I guess if I can keep surfing in DDW direction, I may not need to do upturn. But if I keep sailing between by-the-lee and DDW, then I may not reach the leeward mark. Is this why people also do upturn to further run higher angle so that in average we can head to leeward mark? Or, it is better to gybe instead of running broad reach?

    (7) Or, S-turn is rather short cycle movement mostly to take advantage of kinetic effect?

    Thank you very much in advance.

    • Vaughn Harrison

      Hi Toshinari,
      1. Yes that is pressing. If I remember correctly, Tom is sailing very hard by the lee to maintain inside position on Pavlos. When hard by the lee, the boat requires a constant press to leeward (kind of like hiking) to increase the force relationship between foils and sail. Optimizing speed will bring the apparent wind forward, which calls for a slight sheet ease if you wish to hold the angle.
      2. Yes it lighter winds it is crucial part of acceleration. It’s comparatively like sailing upwind in 10 knots without hiking. The foils don’t create a resistance until weight is added to the leeward side of the boat.
      3. Yes. The rudder should drop to leeward and the boat would head up. In order to hold by the lee (tactical) as the screen shot of Slingsby shows, he has to force the rudder to windward.
      4. Sheeting depends on what direction the wave you are catching is heading, and what direction you want to go. If you want to sail dead down wind (DDW), some sheet should be added for balance (10 degrees).
      5. releasing from the lee to DDW gives you options to do S turns. With your sheet slightly trimmed in and surfing DDW, you can generate lee helm and weatherhelm easily, changing the boats direction and counter acting it with the appropriate body movement i.e. S turning.
      6. Yes, ideally you can be catching waves on the upturn as well. Combining the two is ideal, but sometimes wave direction doesn’t line up and you have to take your speed gained from surfing towards the mark
      7. S turns take advantage of kinetic effort to keep the boat surfing in a more narrow groove without the need to go back to “By the lee”

      • Toshinari Takayanagi

        Thank you very much Vaughn for the explanations!
        I also read the following article, and the body position explanation in the Youtube video gave me an intuitive understand about the pressing. It is really like hiking out in non by-the-lee sailing. It is fun to understand the new concept!