Sail Faster with Less Hiking – Part 1: Steering

by Colin Gowland Published on
ISA Master Laser Clinic in La Cruz, Mexico

Fitness can really limit your upwind boatspeed when the breeze is up – consistent hiking on windy days can feel truly unsustainable. It’s a constant battle, with thousands of hours required in the gym and on the water to improve fitness. And while hiking may be paramount to upwind speed, there’s a lot of other technique involved that can help you go faster and even make hiking less painful. After all, there are some fast laser sailors who aren’t that fit. So what are they doing anyway that makes them so quick? This four part series will get you started.

  1. They are steering more
  2. Sail is setup for only 5° of weather helm, and setup with a wide enough groove to accommodate steering for conditions
  3. They handle gusts and lulls well
  4. They use their energy efficiently

Steering

Up the face and down the back they say! Simple as that. Well, not really. Good dinghy helming, particularly in waves, is an art so often overlooked by a large number of sailors. At ISA, we spend a lot of time analyzing and correcting steering accuracy, quantity and rhythm. And it isn’t learned overnight. This is true for Olympic athletes training at ISA and for masters sailors alike, all looking to take their performance up a notch.

There are some pre-requisites – setup a balanced boat with not too much weather helm. Set your sail so there’s enough groove to steer to. Be the correct weight for your rig and conditions. Know where close hauled is – and be able to sail it consistently. We can help with these aspects through coaching, some of them are not so easy to accomplish without the right knowledge.

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Once these pre-req’s are achieved, sailors can start to “steer” more instead of holding the rudder straight (or worse, cocked up 10° fighting all that helm). What’s the problem with a straight rudder anyway? I thought we were trying to keep it still to reduce drag here? Every coach since the beginning of time has been harping “Don’t use your rudder, use the sails and your body to steer”. They even make you REMOVE your rudder to learn this important skill.

We aim to have the tiller at centerline or crossing centerline when your bow splashes down at the bottom of the wave. This is crucial.

But we do want to steer, quite a bit – WHEN it gets wavy or choppy enough to slow us down and when there’s enough time between waves to steer well. To smash into a wave, even a small one, is to decrease your speed and setup a chain reaction of events that can really hurt performance.

We need to pull our tiller up at the very top of the wave to keep the bow in contact with the wave. Depending on the wave size, this might be a small or large pull – sometimes with the tiller crossing past the outside of the cockpit when viewed from astern.

 Cy Thompson

From here, you stay in contact with the water more instead of flying off that ramp, maintaining a long waterline.  This steer down should increase your little bit of weather helm somewhat and want to bring you back up – and almost as soon as you’ve pulled, it’s time to push back. We aim to have the tiller at centerline or crossing centerline when your bow splashes down at the bottom of the wave. This is crucial. If you keep pulling, you’ll have a big stall there and go sideways quick, not to mention, you’ll often get so low in the groove that you’ll become overpowered.

Note in this sequence, the time between these two shots is less than a 1/4 second. You can see the bow splash in the second image and the tiller has just barely crossed center.

Note in this sequence, the time between these two shots is less than a 1/4 second. You can see the bow splash in the second image and the tiller has just barely crossed center.

At that point, you’ve reset your angle to optimum for power and pointing, and you’re on your way back up the next wave or into a flat spot. Usually if your tiller is already centerline at the splash, you won’t need to head up as much as you’ve born away, it’s just a little, you don’t really steer way upwind up the back of the wave, because that bit of weather helm already brought you on angle. Then you’re at the top …so repeat… or you’re in a flat spot and you can keep it straight. This is just a starting point, give it a try and see how it feels. Watch the tiller and rudder motions of some champions and try to replicate that. Get a friend to video you and watch yourself. Or try and make it to ISA for one of our speed week or custom camps and we’ll help get your steering and other key skills on lock with technical briefings, personalized on water coaching, and video review. Our next article in the series will discuss boat balance and sail setup for wavy conditions.

This article is part of a four part series on sailing faster with less hiking. Don’t miss part 2 on sail setup and part 3 on gust and lull management.


Colin Gowland

Colin began coaching for ISA full time in 2015 and has been evolving his methodologies and technique under the close mentorship of Vaughn Harrison ever since. His coaching style has been described as patient, methodical and analytical.