Downspeed Maneuvers: The Key to a Better Start

After having done my pre-game research and having a good idea of where I want to start, I set up on the line, then use the remaining time (usually between 1 minute to 1:30 left) to create a bigger hole to leeward, and defend from poachers. The skills to increase your hole are known as “downspeed maneuvers” and they can be classified as:

  1. Shooting Up
  2. Sailing Backwards
  3. Double Tack

Shooting up

The most common is shooting up. This requires a very strong ability in sculling. Use your tiller to pivot your boat down while sheeting out. As long as your sail is completely luffing, you should be able to pivot around your daggerboard without moving forward. From a near close hauled course, add leeward heel and sheet in slightly and sit back & out to swing your bow back into the wind while minimizing forward movement.

It is important to gain distance to windward to remain “bow even” with the other boats, but never too much to risk going over the line early, or forcing the boats around you to do the same. Having “shot up” into the wind, there will be several moments when your boat is NOT slipping sideways towards the port end of the line. This is where you make gains. Once you start going backwards again, you need to re-gain control by sculling down again. Having repeated this several times, you will open up a gap to leeward and allow for the other boats to drift away. You can also use the technique to make your hole look unappealing to poachers. Be careful not to break Rule 42. The jury is watching for your tiller to cross the centerline; so scull down to close hauled on starboard tack, then make sure you initiate your turn back up with just your sail & body weight, and let the tiller follow the boat.

Sailing Backwards

Sailing backwards requires you to avoid other boats. Think of this skill as a ‘reset’ for entering a hole. If you’ve either fallen back from being bow even with the other boats around you, or gotten too close to the boat to leeward, or essentially just too crammed in – sail backwards so that you can re-approach the line with better control and space. The steering is the hardest part. Getting used to steering backwards is crucial (an easy one to practice on your own, though!). Once you have really good control of where the boat is going, you should be able to reverse out of the lineup with ease. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Make sure your boat is dead stopped. Any forward movement will cause the boat to tack when you press your boom out.
  2. Aim your rudder straight back at first
  3. Slightly press on your boom until you get some speed, gradually increase pressure on the boom as your reverse speed increases. Too much will cause you to tack unwillingly onto port.
  4. Push the tiller away from you to bring your bow down, and stern to windward. Keep pushing your sail out past 90 degrees or else it will fill with wind, and your attempt to reverse will be over.

Once you’ve reversed out, you can now decide whether you want to sail back into the same hole, or bail out and go find another one further down the line.

The Double Tack

Only when you have enough space to windward, should you attempt the double tack. The double tack means that you will momentarily be losing your rights, and sailing back towards a group of angry starboard tackers. However, this is an absolute game changer if you can pull it off. It is important to effectively complete 2 tacks without any acceleration. You do this by simply backwinding and luffing.

Initiate a shoot up then backwind your sail immediately by pressing the boom away from you. If you have any forward movement, this should tack you onto port fairly easily.

Once on port, luff your sail and quickly switch your hands on the tiller, so that you can scull if needed. Now you need to do a port tack shootup to reverse the process. Do it quickly before the boats to windward notice!
scull down, shoot up, push the boom away from you, and you should be on starboard tack before you know it.

Voila! you have created a bigger hole to leeward of you that you can use to accelerate!

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  1. Setup two marks about 10 boat lengths apart. sail your boat up to the starboard end and stop once you become overlapped by heading up head to wind and slightly backwinding. Begin repeating the process of sculling down, then shooting back head to wind and try to NEVER become un-overlapped between the 2 marks. Obviously the longer you can make your drift time between starboard end and port end, the more your are eliminating drift. Once you have reached the port end of the line, stop your clock then repeat the drill and try to beat your time. If you can keep your boat under control for more than 4 minutes without losing overlap, that is mighty impressive!
  2. Setup two marks about two boat lengths apart. This is your hole on the startline. Every 2 minutes you will have to protect your hole for 1 minute. Do this by eliminating drift, sailing backward, or double tacking. Accelerate at go.


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.