Focus on ANGLE – The Key to Upwind Performance

Closehauled. What is it and where is it anyway? Some sailors seem to be able to find it and stay in it, all the time. Others pass through it, but can’t seem to hang around for very long. Many upwind lineups occur where the leeward boat ends up sailing off too low, and after just a few minutes, can be as much as 10 or more boat lengths low of the track they started on. Others tend to practically live on the pinch, never allowing the sail to fully enjoy great flow and power. It’s very common when assessing speed and “pointing” problems, to find that sailors are not sailing on proper angles for some percentage of their upwind.

When defining closehauled, it helps to first define what close hauled is not. If the sail is luffing (there is a visible bubble somewhere on the luff) you’re too high – this is not closehauled. If the sail is stalled, IE, your leeward telltale has dropped assuming correct mainsheet tension, you’re too low – not closehauled either. These are the extreme limits of upwind VMG sailing, aside from perhaps in very, very light wind where it can pay to sail a low drag mode at quite a low angle.

Now let’s investigate what closehauled IS, and the various geography inside closehauled. Imagine close hauled as more of a region, comprising a few different zones.
Upwind Closehauled Angle Detail

If the luff is just starting to get “twitchy”, a very light flutter, you’re on the high side of closehauled. This is shown in orange in the diagram. This is ok, it’s a nice place to visit, beautiful when you’re fast or there’s flat water, but you wouldn’t want to live there full time. In this region you are squeezing for height.

If sheet tension is right for the condition, and both telltales are just starting to fly straight back, you’ve hit the low side of the groove. Again, a nice place to visit periodically, but only used for situations where we need to gain acceleration and power, or for a tactical reasons. Otherwise, rarely will you stay there for very long.

Any further down from there, is too low and no longer closehauled in our definition. We can consider this angle to be “footing”, requiring an ease of sheet. This is really only useful if we know there’s a shift or pressure ahead and is more of a strategical/tactical decision rather than a VMG one. Note there can be a fair bit of range between when telltales “first begin to become straight/even” and “just before stalling” when the leeward telltale starts to detach.

In the depicted “green zone” the leeward telltale will always be straight back. The windward telltale will range from pointing straight upward, going back at an angle upward, pointing down and back at an angle, or hanging down. If you’re going to stay in one place, you might as well stay here. And keep as close to “twitchy” as you can get.  In the reality of peak optimal performance, many conditions dictate driving between low, middle and high – and then resetting back again to repeat.

In waves, you may be all the way down to the bottom of our blue zone momentarily with a big tiller pull and probably all the way back through the green and into orange at the top of the wave. These angle changes depend mostly upon the size of the wave. But we never want to end up in the red or grey zones even when making big steering changes to reduce impact.

While telltales are a very important guide in detecting optimal angle, there are times when they are not very effective. Maybe they get stuck, or get wet or you can’t see them because of the sun angle…. or they’re placed badly. Here we can concentrate on being sure to see the luff get twitchy fairly often to give us our high side indicator. We know our middle angle/green zone should be just a little bit down from there. If we can’t see our leeward telltale, at least we can know that we’re not too low or stalled with just this one indicator. Another great way to tell is by reading the water.

The actual total amount of closehauled range, also known as “groove”, can vary quite a bit depending on your rig setup and conditions, but these indicators explained above will still remain the same. This “closehauled”  area in the diagram could range from about 2 to 6 degrees.

As far as placement of telltales, the primary set should be a few inches forward of the window – away from the turbulence of the mast but not too far back as they become desensitized for our purposes when they are aft. In terms of height, you want them in the meat of the sail, higher than the window. Most sailors also add a second set higher up. Copy the pro placement.

Note if you’re off of target speed for the wind speed, telltale behavior can sometimes be deceiving. Telltales are most informative when they have good air flow. Particularly in light air, make sure to get fully up to speed before using telltales to dial in your angle – in other words, avoid being overtrimmed while trying to make things look right if you are slow.

While telltales are a very important guide in detecting optimal angle, there are times when they are not very effective.

Swell is another time when telltales can lead you astray. You can experience many “velocity” headers and lifts in swell that occur due to apparent wind changes in your rig. The swell is affecting the movement of your boat in the water and causing these changes while the true wind could well be remaining in the exact same direction. It’s very easy for sailors to get “lost” in these conditions. Many make the mistake of steering up and down instead of absorbing these changes.  This “chasing” has the effect of too much drag. You can make small sheeting adjustments instead to keep good flow through the changes.

In terms of staying on angle more often, this can require an incredible amount of attention and concentration depending on conditions. Sailors should be looking at telltales or their luff roughly about 1/3rd of the time they are sailing on average. A good time to check them is when you feel something in the boat change, but you should be checking in every few seconds to verify great flow and angle. The best sailors probably sail with perfect telltale behavior about 95% of the time. Set up a camera on board and see how you do, or ask your coach to film you and try to quantify this once you know where you should be.

Hopefully this information can help you stay on a better angle more often and have more angle awareness on the water. Experiment on your own or let us help you dial in your upwind angles at one of our All-Inclusive Sailing Clinics this winter! See you on the water.

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.