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Please note that this talk was aimed at newcomers and less experienced sailors in the club. It was therefore written for them and may appear, to the more experienced sailor, somewhat simplistic. I make no apology for this.

Following my talk it was suggested that a glossary of terms used would be of use. Your wish is my command but if there is anything that you didn’t understand in my talk please come and talk to me, I’ll be happy to help. Highlighted words are links to the Glossary of terms used, Glossary of terms used 1.


And the answer to that is not by sticking an outboard on the transom of your dinghy. I’m afraid that’s strictly against the rules, although, not a bad idea.

For many of you just sailing a dinghy is enough of a challenge at present, let alone sailing a racing course faster; but sailing efficiently will increase your speed. Sailing well is a combination of many things. So what are these?

You will probably have started your sailing in a two man dinghy as crew. This gives you an ideal opportunity, without any of the responsibility, to listen and observe what your helm is doing and telling you. But this isn’t a one way street, you should be questioning everything that’s happening. Why are you telling me to do this or that? Why are you doing this or that?

 Learning about the different points of sailing and how the dinghy should be set up for them is paramount to getting the best performance from your boat. Balance is also crucial. Sailing the boat upright and keeping the transom from dragging in the water will greatly increase your speed. You also need to develop a basic understanding of the sailing and racing rules.

Listening to your instructors is a key part of your learning curve leading to your first solo sail. That is always slightly scary and will be your real first opportunity to experience sailing on your own and developing, by experience, an awareness of what your boat is capable of and your surroundings including wind and stream strength and the position of other craft on the water.

Your boat

To sail well your dinghy needs to be set up correctly. The up and out hauls and the kicking strap  need to be correctly set for the conditions. You need to ensure that the mainsheet and foresail sheets are running easily, the rudder needs to be locked down and the centre plate free to be adjusted as required. You would be wise to have a burgee or Windex rigged because this will help you to understand what the prevailing wing is doing and how it changes direction from time to time, to which you will have to react. Having a clean hull also helps by cutting down on drag

The conditions

Being aware of what you are going out into is paramount to sailing your dinghy safely and efficiently relative to the course that has been set. Where is the prevailing wind coming from? What is the stream strength? What is the course and how many marks are involved? Another consideration is how much other traffic is using the river and what type is it. Cruisers can generally be easily seen but sculls are low to the waterline and move very fast. You will constantly need to be aware of everything around you when you are on the water, not just what’s ahead of you.

Our reach runs west/east, as does the river flow. The river also curves as it passes the club with the Surrey bank being the outer curve and the Middlesex bank the inner curve. The stream therefore, under some conditions, runs faster from the centre of the river to the Surrey bank. This under certain circumstances can help or hinder you.

The prevailing wind at the club is predominately from the SW to NW quadrants, however it can come from anywhere and other factors come into play which affect this. For instance we have trees on both sides of our reach which stand higher than the river surface. The clubhouse itself and houses on the opposite bank affect the wind flow across the water. All of these have an impact on the wind and can disrupt its direction and strength. Watching the surface of the water is a key indicator of uninterrupted wind and dead spots to be avoided. These often occur in the lea of tall trees and buildings. Other boats coming to your windward side will also disrupt airflow and slow you down.


a.    Pre start

Allow adequate time to rig and launch your boat. Make sure you have signed on in the race box. Study the course and clear any questions about it with the OOD. Be sure to be on the water in good time relative to the start time. If you have a stop watch set it to 5mins. During this period and relative to the wind strength is also your chance to adjust the outhaul to make your mainsail fuller or flatter. Fuller is better in very light airs. You can always tighten it later if the wind strength increases.

b.    The start

No doubt you will have watched the start of races at the club and perhaps have wondered what on earth is going on. The competitors appear to be charging back and forth across the river while every now and again a sound signal blares out. So what’s going on? At Aquarius our start sequence is governed by sound signals (i.e. we do not use flag signals). These are sounded at 6mins (bell) this is a warning that the start sequence is about to start. 5mins (horn and you should start your stopwatch) 4mins (horn) 1min (horn) Start (horn). Each sound signal from 5min to the off will also be accompanied by a board display in the race box window indicating how long to go to the start.

The purpose of this sequence is to allow each helm to position his /her boat on the start line at the most advantageous point for the start relative to the position of the first mark. This depends on several factors. Wind direction will play a big part in this. Boats that opt to start on a Starboard tack  will have an advantage over Port tack boats i.e. they will have right of way over boats departing the line on a Port transit. Depending on the wind direction getting clear of other craft is crucial. This means you have to be on the line at the start, not hanging back. This is especially important in an upstream start where the current can carry you back away from the line. Getting caught in the middle of the pack will also be a disadvantage in that your sails will be blanked by all the windward boats effectively taking the wind out of your sails and slowing you right down. Being caught in the middle of the pack also restricts your ability to manoeuvre. This will only get worse as you approach the first mark and boats begin to bunch up.

c.    The race

When the off is sounded the sooner you can get out into clear air the more options you will have. Being in a bunch of other boats means that you will not always be able to sail the course you would prefer to get to the next mark. You must always be aware of the other boats around you and what they are doing. This is where a basic knowledge of racing rules is invaluable. Who has right of way, rounding marks, Port/Stbd right of way, Windward Boat and Overtaking etc., etc. Keeping an eye on your burgee or Windex for current wind direction and tacking on wind shifts, if done consistently will pay dividends in terms of distance made over the water. When sailing close hauled upwind keep an eye on your sails tell-tails. Try to keep them flowing back horizontally. These can be controlled by slight adjustments to your heading either by heading up or bearing away . Marks should generally be taken with a wide line in and tight line out. This ensures maximum speed is maintained while completing the manoeuvre. Taking a mark too tightly especially in light winds risks stalling the boat and losing way. On departing a mark do not over rotate the boat. Fix your eye on the next mark and use that as your ideal lay line. If tacking up wind you obviously will have to deviate from this theoretical line but always keep the next mark as your target. Try to head up as much as possible without pinching. Try to climb above the next mark so that, if necessary, you can bear away a little and still round the mark. This will save you having to put in an extra tack and save you time. Sometimes, especially in light winds, sailing close to the river bank can be advantageous. There is often less stream to contend with and usually a breeze to be used but watch out for moored craft and overhanging trees.

Now we come to changing boat set up during racing. Your instructors will have taught you about this but it’s worth repeating. When tacking or beating into wind sit forward with the plate down, sails pull in, balance the boat keeping it as upright as possible. Broad Reaching is the fastest point of sailing. The plate should be half up and sails at 45 degrees to the boat centre line. Depending on wind strength you may need to sit back a little to keep the bows up and encouraging the boat to plane (i.e. this is where air passes under the hull and the boat lifts). Running before the wind is the most dangerous point of sailing. Plate up and sails out at 90 degrees to the boat centre line. Weight slightly forward to ensure you are not dragging the transom in the water. However and depending on wind strength if the boat begins to rock from side to side get some plate down quickly to counteract this or you will come to a sticky end very quickly. If sailing a crewed boat the main and foresail can also be ‘goose-winged’ during downwind sailing. This is where the main and foresails are carried on opposite sides of the boat. This also has the advantage of balancing the wind pressure either side of the mast.

During the race you must absolutely maintain your concentration or you will find other boats passing you. Concentrate on the boat ahead of you and think about how and when you are going to overtake it. Don’t daydream. Watch your burgee for changing wind directions and always tack on wind shifts. You may also need to Gybe the boat to maintain maximum pressure on the sails. If you do this be very careful. Shorten the mainsheet as much as possible to ensure that the swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other is minimised. Allowing an uncontrolled full swing across the boat can unbalance the dinghy causing it to broach and capsize. Don’t sail into flat spots or under a Lea shore, this will only slow you done. Watch the river surface for eddies and gusts which you can use to get a lift. Think ahead all the time, watch other river users and plan how you are going to avoid them and not allow them to impede your progress.

d.    Finishing

Boats competing in races at Aquarius are finished when they have crossed the start line in the same direction as they started. You will receive an individual sound signal indicating your race is finished. Sometimes, although there is a stated race duration time, the OOD may choose to shorten course (i.e. finish the race earlier) The OOD will indicate this by two long sound signals and a board with the letter S (shortened course) placed in the race box window. Each boat will then be finished as it next crosses the line.

Not all boats will complete the same number of laps. You will finish when you are taken over the line, regardless of the number of laps you may have completed.

Now something to think about. Aquarius operates a boat and personal handicap system. I’m not going into that now but Richard Cannon can explain it to you later. Basically all helms are allocated these but novice/beginners have a far more lenient personal handicap. This is done quite deliberately so that novice helms can compete on equal terms with even the most experienced sailors in the club. So, even though you may think you have not done too well you might just get a pleasant surprise when the results are calculated. To achieve a score no matter how badly, or well, you think you have sailed it is important that you finish the lap you are on and cross the finish line. Personal handicaps are adjusted after each race based on results achieved.


So there you go. Sailing faster is not rocket science but it does demand concentration and learning from your mistakes. A simple way to assess how you are doing and a method I used, is to pick another helm/boat that you consider to be a little better than yourself and consistently try to beat it. This is like a race within a race. When you start to regularly manage this pick another, faster boat, and start the process over again. These small victories will give you a sense of achievement, increase your experience and help make sailing fun.


Newcomers 1 May 2016 by Mike Baker
Getting Round  The Course Faster