Short Handed Sailing Practice Sessions

The seemingly increasing demands of modern life on competitor’s time can make practice sessions very difficult to schedule with a full team – inevitably someone’s schedule does not work with the desired date.

For example: a team has a regatta at the club 7 days away on the schedule and a fully crewed practice session prior to the racing would be the best case scenario. Two of the team members can’t make it, and another has time constraints and can’t practice the full time, so what to do?
With this reality in mind, as a coach with a lot of different teams and fleets, I fully recognize the challenges that teams face regarding practice time and I have used a series of shorthanded drills that can maximize the benefits of the session while sailing shorthanded and with time limitations.
Here are three drills a team can do with a skeleton crew to get the most out of the time (there are many other drills a team can do depending on time and the number of crew available, we will look at these other drills in later articles):

These drills are at the corners of the course: 1) the start, 2) the windward mark rounding and 3) the leeward mark rounding, all areas where the team wants to be strong and ever improving and where there are big gains and losses to be had on the race course.

Each practice should be with one or two specific targeted goals in mind, the drills below are typically critical elements of a race that can be practiced shorthanded.

For the start: Time and distance drill – goal is to be at full speed crossing the line at the buoy at the starting signal:

Pick a mark and sail away from it for 1 minute, estimate how long it is going to take to get back to the mark also including a tack, then tack when you feel it is the right time, sheet in and go and see how you do. Are you late, early, or just right passing the buoy at full speed right on the start? Particularly after a long winter break from sailing or with simply not many starting opportunities this is a skill to constantly polish and refine.

Very often teams are either late to the start or have set up too early and use the line up as a vehicle for burning off excessive time. Both result in poor starts and need to be eliminated as variables. Practice as many of these starts as you can. The result is instant feedback for evaluation and ease of set up with only one mark needed.

Dave Perry’s time and distance chart from his “understanding the Racing rules of Sailing” book is an outstanding tool I refer to all the time. Some key highlights: a) At 5 Knots of boat speed a boat will do 8.44 feet per second, therefore a 24 foot boat will take approximately 2.5 to 3 seconds to go one boat length, b) At 6 knots of boat speed a boat will travel 10 feet per second, so a 40 foot boat will take approximately 4 seconds to travel one boat length.

With this in mind as the team practices time and distance, a designated crew member (usually the tactician or a trimmer), can start to verbalize time from the line (including a tack) which can greatly help the team with orientation to the line and prevent either being too early or too late – an example would be “40 seconds to the line including a tack “.

The key element to emphasize on the final approach is slowing down early in the sequence rather than later. In coaching I have noticed that the more confidence a team has practicing this, the better their starts.

During this drill take every opportunity to practice and gauge lay line approaches to the mark.
Judging lay lines is an ongoing skill development because of the nature of our sport: different boats, different wind, sea, and current conditions.

Every approach to the mark can be an opportunity to pick a good lay line so that the team is not barging and thus not being dictated to by a leeward boat or unable to fetch the pin end of the starting line.

With the above drill, I have seen teams progressively make their starts more consistent. Instead of one good start followed by a bad one, the team has a series of good starts that enable them to play the tactical chess game in clear air and enact their game plan.

Bonus practice – Round you’re practice starting mark like a windward mark with the Goal of doing it smoothly with minimum speed loss and best tactical positioning.
Take an opportunity to round the mark focusing on aiming half a length wide of the buoy and smoothly bearing away to appropriate angle for the velocity as well as fluidly easing out the mainsail.
In the team self-evaluation – how much speed did we lose?

If the rounding was done in good velocity did we end up too high out of the rounding and thus give up the inside to other boats?

If rounding in light air did we end up sailing too low and losing all of our momentum?
How did we judge the lay line to tack to the mark? Did we over stand? Was it too tight?
It is very noticeable when watching races from a coach boat how the top skippers round the marks smoothly with elongated smooth turns that maintain momentum and positioning while other teams round with an abrupt speed killing turns. Make it a goal to be the former team and not the latter!

Leeward Mark rounding Drill:
Goal: Work on approach so that the team comes out of the mark rounding at top speed and as close to the mark on the back side of it as possible.
This is a really good one to do with no spinnaker for both repetition and evaluation after each rounding.

Did we come out of the rounding with speed? Try different approaches – both port and starboard rounding’s over and over again – coming in on starboard and having to jibe as an integral part of the rounding and working on making sure the mechanics of trimming in the mainsail fluidly and trimming the headsail in perfectly to the tell tales for all points of sail for max speed.

Coming in on port tack with either the ideal 1 and half lengths wide of the buoy – or “tactical rounding” approach or coming in for a “speed rounding” where the team is constrained by an outside boat and is simply owed mark room.

Team Evaluation:
In the evaluation process after each rounding the team can ask several questions – are we over trimming the headsail in relationship to the rate of turn and points of sail?
Are we pinching too much out of the rounding and losing speed? Are we right on the wind on the exit out of the mark? Were we tight on the backside of the mark on the exit of the rounding or did we concede distance to leeward?

A common error to watch for is often in light air the Mainsail is trimmed in too quickly for the rate of turn and the boat loses a lot of speed – watch for this one, the same can be observed for the headsail being brought in too quickly and pushing the bow away from the mark. Lot’s to be gleaned from this drill – boat handling, sail trim and spatial evaluation as well as review of the applicable rules.

Shorthanded? Not much time available? Your team is still set to practice and get the maximum out of it!

By Andrew Kerr Articles Featured