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Racing Tips: Feel the Heel

Years ago, I attended a seminar where Olympic gold medalist and America’s Cup winner Buddy Melges was on the panel. He said he could be sitting on his porch looking at a group of boats sailing along on a breezy, puffy day on Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) and tell which one was fastest just by its angle of heel.
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Years ago, I attended a seminar where Olympic gold medalist and America’s Cup winner Buddy Melges was on the panel. He said he could be sitting on his porch looking at a group of boats sailing along on a breezy, puffy day on Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) and tell which one was fastest just by its angle of heel. “The boat that keeps a more consistent angle of heel through all the puffs and lulls will be fastest,” said Melges. To help create the consistency that he’s looking for, Melges said that one of the key things he watches when he’s steering is the angle the headstay makes with the horizon.

On a keelboat, the goal is to find that sweet angle of heel and keep it there. I’ve been on larger keelboats where the “heel target” (target boatspeed for the current heel angle, as opposed to the better known target boatspeed for the current wind speed) is a valuable reference for the trimmer and helmsman when sailing upwind. It’s especially helpful on days when there’s lots of wind shear or a funky gradient, where the windspeed at the top of the mast is much different from the windspeed in the middle of the sail plan (common in the spring when the water is cold). In the absence of instruments, use your senses to feel the heel. Start by steering and trimming the boat to find the fastest heel angle for the given wind speed and point of sail, and then keep this angle consistent.

Unlike keelboats, most centerboard boats are fastest when sailed with no (or very little) heel in a breeze, but consistency remains crucial. So on a puffy day in a dinghy, you have to use a lot of kinetics when sailing upwind. Olympic coach Skip Whyte had a Mantra for those days when the puffs were coming like stings on the water: “Ease, hike, trim.” The end result is that the boat doesn’t heel when the puff hits—it moves forward.

On a keelboat in puffy conditions, where extra hiking may not be so effective and you can’t play the sails as quickly as on a dinghy, steer—carefully and with finesse—to maintain a steady angle of heel until the sails can be readjusted. On a bigger keelboat, it really helps to have a crew calling the wind to help the helmsman anticipate the puffs and the lulls so he can keep that heel angle steady.

 Excerpted from Isler’sLittle Blue Book of Sailing Secrets 

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