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Shorthanded questions answered by an expert

19 Jun 2007

The following is reproduced with permission from Sailing Anarchy and Bruce Schwab. Check out their sites and Thanks guys !


We had a great question from a reader about shorthanded sailing, and we turned to
Bruce Schwab, a guy who knows a thing or two about such things. We encourage you to send in your questions for the experts - it can be on virtually any subject - we'll get it answered for you.

Q: I have been searching for resources in regards to racing double handed. My wife and I have been racing a small (26 foot) keelboat with a crew of 4-5. Finding good, consistent crew has it challenges, so we decided to try to do without. We have raced it double handed under "white sails" But would like to be more competitive this summer. Any instructional information in regards to defining the role of crew and captain, strategies/tactics, gear for short handling, PHRF allowances and etc., would be appreciative.

A: How to start making the switch to doublehanded or shorthanded racing? It sure seems that interest in shorthanded sailing is growing. Apparently not only for racing, but as a platform for developing personal confidence and competence. Whether around the buoys or across an ocean, knowing that you can handle everything yourself is certainly a good feeling to have.

When it comes to actual technique, every different boat could be a book's worth of details. While each platform is worth analyzing to some degree, that's not only a lot of writing but its also probably too much to try to hold in one's head. It's better to develop an overall psychological approach to the challenge. If you become beholden to strict "procedure" you could fall apart when the inevitable gremlins and murphyisms take hold. I've always thought that getting "off the boat" in your mind can really speed up your reactions to get things done. You need to be able to visualize the big picture operations as they should happen, then direct yourself to make it happen. "Think globally, act locally"...;-) You'll be a lot better teammate for your doublehanded partner if you are anticipating what they need, rather then asking what color line to pull.

Obviously you have to know your boat. There should not be a single line or piece of hardware in sight on the boat that you can't instantly identify. Not only on your own boat, but it is a great training exercise to look at any racing boat and try to see how fast you can identify all the rigging and hardware. All boats are the mostly the same in the end, and a good shorthanded racer should be able to hop on virtually any boat and quickly figure out how it works.

Self steering, or...

Optimizing for shorthanded racing can be expensive, but think of all the sandwiches and beer you don't have to buy. Obviously steering is a big issue. Doublehanded, if you have a reliable autopilot you essentially double your "working" crew and do maneuvers so much faster. But for day races, an autopilot is not mandatory. I raced for years using control lines to the tiller than run around the boat and across the foredeck. It takes some fine tuning to get the right amount of friction in the system...too little and you can't let go of the line (without crashing), too much friction, and then it's too hard to steer. On a couple boats that I raced solo, I got to where I could drive with the steering line from the weather rail when beating, or from the foredeck, even when doing spinnaker peels.

Speaking of that darn spinnaker:

For spinnaker hoisting/dousing it's nice to be able to run everything from the cockpit, but if you're going doublehanded, don't get carried away with that. Sometimes it's better to keep some lines out of the cockpit...and it depends on whether you douse on the foredeck or not. On smaller boats with symmetrical kites, don't bother with a snuffer, it takes too long to deal with. Of course on bigger kites there is no choice...I'd never be able to fly the masthead asym kite on OceanPlanet without the ATN snuffer.

Asym vs symmetrical:

It depends what kind of racecourses you are doing, but for PHRF racing on most boats I think symmetrical kites are much easier to douse than asyms, and they usually work out better on the rating. If you don't have a planing hull, sailing low angles towards the mark with a conventional kite/pole will be better VMG then doing a lot of shorthanded jibes. Symmetrics are so much easier to douse on small boats, where you can just let the guy run and pull it in under boom and into the hatch. With either kind of kite it pays to set up to drop when DDW and not on a reach, so that the sail is collapsed and not drawing. Regarding the spinnaker pole...get used to it. It's really not that big a deal for setting or jibing if you have it set up right.

PHRF/headsail size:
Most regional PHRF committees give a credit for smaller headsails. If you race in an area that often has breeze you are likely better off with the smaller jib and the credit. Besides, then you don't have to worry about which jib to use... Of course this depends on your boat, as some of the heavier boats simply have to have the big jib in order to move. On a fractional rig with a bigger mainsail, the overall percentage of sail area lost without the bigger jib is less, so the credit can effectively be better on a frac rig.

You will have a major advantage in shorthanded races if you know the limits of what you can do, and optimize your race strategy to match. Often you see big losses on boats that put themselves in a position where they have to do something they haven't done before...and blow it. Conversely, you will lose the race to those who execute the hoist/douse on that tight spinnaker reach while you chicken out and flounder around underpowered. And it definitely pays to practice starting maneuvers and quick tacks, being shorthanded should be no excuse for lousy starts! Remember that without crew weight to hold the rail down, you may have to trim differently (dump that main!) to bear away or turn quickly.

Taking care of yourself:
Exercise and diet: It probably has helped me to have a background in sports (wrestling, boxing, cycling, etc.), so that it's natural for me to plan for physical preparation and nutrition. It's not rocket science, but if you are in good shape and have a healthy diet everything will be a lot easier. I take a lot of grief for my supposedly horrible cooking onboard but I make sure I get what I need. What each individual needs is not going to be the same, I eat a lot of fat (nuts, olive oil, etc.) because I'm very lean and don't have as much "stored energy as others...;-) A great product for quick eating are the Balance Bar "Trail Mix" bars. They have a lower "glycemic index" than most other energy bars and are made from natural stuff (as far as I know).

"One hand for the boat, one for you": Yeah, yeah yeah, you should tether in. I have to admit that I almost never do myself, but I can easily walk straight down the deck in almost any conditions and not fall over. Until you can do the same, tether in when offshore.

I don't know why so may people getting into sailing think they can figure it all out by themselves. For the $ you will inevitably throw into this nonsense, hiring an experienced coach or consultant isn't that much. It could save you a fortune. Look at that nut last year who was going to sail "nonstop around the world" and had to be rescued off Chile. How many Americans have done a solo around the world? He could have called one of the many who have done it with stops, or one of the two who have done it nonstop (Dodge Morgan or myself) and asked a few questions. Or better yet, hire someone for a moderate amount to sit down and talk. I could have told him in 30 seconds that the silly ketch he was setting up would roll over in any serious weather. Oh well, he found out eventually.

After all, us solo sailors aren't used to making much money. I'm not that expensive...;-)

Oh, make sure your navigation and computer/instrument systems actually work long BEFORE you set out. No matter what the salesman tells you, it can be tricky to set up and you need to be comfortable using it before you are slamming away wondering why the wind is blowing so hard.

Good luck out there!