10 tips for helping your helm: 29er and 49er

18 10 2010

Sailing 49ers and 29ers at the best of times isn’t easy. Once it becomes more of a second nature after a few years in the boat, it becomes difficult to remeber the struggle we all went through in the first few months of starting out. As a crew, I’ve often taken it for granted where my role starts and finishes and where the helm takes over. It can be easy to get set in your ways and always focus on improving the big things (boat speed, tactics, etc) and ignore a lot of little things that can make every one’s life easier. Therefore, I thought I’d start a series of posts that look at ways of making your partner’s life easier (and therfore the boat faster). Today, I’ll look at it from the crew point of view.

What is it that crews can do to make their helm’s job that little bit easier?


1: Food: Eating properly is essential between races to keep the team focussed and alert. However, helming a 49er in big breezes whilst trying to peel a banana, open a drink or unwrap a powerbar can be tough. Therefore, do your mate a favour and unwrap it for him. Sometimes a few little things can make all the difference.

2: Timing: Simple really. Even if the helm does his own time keeping, having a watch counting down will enable you to call out the time to the start when your driver gets into a flap.

3: Balance: When trhowing the boat around on the start line, it can be surprisingly easy as a crew to just let the helm get on with it and to keep your head down. However, this is rarely helpful. Keep your head up, call out boats moving into your blind spot (depending on how your helm stands this can vary. For us, it’s on the stern leeward quarter as justin faces forward) and help to keep the boat flat. For example, when we throw it into reverse (backing the main and stuffing the bow into the breeze) the boat will always heel heavily to windward. sure, the helm would normally have to keep this flat, but it makes so much sense for the crew to throw their weight around to flatten it off.

4: Standing up: I see far too many crews sitting down and taking it easy pre start whilst the helm fights to keep the boat flat. Whilst you need to get your weight as far forward as possible when you’re parked, you should never stay static when you are manouvering. Therefore, always stay on your feet, ready to react when the boat needs to be flatter. However, be sure to get back to your crouching by the mast position when you park up again.

During the race:

5: Communication: Be sure to give as much feedback as the helm needs. It’s easy to go quiet and to lose focus on those long upwind legs in light winds, but this is never going to be fast. Whilst your helm is driving the boat and focussing on the telltales, be sure to keep your head up to spot the breeze and to track the rest of the fleet.

6: Safety gybes: In the breeze, gybing a 49er or 29er is tough for the helm so be sure to make it easy for them. Always try to be obvious with your movements, don’t rush and try not to change your routine. You need to keep as many things the same as possible, as suddenly changing the speed you cross the boat or your routine is a total nightmare for the helm who is already trying to work out how he’s going to keep his hair dry. When it’s really windy, the number one reason for capsizing is from the power coming on too quickly after the boom comes across. If the spinnaker blows forward of the luff you know you have issues, so a safety gybe (pinning the old spinnaker sheet in until the boom has crossed) is a great way to give your helm some time to find his feet on the new side and to prevent the power from piling on too early.

7: High hoists: When it’s breezy, try to help the helm out by keeping one foot on the wing (especially if he;s only a little lad). Doing this helps to keep the boat flat and allows him to maintain enough control to steer around the waves

8: Being a spare pair of hands: I know it sounds simple, but you see a lot of helms struggling to untangle ropes, hook on, uncleat the jib if it’s locked in, or do anything else that’s tricky with one hand. Always keep an eye on him, as his number one role is steering in a straight line so fiddling with ropes in counter-intuative. If he looks like he has an issue, help him out.

9: Bear aways: During a windy bear away the helm has a lot on. Therefore, you need to make his life as easy as possible. By taking the mainsheet, you effectively have the hardest job during the turn; to manage the power to stop the bow driving in. When it’s properly sketchy, you’ll end up easing armfuls of mainsheet to completet the turn. However, far too many crews then just ditch the fully eased main onto their helm and run in to sort the kite out. This is a huge error, as your mate is now standing all by himself (billy no mates) trying to sort his life out. With only one hand (which is very often holding onto the handle), how is he supposed to pull 2 meters of mainsheet into the boat? To make his life easier, be sure to drag the mainshett back in again by about an armful before handing it across. It really does make a world of difference.

And the final tip –

10: Don’t be a jerk: Yes, crews get victimised all the time.  Yes, I’ve been shouted at for helms dropping their tillers, hitting marks or forgetting their starting watches (never by JV by the way..). Yet, the final and almost most important tip is to not be “that guy”. Everyone has sailed with “that guy”, the one who always points the finger, decides who was at fault or just generally takes it far too serious. Being a crew, I think it’s essential to never try to get back at the helm for a mistake.  Helms are under a hell of a lot of pressure, and ultimately will take the blame for a bad series, so they are naturally defensive.  If something goes wrong, always be the guy who puts forward positive ideas for gaining those places back, don’t get stressed when thigns go wrong, always look forward to the next opportunity rather than back at missed ones.  On the water is not the place to argue out your differences, so be positive and talked about it later.  this is one of the biggest improvements any crew can make to their game.

And finally:

On a side note, I once had a helm shouting at me up the beat for “being too helpful”. As the Guns ‘n Roses song goes, “some men, you just can’t reach…”

Downwind laylines – Winning and losing places at the gybe point

10 02 2009

The downwind slide in the 49er and other high performance machines (in over 15 knots) is a section of the race course that is far more complex then people first think.  Everything you do, from the bear away at the top mark, hoist, pre-gybe setup, gybe point and final run into the mark are all inherently linked together, much like a an elastic band stretched between the marks.  For you to maintain your position at the bottom mark, or to have the opportunity to sneak a few extra places, you’ll need to get the whole process right, starting at the top mark.  Like the elastic band stretched between the marks, if you pull one part of the band, everything else changes position.  If you delay your gybe point, even by several seconds, your entire downwind leg can be ruined.

Sail Melbourne 2008

Want to drop in the right position? Get planning early..

I’ll just explain.  When it’s breezy, the downwind leg lasts only a few minutes.  With such high boat speed, you want to get to the favoured side of the course as efficiently as possible.  There’s absolutely no time to put in an extra couple of gybes if you gybe too early, and it’s death if you get below the layline and are forced to drop the kite early.  However, it’s easy for me to stress the importance of the gybe point, but in a race if you get your processes wrong further up the course, you won’t have the choice where you gybe as it’s up to the other boats around you, and they don’t play nice.

49er-hoist1If you round the top mark and hoist slightly high, a boat can sneak onto your hip and, if they are worth their salt, will be able to live there to the gybe point, force you over it, gybe late and roll you.  There’s no worse feeling in the world (except for that brief moment when you realise the recipient of that dirty text message you just sent was, in fact, your mother..) than hitting the gybe point at 20 knots and not being able to gybe.  You know that, at this very point, your race is ruined.  If only you planned your run a little better.

Ok, how about if you gybe set to get away from the pack?  Sure, it makes sense to go looking for fresh breeze and a clear gybe point, but you need to think ahead.  If you gybe early, you know there’s going to be a boat gybing with you at some point, so rather than just concentrating on the gybe and hoist, the helm has to be looking around.

What I’m trying to say is that, if you are going to get into a good position at the leeward mark, you need to think about it before you even think about hoisting.  Look at it this way, if you get it wrong at the top mark and a boat looks like pinning you out to a corner, you only have a few hundred metres to get some space to gybe.  You never want to sail downwind defending your position and taking risks, you should be looking to extend, so getting clear water around you is key.

Now, when do you start thinking about this?  From my experience, helm’s have an easy job.  They lie back and hold on to a stick.  But hey, it’s not ANY stick, it’s carbon fibre so it doesn’t weigh too much for them…  Anyway, when you tack onto the layline before the top mark, helm’s have a good few seconds to see where the boats are stacking up on them.  Helms need to answer a few questions before we round the mark (and in my experience, if things are going crazy, it’s best to not discuss it with the crew, any hesitation can cost you.  Two minds are better than one, unless a quick decision is needed):

1: Where’s the wind?  Do I want to go left or right? (basically, do I straight set or gybe)

2: Am I going to have a guy on my hip when we hoist?

3: Am I going to be in a position to roll someone or jump onto their hip?


When you’ve answered these questions, you have a firm basis for the set up.  If you’re straight setting, the helm should be looking backwards for a few seconds to keep in line with the attacking boats behind. If they go low, stay down with them, if they go high, then push the stick.  All you need to do is stay in a position to gybe away when you want to. If you are gybe setting, check to see if other boats are gybing behind you or if the layline is stacked up with sails, ready to cut your wind and ruin your well practiced gybe set.

The moral of the story?  It’s important to realise how important the start of the run is for the end result.  If you plan ahead and give yourself room to pick your key points of maneuver then you’ll get to the bottom mark with room to sail and attack the other guys who have been pressurised into making mistakes.  And always remember, don’t be too aggressive mid run.  If a guy looks like he’ll gybe on you then try to wave him through.  Try to be a nice guy as it will come back to you in another race.  But at the bottom mark, don’t take any hassle, stand your ground, and don’t worry if you ruin someone’s race by making them mess up.  It’s there fault for not planning ahead.