Upwind Performance

Upwind Performance

Upwind Performance, in the breeze

Sailing the Thistle in breeze is a hand-full.  The boat is nimble, responsive and very lively.  Because of this all maneuvers should be carefully calculated and communicated to the crew to ensure good teamwork, but more importantly to avoid disaster!

Sailing the Thistle upwind is a bit of a chore for everyone.  For the driver, it means constant attention to the “feel” of the boat (helm, balance, etc.).  For the crew it is assisting in the boat’s set up and hiking (which is, unfortunately, not the more comfortable things to do).

To achieve good upwind performance in the breeze, you need to focus on three things:

  1. Mainsail set up
  2. Sail Entry (both main & jib)
  3. Slot


The Thistle mainsail is HUGE.  Its been said that the boat loads up in anything from 8-12 knots, depending on your crew size.  That’s pretty far downrange.  Slide the wind speeds up into the upper teens and suddenly you have your hands full of additional tasks to ensure that the boat stays upright, let alone going through the water efficiently.

The first thing I do when sailing the Thistle in breeze upwind is see how the mainsail is reacting to mainsheet trim.  To do this, I’ll start testing the range in which I can feel the boat load up (by trimming in) and then finding the spot that the boat becomes more controlled (by easing out).  This range give me an idea of what I have in store for the day.  My goal, from this point, is to lessen that range of trim by pulling on controls.

The controls that I focus on with depowering the mainsail is 1) Outhaul; 2) Vang; 3) Cunningham/Main Halyard.  I would add a 4th, the TRAVELER, but I don’t use it.  I recognize that this is my preference and my style, so please, if you use your traveler, add it to the list and use it to its full effectiveness.

Regarding the Outhaul, I usually tell people there are two settings:  Tight and REALLY Tight.  In anything where the boat is fully loaded we pull the Outhaul on REALLY Tight.  This keeps the bottom 1/3 of the sail flat and slot nicely open.

The Vang is the next control, and arguably the control that I use the most to depower the boat.  By pulling on the vang, you induce bend into the mast.  This cause/effect situation flattens the mainsail, thus making the boat less powered.  The amount of vang varies greatly on two things: 1) Wind Speed and 2) Sea State.  If the wind is up in the upper teens to twenties, I’ll have it on as hard as I can pull it.  This is pretty hard!  If the boat is marginally loaded and there are big waves, I will have it between ½ and ¾ on.  In my opinion, the vang is used as an extension of the mainsheet in that when you feel the need to ease the main to get the boat back rolling, the vang typically comes on.

The Cunningham historically has only been used as the breeze comes up to keep the mainsail from having too many overbend wrinkles.  If you are going through the motions of pulling on the vang and bending the mast, you’ll definitely see a surplus of overbend wrinkles.  This is a sign that the draft is moving aft through the mast bend and by pulling on the Cunningham, you are essentially pulling the draft forward, but more importantly you are “cleaning up the leech”.  By this I mean the process of pulling the draft forward is allowing the leech to stand straight again.


Just as I was mentioning the Cunningham and managing the overbend wrinkles, you also have to pay attention to the jib luff.  If you have the jib luff set too lightly in the breeze, the draft will be pushed aft, the leech will hook in and the steering groove will be too fine.  By pulling on the jib cloth, or halyard tensioner, you are doing much of what you would by pulling on the mainsail Cunningham…moving the draft forward, cleaning up the leech and creating a nice driving entry into the jib.


The slot between the main and jib is very critical to manage as you sail through the ranges.  Ideally, you’ll want as symmetrical of a slot from top to bottom as possible.  If you are like me, however, and ease the main and vang sheet hard, that slot can sometimes get too closed off.  There are two things you can do to make the opening between the main and jib bigger: 1) Slide the jib leads aft; 2) East the jib sheet.  I tend to do more of #2 because 1” of jib sheet is equal to a whole lot of jib lead aft (twist).  You have to be careful to not sail too loose if the wind drops off.  That is why you need to continually monitor the two reference points: 1) Leech off the middle spreader (typically 1”-3”in breeze); 2) where the foot of the jib lies in relation to the rail.

Should you have any questions regarding sailing the Thistle in bigger breeze, feel free to call the loft!

Skip Dieball



Listen To Your Helm

Listen To Your Helm

For many years, I have been giving clinics and helping folks try to get more out of their Interlake sailing experience. We do this sailing thing for fun and the easier it is to sail your Interlake, the more enjoyment you’ll receive.

One particular facet of sailing Interlakes that is tough to master is managing the helm. Too often I’ll see a team that has excessive helm (myself included!), that is when the driver is driving/working against the boat’s natural course. I attribute this, partly, to the Interlake being relatively heavy-helmed. There are plenty of boats out there that have a light helm, so when you come to an Interlake, the relative tug on the tiller is so much more that sometimes you just don’t recognize what the boat is communicating.

Weather helm is what we generally experience when going upwind. Here’s a picture of 13-time National Champ George Fisher. Look closely at how far off centerline the tiller is. Granted, this could be a situation where George is footing to get through some waves, etc., but the point here is that he is fighting the boat a bit and therefore dragging the rudder through the water.

What contributes to excessive helm? There are generally three main factors: 1) Sail Trim, 2) Boat Balance/Heel, 3) Position of CB. For the Interlake we can zero in on each factor and try continue to use points of reference to reduce the amount of helm the boat has, and thus go faster in a straight line (and arguably higher with added hydrodynamic lift).

Sail Trim.

Generally speaking if you understand the concept of how the sails affect the way the boat goes through the water, you are already ahead of the game. For many, we do understand, but we don’t always use the sails to help us listen to the boat. In its basic form, the jib pulls the bow down away from the wind and the mainsail, when trimmed, lifts the bow up to the wind. On a perfectly balanced boat, you will be able to feel any change in helm by just a click or two of trim on either the main or jib. Because the Interlake is so “mainsail driven”, we need to focus more on the mainsail as it contributes to the helm. Constant adjustment will directly affect the helm of the boat. That is why some have considered taking off their mainsheet cleats, to force you to hold onto the mainsail and adjust the main as it relates to the tug of the helm. I have a mainsheet clean and always will…just my style. But for those that have sailed any of my boats, you’ll know that the cleat is set low enough that you have to work hard to place the mainsheet in the cleat, and conversely it is easy to uncleat…this is the same as not having a cleat, though my hands are grateful that I do!

So when you are on your close hauled course with the jib trimmed just with the battens in lined with the centerline of the hull and the top tell tail flowing, you are now working the mainsail as an extension of the helm. Trim the main harder and the helm will increase. Ease out and the helm goes more neutral. Find this range, mark your mainsheet, look at the spread between the pulleys @ the transom…do anything you can to gain better understanding of the range and create a point of reference that you can then quickly check when the boat seems slow. Take this knowledge and then plug in the depowering factors (vang sheeting &/or traveler adjustment) to fine tune the balance through main trim!

Boat Heel/Balance.

The Interlake is a stable dinghy. More so than many other smaller one design boats. For this reason you have to have good communication with your team about your fore/aft weight placement and, as it relates to the helm, the side to side balance. When I was a Jr. Sailor my coaches always preached sailing the boat flat and that the rudder was a brake if you didn’t.   Not for a number of years after did I “get” the concept. If you think about the amount of heel you are carrying upwind and then correlate that to the tug on the helm, you’ll quickly understand this concept. The question always asked is “how flat do I need to sail”? The answer, as we have witnessed in GPS tracks of sail testing and boathandling, is that the flatter the faster. I like to challenge Interlake Sailors to find the transition point of helm (the point where the helm goes from windward to leeward). That is as flat as you’ll want to sail. In some cases (especially lighter winds), you’ll want and need a little windward helm to gain hydrodynamic lift off the blades. When you gain a slight increase of helm, you should work on managing that with sailing flat and regaining neutral helm. This is an important range of balance that you need to work with your crew to perfect. It all translates into faster sailing!

One quick note about fore/aft weight placement.   A common error I see is that when the boat is “loaded up” people tend to sit too far forward. If you are going to error, this is a good place to be, but just keep in mind that you’ll want to slide back and together as your feet slide into the hiking straps. If you are sailing 2-up, be sure that the forward crew is about one body-width aft of the shroud. If you are sailing 3-up, that should be ½ a body width.

Position of Centerboard.

Fortunately for us in the Interlake Class, the Centerboard down position is pretty standard (leading edge perpendicular to the hull). Most of the tuning guides talk about having relative marks on your CB pennant so that you know exactly where the board is set up for a given wind range. I like to mark mine so that I know exactly when it is perpendicular (for 0-5 knots), up a few inches (5-10 knots), up 6” (10-15 knots) and up 1’ (over 15 knots). I rarely set it and forget it…rather I see how the boat feels through the helm, check the relative position and adjust accordingly. Knowing where you have it set and then fine-tuning is really important in the Interlake.   An example is sailing in waves. You’ll need a little more board up to free up the helm to drive around the waves. The point here is that there are a number of One Design boats out there that have CB’s that are integral to the balance of the helm. Be sure to read the tuning guides and ask the experts if you have a question as to whether you could reduce the helm by moving the centerboard. In the Interlake Class you’ll find that some folks do and some don’t. That is why we practice and experiment at the club races!

In conclusion, the purpose of this article was to get you to think about helm. As I already mentioned, too often I’ll see a boat sailing upwind with too much helm. By easing the main (or depowering), balancing the boat or goofing around with the CB position, you will find the boat’s sweet spot and recognize better upwind performance.


Consider A Coach

Consider A Coach

Have you considered a coach?

Most adult activities are complex. Look at tennis and golf…mastering these activities takes patience and practice. Both of these activities, too, offer coaching to help with the learning curve.

In sailing, there are a number of avenues you can choose to get better. You can practice a lot, but who has that much time? You can read books, but you still have to put it into practice. How about the idea of hiring a coach for an evening or two? Junior and College teams use them effectively, why couldn’t you?

Coaches provide a unique perspective to sailing. By focusing on the basics and reinforcing this through video and photos, it helps understand that different perspective. Other areas that coaches can help with include Mark roundings (understanding who is responsible for what and helping them), Upwind set up (sail trim & rig tune), Driving technique (analysis of current habits and helping with new habits), Boat preparation….to name a few.

Hire a coach for an evening as a try-out. See if it is worth the investment and ask them to develop a proposal that will help you with your goals.

10 Tips for Sail Trim

10 Tips for Sail Trim

1. Create your own worksheet w/personal rig settings

Every boat and mast has its own intricacies, so it is important to document how your boat/mast has performed in certain conditions. A tuning journal is a good thing to try and develop. Be sure that you document what went fast, but also what wasn’t.

2. Always put your rig back to “base” setting after a race day

One cool way to start the day off right is having the rig set at a base setting. Many top teams will do this before they leave the boat for the evening. This is a good habit to get into and keeps the “to do” list shorted for the next race day.

3. Tune your mast for the lowest wind that you are currently seeing

Often we are asked where we have our rig for a particular race that might have seen a large range of wind. The rule of thumb is to set the rig up for the lowest velocity in that wind range. By doing this, you’ll have the power needed in the soft wind and then have to work to depower in the higher winds. Keep in mind that “powering up” when you have your rig too tight is a tough task!

4. Test your tension gauge

The tension gauges that are currently one the market are pretty good. Occasionally, however, you’ll want to test your gauge against another one to ensure that it is accurate.

5. Understand the “steps” involved in making on-the-water changes

-Often you’ll see tuning guides that have “steps”, as in “one step up from base”. These steps are the incremental settings that take you through the wind range. Be sure you fully understand these steps, both in what you need to do (i.e. tighten vs. loosen), but know the next setting up the chart. For example, for 10-12 knots you might have to go +3 turns on your shrouds from base. For 12-15, you might have to go +4 turns. Having the steps memorized or written down will help you make quick decisions on the water.

6. Carry the right tools (and maybe 2 sets of them!)

What tools are required for you to make on-the-water rig changes? Shroud Key? Maybe a screw driver? Whatever you need to make quick changes, you should be prepared for the worst case scenario (i.e. they get dropped overboard). Having two sets of “tools” might be necessary to avoid problems!

7. Understand how rig tune affects the sail set up

If you tighten your lower shrouds, what does that do to the Mainsail set up? How about the forestay and headsail? Take a moment and understand what tightening/loosening the rig does to the overall sailplan.

8. Keep it simple

If you simplify your tuning process, it’ll allow you to make quick decisions and will allow the crew to implement the changes faster. Have your tuning chart or journal notes handy.

9. Calibrate!

Sailmakers often will produce a guide that give you numbers that correlate to pounds of tension. Take the chart of numbers and start to understand how many turns of a turnbuckle it takes to get to the next step. Write these numbers down and correlate them to the number of turns.

10. Ask the good guys