Pro offshore sailor and Olympian Francesca Clapcich shares tips on how to trim an asymmetric spinnaker in light airs with Andy Rice
Francesca Clapcich has enjoyed a hugely diverse and successful racing career. Her years racing the Laser Radial at Olympic level honed her wave-riding skills where sailors steer huge arcs – either luffing up or bearing away to run by the lee – in order to find the best path downwind.
Her subsequent switch to the 49erFX skiff introduced her to the very different techniques of sailing to the much fussier demands of the gennaker. While bowsprit-driven headsails may be fast and efficient, they’re not very adaptable to different steering angles, nothing like a Laser or a symmetric spinnakered boat. A gennaker demands that you steer to the sail’s optimum trim most of the time.
Clapcich’s subsequent switch to offshore racing in boats like the VO65, Figaro 3, and IMOCA has given her a breadth of asymmetric trimming experience that makes her the perfect coach for this subject. Here are Francesca’s five best tips for good asymmetric boatspeed in light to moderate conditions.
Stay on best VMG
Any time you’re sailing in a mode other than best VMG you’re effectively giving away time and distance. That’s why it’s good to find a piece of the race course away from the other boats, where you have the space to sail the course you want. In short-course racing it’s not always easy to find that open space, so you need to get good at being able to keep on sailing fast and accurately in tight lanes. And you need to be able to sail high-and-fast or low-and-slow in different tactical situations. But use those modes only when you have to. Most of the time, particularly when you’re racing with A-sails, you need to sail and trim to your best VMG as much as possible.
If in doubt, go low
Being able to sail a deeper angle than boats around you is a key skill that’ll help you gain advantage on downwind legs. It gives you the option to gybe when you want to, not be dictated to by other boats. We all understand the value of pointing higher than other boats when you’re sailing upwind. Sailing low downwind is also a superstrength. Being able to sail low requires concentration, focus and good communication and understanding between the helm and the trimmers. For the gennaker trimmer, it’s about feeling the weight in the sheet, and sensing when the sail is beginning to stall and to lose the flow from luff to leech. It’s worth practising sailing on the edge of stalling, and testing your ability to keep the boat going in this situation.
Trim to the waves
Whatever kind of boat you’re sailing, you need to be aware of your speed relative to the speed of the waves. In displacement sailing you’re generally going a bit slower than the waves, so you’re trying to surf the wave as long as possible and working really hard on the trimming all the time. The biggest problem is when you try to accelerate, you need a sail that is loose and full, with a lot of camber, generating a lot of power to make the boat accelerate. But as soon as you are on top of the wave and accelerating down the wave, you need to trim the sails in fast because your apparent wind is now moving forwards dramatically. I tend to think it’s better to have sails trimmed for when you’re surfing down the wave, which means you’ll be over-trimmed for some of the time when going slower. In my opinion that’s a much better compromise than being under-trimmed and potentially losing drive when you’re running at your highest speed.
Work the mainsail
Constantly trimming the gennaker requires a lot of effort. For short-handed sailing, it’s sometimes easier to find a good average setting for the headsails and to use the mainsail trim to power up or ‘unstick’ the boat by releasing a bit of main. It’s way easier to give a bit of ease to the main and get some power back in and then bring the main in as soon as you’re accelerating again. Even on the VO65 when we had 10 people on deck, we tended to go for an average trim setup on the headsails and then work hard at the mainsail trim to keep the boat moving.
Practise ‘high and fast’
It’s tactically good to be able to sail ‘high and fast’, typically at the start and at the end of a downwind leg. For example, when you’ve just rounded the windward mark and see a gust coming towards you, it can be worth steering up a bit higher and making sure you’re one of the first in the fleet to catch the new wind and potentially accelerate over boats ahead of you. Then towards the leeward mark it can be tactically strong to approach from slightly below the layline at a hot angle, creating lots of apparent wind that gives you the chance to overtake any of the boats that gybed a bit too soon and are struggling to keep power in their sails.
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