In the latest instalment of her series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains the best process for tacking with two onboard
Double handed sailing skills are increasingly important to master as the recent boom in double handed racing, both inshore and offshore, continues and boats designed for couples to cruise two-up become ever more popular. We now regularly see crews of two managing all sizes of boat, and sailing them with the same efficiency and expectations as full crews.
These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.
Beating can be one of the less challenging points of sail for a double handed team. If the boat is well balanced with an appropriate sail plan, the autopilot will steer efficiently and one person can manage the cockpit while the other relaxes, banks sleep or, on longer voyages, manages cooking and maintenance.
In poor weather only having one person on deck at a time ensures the crew can take time to get dry and warm between watches. There are, however, times when it is useful to have both sailors on deck when sailing upwind and in the next two parts of this series we’ll focus on these times and techniques; starting with tacking, then looking at reefing and active upwind trim next issue.
The secret to an efficient short-handed tack is good timing. Without the help and power of additional crewmembers it’s essential the jib comes in quickly and does not load up before the bulk of the sheet has been pulled in. This means it is best to hand steer when tacking so the helmsperson can adapt their rate of turn to match the progress of the jib.
Set the mainsheet traveller before the tack. For simplicity and in moderate conditions pin it into the centre of the track. In windy conditions or for more speed out of the tack set to the optimum position for your new tack. Ease the mainsheet slightly before tacking. This will both allow you to sail deeper for a speed build post tack, and will help prevent the boat from getting stuck head to wind should you lose all speed during the tack.
Once the mainsail is set, the helmsperson will steer through the tack watching the jib. Initially turn into the wind quickly, ensuring you maintain momentum during the early part of the tack. Once the jib has passed through the wind, slow down your rate of turn as much as you dare without losing all boat speed. The aim is to keep the wind angle as fine as possible for as long as possible to allow your co-skipper maximum time to pull in the jib by hand while the sail is flapping. At the first indication that the helm is sluggish to respond, or when your jib is in the final stages of trim, bear away.
Post-tack you will need to build speed quickly to make up for lost momentum, particularly if beating into waves, so sail low initially – down to a 40° apparent wind angle if necessary. As the boat speed increases, start to sail higher, your co-skipper can then apply the final trim to the jib while the helm trims in the mainsheet and plays the traveller.
Set up the jib sheets pre-tack in the usual way: leeward sheet flaked or coiled and ready to run, windward sheet loaded onto the new winch. Make sure you have enough turns to hold the full weight of the jib as it loads up – unlike with a full crew there will be no one to help with this.
I would not recommend loading the jib sheet into the self-tailer before the tack as doing this will add considerable friction to the system and make it harder to pull slack in quickly while the jib is unloaded.
In all but light airs aim to release the leeward jib sheet completely, just before the jib shows any sign of backing. This early point of release should give enough time to get to the other side of the cockpit before the jib has blown across the foredeck.
Timing will change depending on wind strength, the stronger the wind the earlier the release. In big breeze you’ll need to release the jib the minute the bow starts turning. Those who are physically less strong may also benefit from releasing earlier. The speed sacrificed through an early jib release is easily offset by the ability to pull the new sheet in before it fills and without the need to grind.
When practising double handed tacks for the first time, the need to get across the cockpit to the new sheet can feel overwhelming and lead to poor technique when dumping the old sheet. Try to stay calm and focussed on your release – it’s vital that all the turns come off your leeward winch and the rope runs snag free. Even one turn left on the drum will cause enough friction to hamper sheeting in on the other side.
Once the old sheet is free, move across the cockpit and start tailing the new sheet by hand as quickly as possible. Use the full range of your arm, grabbing the sheet close to the winch, hand over hand and then throwing your elbows backwards. Longer length pulls are more efficient than multiple short ones.
The moment the load comes into the sheet, put your final wraps around the drum and into the self-tailer, then grind to a seven-eighths trim position. Let your helm know when this position is achieved so they can put the bow down to build speed. As the boat speed goes up, bring the jib in the final few turns to full trim.
Quick tip: with your head down, pulling like crazy, it can be hard to know what stage of trim the jib is at. The answer is to put marks around the boat to help both you and the helmsman easily make this judgement.
Place marks on the upper spreader that line up with the jib leech – these can be made with reflective tape to be seen at night. When the leech comes level with each mark the helm will be able to call trim.
Place marks on the jib sheets – to show three-quarters and then full trim. These can be easily seen by the trimmer but they’ll only be accurate for one size of jib. You could try different coloured marks for different jibs, but avoid making a system that’s too complicated to understand.
It can be really hard to get the jib in all the way on bigger boats and windy days, but grinding a loaded sail for extended periods of time is bad for the sail (extra flapping), exhausting for the crew and slow for the racing sailor.
If this happens try a second luff up, post tack, to pull the rest of the sail in by hand. Tack in your usual way, but once the load comes onto the jib don’t go immediately to grinding. Instead, the trimmer can hold the jib in position (they might need an extra wrap for the load). The helm will then bear away to increase boat speed rapidly – a little deeper than normal and make sure the mainsail is slightly eased.
Once the boat speed is enough to carry momentum, luff the boat up aggressively to head to wind, but not beyond. During this window the trimmer should pull the remaining armfuls of the jib sheet in, then continue with the second part of the tack and speed build as normal.
With a team of two, communication is always vital. Make sure you are talking to each other through this whole manoeuvre. Before the tack, there should be a verbal agreement you are both ready. During the tack both sailors should narrate what they are doing and seeing. The helm will talk about boat speed, how fast they are turning the boat, let the trimmer know when they are dialling down for the post-tack speed build and when they are coming back up.
The trimmer should let the helm know the second there is a problem, a snag in the old sheet, riding turn in the new sheet, not enough wraps on the drum. The trimmer should also call when they reach seven-eighths trim.
Tacking with autopilot
Using the tack function on the autopilot will allow both co-skippers to manage the sheets, and in moderate conditions and flat water this can be an efficient way to tack the boat.
However, the inability of the pilot to adapt the rate of turn during the tack makes it a bit of a blunt tool if anything goes wrong or conditions are not perfect.
Before trying a tack check your pilot settings. I’d recommend choosing to tack to a reciprocal wind angle, rather than through a set number of degrees. This means if you start the tack slightly off the breeze you will not end up in irons at the end. Check the tacking speed and adjust according to conditions – this will take a little tuning and the pre-set value will probably be brutally quick.
Once you have found a comfortable setting, write it down as your base level and adjust according to the wind strength. As a rule of thumb, you can tack quicker in lighter airs and flatter water.
The person releasing the old sheet needs to be ready with top wrap off the winch before the tack is initiated. The person pulling the new sheet should initiate the tack then go to the new sheet and tail. The other crewmember can then join with a winch handle. Be prepared to bear away a couple of degrees post tack, for the speed build.
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