In order to get around the leeward mark as quickly as possible, you need to have good boathandling technique. If you turn the boat too quickly or trim your sails the wrong way, you will lose momentum through the turn, and that could be costly.
Perhaps the most important speed variable in a leeward mark rounding is your course through the water. This includes the shape of your turning arc and the placement of your turn relative to the mark.
When you begin turning the boat, remember two important things. First, don’t turn too sharply because that will create extra rudder drag and hurt your speed. Second, maintain a fairly constant rate of turn around the mark. In other words, try to keep your rudder at a relatively steady angle. If you push the rudder hard over, straighten it out and then push it hard over again, you will have an erratic turn with excessive rudder turbulence.
To figure out the best rate of turn, practice heading up from a reach or run to a closehauled course. Do this a number of times in open water without a mark. Once you have a good feel for how to turn the boat and maintain as much speed as possible, try making the same arc around a buoy. The challenge will be figuring out exactly where to begin your turn so it is not distorted by the position of the mark.
While conventional wisdom says you should swing wide on the near side and cut the mark close on the far side, that is not nearly the fastest course around the mark. Turning your boat almost always makes it slow down, and rounding the leeward mark is no exception. This is one of the biggest turns you make during the course of any race, so you must work hard at maintaining your speed here.
Like any other turn you make, a leeward mark rounding should be executed with as little rudder movement as possible. Every degree you turn the rudder off centerline creates more drag, and that is slow. So try to use other turning methods, like steering with your weight and sail trim, as much as possible.
Use weight to help your turn
Moving your crew weight from side to side can be an effective way to turn your boat without using the rudder at all. By heeling your boat to starboard, you make it turn to port. By heeling to port, you turn to starboard.
When you get to the leeward mark, heel your boat to leeward to start the mark rounding. This will make the boat turn to windward around the mark. Vary the amount of leeward heel in proportion to your desired turning radius. Heel a little at first and then more during the middle part of the turn.
As you approach the end of your turn, flatten the boat by moving more weight to the windward side. When you reach a closehauled course (and you are now steering straight ahead), you should be back to your normal upwind heel angle.
Of course, this technique works better on smaller, lighter boats that are more easily controlled by crew weight. But your weight will still have at least a small effect on any boat, so use this for every turn.
Use sail trim to help your turn
The way you trim your sails can also help you turn the boat without the rudder. By trimming the main- sail and easing the jib, you make the bow turn toward the wind. If you ease the main and trim the jib, the bow will bear off.
As you round the leeward mark, you need to trim both sails from a run (or reach) to a beat. The ideal way to do this is by trimming the mainsail slightly ahead of your turn and trimming the jib slightly behind the turn. For example, when you are on a beam reach in the middle of your turn, the main should be slightly overtrimmed and the jib slightly undertrimmed. This will help the boat turn toward the wind.
Unfortunately, as you make this turn it’s usually easier to pull in the jib than the main. That’s why many boats end up rounding the mark with the jib strapped in tight and the main still luffing. But this trim works completely counter to your desired turn.
Use the rudder as a last resort
It’s nice to think you could make all your turns on the racecourse without using the rudder at all, but this is overly idealistic. In reality, most sailors use the rudder quite a bit, especially during big turns like mark roundings, and especially when they have to maneuver in tight quarters around other boats.
But you should still try to use your rudder as little as possible. Work with your weight and sail trim first, and let the rudder move to match the turn created by these other methods. When you must use your rudder, be gentle. Don’t turn it too quickly or too far, and use a constant rudder angle as much as possible to maintain speed.
It’s not so hard to execute a ‘perfect’ leeward mark rounding when you have moderate wind and no other boats around. But when it’s light or windy and you’re dropping your spinnaker while fighting other boats for position, it can be a real challenge. In those situations, there’s nothing that will replace good teamwork and practice. ■
This article originally appeared in David Dellenbaugh’s Speed & Smarts, The newsletter of how-to tips for racing sailors. If you want to sail faster and smarter, log onto SpeedandSmarts.com.
A resident of Easton, CT, Dellenbaugh was tactician and starting helmsman for America3’s successful defense of the America’s Cup in 1992. He’s a Lightning World Champion, two-time Congressional Cup winner, seven-time Thistle National Champion, two-time winner of the Canada’s Cup, three-time Prince of Wales U.S. Match Racing Champion, and a winner of the U.S. Team Racing Championships for the Hinman Trophy.