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Sailing and Racing Basic Concepts

Sailboat racing is a complex sport. There are a huge number of things going on all the time. For a brand-spanking new crew member, this can be daunting, especially when lost in the frenetic activities of boat work on the race course. Other entries in this series will discuss particulars of being crew. This talks about the most basic facts of life on a racing sailboat, especially a single-hull racing sailboat.

Sailboats Heel. They lean over. And the more wind, the more they lean. Except for sailboats with more than one hull (catamarans or trimarans). This is normal. There is a big iron (or lead) keel underneath that keeps the boat from flipping over. So it's safe enough. New sailors are usually surprised or concerned about this, but it is perfectly normal. A sailboat has an ideal heel angle and we do try to maintain that angle through a while bunch of tricks. The most important of these is by crew weight placement. As a new crew member, your most important (and often only) job will be to help keep the boat at the ideal heel angle. This means sitting on the rail on the high-side of the boat (called hiking) and using your weight to help flatten the boat out. Or in very light winds, sitting on the low side to induce heel - trying to make the boat lean towards the correct heel angle.

Sailboats Bounce Around. Again, perfectly normal. Boats go up and down through the waves and side-to-side as wind increases and decreases. There's nothing to prevent this, learn to roll your body with it. And it leads to this concept: "One hand for the boat, one hand for you." It means, make sure as you move around, you are holding on to something.

Sailboats Cannot Sail Directly Into the Wind. It takes wind flowing over the sails to make a sailboat go. If we aim the bow (the pointy end) of the boat directly into the wind, the sails just bat back and forth (called flogging). No flow over them and so no forward motion. A boat point directly into the wind is said to be "In Irons". So to move in a direction towards the wind, we sail at an angle with the wind coming from one side or the other. These "angles" are called tacks and moving the boat through the wind is called tacking.  There's a lot of commotion during a tack from one side to the other. The sails have to be moved across the boat. The new crew needs to be on the ball, following directions and moving from one side to the other, without getting tangled in all the lines.

Gybing is Slightly Dangerous. When sailing downwind, a sailboat goes fastest if it sails at an angle, not dead (or straight) downwind. And similarly to tacking when heading upwind, we "Gybe" downwind, turning the boat so that the wind moves from one side to the over, but behind us. The big differences between doing this upwind and doing it downwind is that the sails are let way out (eased) when heading downwind. The mainsail (the one on the back-side of the mast) in particular is usually sticking out perpendicular to the center line of the boat. So it has to come all the way in and the get eased all the way back out again. This tends to happen very quickly (especially in any amount of wind). The boom, to which the mainsail is attached becomes a flying club, ready to smack anyone not watching in the head. So when the skipper says "Gybing", be prepared to duck your head as you move.

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