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Improving as a Racer; Part 3, Heel Angle and Balance

Unless you are sailing a high-end boat with water ballast or a movable keel (in which case, you probably aren't reading this anyway), then a key aspect of getting faster is adjusting the balance of the boat side-to-side and fore-and aft. How do we do this?

Side-to-side balance is usually called "heel" or heel angle. There is a common mis-perception among racers starting out that more heel is a good thing. When the boat heels over and digs in with the rail in the water, we feel like we're really sailing - flying along! Although this is a lot of fun, It's not necessarily good speed. Buddy Melges said that each boat has a designed heel angle and that part of our goal as racers is to keep the boat at that angle (I'm paraphrasing). From hull-design perspective, there is an underwater shape the boat designer is trying to move through the water and we have to achieve that shape.

This can be very hard to do, especially in chop, but there are a lot of tools at our disposal.  But first off, know what your ideal heel angle should be. If you can't get that the designed angle, develop it by sailing, adjusting the heel and watching your speed. Most modern boats don't sail well if heeled more than 20 degrees.

In light air, the boat won't heel much from the wind. So we move crew weight to the low side of the boat. This induces heel which helps achieve that underwater shape and also allows the sails to "fall" into some kind of airfoil shape - with the boat heeling, gravity pulls the sails into shape. Well, sort of. But better than without heel.  Ideally, in very light air, we would sail with a lot fewer crew. It just takes less person-power to handle the boat. But, in reality, sailing is a social occasion and I don't think about leaving folks on the dock. So put them on the low side.

As the wind picks up a little (still light, but moving), crew weight can come back towards the boat center. Ideally, as the wind strengthens and lightens, the crew will automatically move in and out, balancing the boat as needed.

And as the wind strengthens so that we are heeling because of it, crew will move to the windward, or "high" side of the boat and help hold her down. The crew on the rail should "hike", ensuring that as the boat heels more, they are sitting with legs and even arms and torso outside the lifelines - weight outboard and hiking hard! Again, in the ideal world, we would carry more crew on heavy air days. And I certainly try to do that if I know in advance that the winds are expected to be strong. But beware of it dying off as it frequently does in the evenings.

And finally, as the crew is all on the high-side rail, hiking hard, we need to start depowering the sails. That's a whole separate subject. But I'll say this much here; easing the traveler is the traditional way to reduce power on the mainsail, but I don't use it until the boat is almost out of control. It's not the first line of defense, in my opinion. If we think of the mast as a huge lever, then the most effective way to reduce heel is to take away force at the end of the lever - at the top of the mast. This means adding backstay tension and easing the genoa lead cars, if your boat has these. Do this first, ease the traveler second (or third). And finally, when the wind is overpowering, the crew is on the rail and the wind is still strengthening (or holding), we shorten sail - shift to a smaller jib and/or reef.

All of this thinking is the same for multihull boats as it is for monohulls, but the techniques may differ in how you deal with the "heel".  Multihull boats often go faster with a hull out of the water (flying a hull), so the balancing act is aimed around getting a hull flying. But the principles are the same - just applied differently.

Also important to the balance of the boat is fore-aft trim. It's very easy to keep too much weight in the aft part of the boat, especially a boat used for cruising as well as racing. Empty out that lazarette! But also, try to keep the crew weight positioned fore-and-aft so as to keep the boat on her lines. Generally, (not always), this means that upwind and in lighter air, crew will sit further forward. This helps to get the aft underwater portions of the hull up leaving less hull in the water. In heavier upwind sailing, crew weight will be more midships (almost never aft). In some upper-echelon regattas I've had crew go below to sit over the keel; but that's a bit extreme for a Wednesday night. Downwind, crew would hang out mostly forward, except in really heavy air. Then crew weight aft helps hold the stern down and the rudder in the water. It also helps catch waves for surfing.

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