Sit further forward ...
In the six summers I spent teaching kids to sail in Optimists and Sunfish I must have spoken or shouted that phrase (or words to that effect) hundreds of times.
Most kids, when they are learning to sail, seem to want to sit as far back in the boat as they can, even right alongside the tiller in an Optimist, and hang on to the tiller for dear life. I guess it's a natural reaction. It must feel a bit more scary, less in control, to hold the end of the tiller extension instead of the tiller and to sit much closer to the bow of the boat. But being the big bad evil sailing instructor who believes that it's much easier to learn good habits than to break old ones, I always endeavored to teach my kids right from day one to sit well forward in their sailing dinghy. Unless you're planing or taking waves over the bow, it's faster.
Sit further forward...
So it was something of a surprise to hear the same words directed at myself while in the Laser class at Minorca Sailing a few weeks back. We were sailing upwind in a fairly light wind, not hiking conditions, and I was sitting at the front of the cockpit. Honest. But I had forgotten that in such conditions I should have had my weight even further forward in a Laser.
Oh, I know in the really light stuff you need to get your weight forward and lift the transom out of the water. On all those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that I've spent racing -- correction: drifting in -- my Laser on New Jersey lakes in 0-2 knots of wind, I'm as adept at anyone at climbing up in front of the mainsheet and squatting in some painful contortion just behind the mast.
But this situation in Menorca was in a somewhat stronger wind. Butt on the side deck kind of wind. And my instructor, Comet, was telling me to move my weight up alongside the centerboard, not just to the front of the cockpit.
On checking Comet's tip in my home sailing library I see that Ben Ainslie offers much the same advice in The Laser Campaign Manual: "Sit as far forward as possible (front leg in front of the mainsheet)." And in Ben Tan's Complete Introduction to Laser Racing, Rod Dawson in the chapter on Straight-line Speed advises us to "keep the bodyweight forward, next to the centreboard, to lift the transom above the water level,thereby reducing drag" when beating in lighter winds.
So how did I develop this bad habit of sitting just behind the centerboard of the Laser when beating in light winds? It's sailing that damn Sunfish, I'm sure. The Sunfish guru of gurus, Derek Fries in his book Successful Sunfish Racing specifically advises the Sunfish skipper to "situate himself even with the forward edge of the cockpit. There is no reason to sit any further forward". Ahah. That's it. All those years of sailing the Sunfish taught me a bad habit for Laser sailing.
So in my practice sessions since returning from Menorca I've been working on developing the correct style for sailing a Laser upwind in lighter winds. On some sessions I've sailed for a while with my weight up by the centerboard and then moved back to my old position. It certainly feels different. Hard to put into words but the correct technique has a more locked-in-the-groove smooth balanced feel to it. Fast. (I hope.)
This was the one of the things I was looking for when I had the chance to observe some top-notch Laser sailors last Sunday. I was admiring the leader of one race who was sailing upwind, sitting well forward, and also leaning his body towards the bow too. He looked smooth and fast, and it was easy to see that the knuckle of his bow was slicing into the water and the transom was lifted clear of the water.
By contrast another very good sailor a couple of places behind him was sitting a little back in the cockpit and leaning backwards. His bow was actually lifted up above the surface of the water. I couldn't understand why such an excellent sailor was using this style. Did this usually work for him? Everyone's different, it seems.
There's a tiny little problem with moving your weight forward of the front of the cockpit on a Laser. The deck cleat for the mainsheet. It is in exactly the wrong place. Sit forward and that cleat is going to be sticking into a part of your anatomy that shouldn't have foreign objects poked into it. Not too bad if you are wearing a couple of layers of neoprene. But definitely disconcerting if you are only wearing a swimsuit. But you have to do it. I know of at least one Laser sailor who has removed his deck cleats to avoid this... ahem... sensitive issue.
Thanks to the three Laser sailors who commented on my previous post about Laser technique. Would like to hear from any other Laser freaks if you agree with this stuff (or even if you don't) or have any other tips on light wind beating.