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By Mike Rees - Portland, Oregon - USA

I did not know how to sail

After 25 years of sailing, I discovered I did not know how to sail. I assumed that after racing in Flying Scots and going on a sailing vacation of some sort every summer, plus teaching sailing at a summer camp for six years, I knew how to sail.

When I had time to start racing again, there was no local Flying Scot fleet in Portland, so I bought a Thistle. The Thistle is lighter, faster, tippier, and carries every inch of the sail area of a Flying Scot. The local fleet was more competitive than the Flying Scots I had sailed with. I discovered I didn’t know how to make this boat go. At midwinters in San Diego, the fleet of 60 Thistles just vanished in the distance.

Every race is speed test. Thistles on the windward at Yale Lake, Washington. Photo by Paul Nelson

Two years later, I started sailing a Laser also, with the idea that it would improve my Thistling. It is not a faster boat, but a smaller and trickier single-handed boat with a wicked tendency to death roll in a blow. The local Laser fleet is one of the most competitive one-design fleets in the country, dominated by college racing alumni. It took me three years of constantly racing with the Lasers before I could keep up with the fleet maybe half the time. After about five years, I won my first Laser club race.

Here are a few lessons from my effort to finally learn to sail. I hope these tips can help you get more fun out of your sailboat.

The author in 187417 at a winter Laser race. Photo by Fred Jensen.

Smaller is better.

The Flying Scot, at 19 feet and 900 pounds, is fun for big air and capsize avoidance. To feel the forces of the wind, the waves, the hull trim, and sail shape, you need to have as close a connection to them as you can get. I recommend a boat not much heavier than the combined weight of the humans aboard. Three people, the usual Thistle crew, weigh between 450 and 600 pounds. The Thistle, at 17 feet, weighs 515 pounds empty (minimum). The Laser, just over 13 feet, weighs about 130 pounds. The Beetle Cat is my favorite old school wooden boat, and it weighs 450 pounds, with room for two people. Hull weight is a vital statistic. Thistle sailors have a fit if they discover their hulls are even 10 pounds over the legal minimum weight. One top sailor found out his boat was 40 pounds over, and immediately put it up for sale.

Club 420 on the Willamette. Photo by Mike Rees 

Faster is better.

I try to help people past the blockages that arise in their sailing journeys. Several times, I have gone out on a friend’s boat to find out why they seem to be frustrated sailing it. I have sailed on various sturdy, oddball boats with funky sails, and the one defect that seems to really put a clamp on sailing enjoyment is lack of sail area. It is hard to tell someone, “Your boat is a pig,” but sometimes, it is true. The people who show up at the riverfront and poop around in these boats tend to be the people I see sailing once, maybe twice, and never again. The people that sail all the time are the ones whose boats move, move, move, and sail circles around the pokey boats. Take a look at what is being offered at the boat show as starter dinghies, and you will notice that they are under-canvased. Those tiny sails they put on kayaks do not count as sails at all. Manufacturers think it is best you don’t struggle with an overpowering spread of sail on your very first outing. But your third or fourth outing should involve some “Whee!” When you choose and rig your boat, do not skimp on sail area.

Go racing.

There is no way to tell if you are sailing right without speed testing against another, similar boat. You can’t say how fast your boat should be going in any certain wind speed or wave state, because there are too many variables and no accurate way to measure them. When your buddy sails away from you, you know that you are not performing optimally. If you think his boat is lighter or smoother, trade boats. Racing is all speed tests all the time. You will end up very well focused, looking over your boat, your sails, and the shaky hand on your tiller, wondering, “Why are we going so slow?” Puddle Ducks, OK Dinghies, Snipes, Bluejays, Lightnings and sailing canoes are all racing boats that can be had in wood, and upon occasion, home built. Even speed testing between similar dinghies that are not actually one-design classmates is very educational. You might be able to teach yourself how to sail by reading a book and sailing alone, but why bother? Sailboat racers are fun people. Go find them.

Your bottom is your ballast.

In a pickup race, I paired up with a keelboat sailor to race in a 420, which is a racing dinghy 420 centimeters long. He took the helm, and on the windward leg, sat down on the leeward side, intently peering around the jib as he steered. I climbed way up on the windward rail and still could not flatten the boat. I told him he could, ahem, come over to windward if he wanted to. He said he always steered from the lee side, because he could see better. I said, “I hope you can see better, because those boats you are looking at will be getting smaller!” Most boats sail best on their lines. In racing dinghies, you learn that it really matters where you sit. The first thing I heard about sailing the Thistle was, sit forward. You cannot sail the Thistle fast, in most conditions, without sitting so far forward that you can’t reach the tiller without the extension. In a big breeze, the Laser gets squirrelly if you sit too far forward on the downwind. We constantly move side to side to keep the racing dinghy flat.

Holding the boat down. Photo by Paul Nelson

Repeat and repeat.

I have taken sailors out on the Thistle who were used to sailing on more sedate boats. They end up asking for “a little warning, please!” when we tack. Over the years, I had gone from “Ready about! Everybody ready? Okay we’re tacking! Helms alee!” to “tack”-WHAM. Trying to keep up with the Thistle fleet tacking up the Willamette River, you have to tack without deliberation. At one point, I got the yips. The yips is the disease a shortstop has when he is inexplicably unable to throw the ball to first base. My yip was that I could not tack without dropping the tiller extension. The more I thought about it, and concentrated, the more I dropped it and left the boat and crew wallowing head to wind as the other Thistles sailed away. I got my mojo back one day and have, 1000 tacks later, got it down to “tack”-WHAM. A rewarding exercise on the Laser is to set two marks, windward and leeward, about 75 feet apart, and run a small fleet on an endless race between the two marks. In a breeze, you end up with everyone tacking or jibing every 5 to 10 seconds. Hike, trim, daggerboard, vang, cunningham, outhaul, sheet, jibe, daggerboard, vang, cunningham, outhaul, trim, tack, hike. You learn the choreography or you end up in the river with the sheet around your legs and the tiller extension up your nose.

The little stuff matters.

If you set chess pieces on a chess board, a non-player would never notice if you put the pieces in an impossible arrangement. A chess player would see it immediately. It drives my wife nuts, but I go to the waterfront and see some boat sailing a quarter mile away, and say, “He needs more vang tension and his top batten is in backwards.” Lasers, since 2001, use a 15:1 vang purchase, and they use it all the time. If you try, as an experiment, setting the vang and forgetting it, you will see your buddies sailing past you, playing their vangs in the puffs and lulls, watching their sails twist, and their top telltales flop and fly. They play their sheets constantly. (Most of them have no cleat.) They hike out, sit in, and pump like a bobsledder through the waves. They mark their outhauls with numbers to reproduce their settings. Tuning a Thistle involves measuring mast rake with a tape measure and using a gauge to set the tension on the forestay and jumpers. When you first start racing in a competitive fleet, all the strings and what they do are bewildering, but you soon learn that all these little things matter.

Breaking out the J/24 spinnaker on the Columbia. Photo by Paul Nelson

Get good sails.

Some racers get a new set of sails once a year. Thistle sailors are restricted to no more than one set of sails a year, to prevent an arms race. Many of the strings on a race boat are to control sail shape. An old, blown-out sail can’t be flattened or otherwise controlled, and is slow in all but the light to moderate air that might allow you to benefit from baggy sails. Going to windward in heavy air, a sail can be de-powered by flattening it, but only if it isn’t stretched out. With a choice between spending money on the hull or the sails, money spent on the sails will make your boat faster.

Lay off the rudder.

You don’t need the rudder as much as you might think. More rudder deflection causes more drag. With an afternoon to kill, I took out a Lightening, and learned how to sail it on all points, tacking and jibing at will, with the tiller tied off. You can steer a well balanced boat almost entirely with your weight and the sails. If you notice how hard your boat turns to weather when you let it heel (as most boats will) you will wonder why you ever sat there yanking on the tiller when it heeled over in a puff. You let that sheet out, hike the hull flat, then gently trim the sheet in, and the boat will shoot forward instead of fighting you trying to round up. The rudder should not deviate more than 10 degrees from center while you play the puffs. We heel the boat to help us turn around the mark. Try roll tacking and roll jibing. The goal is to come out of the maneuver with as much speed as you had on the way in, and to use minimal rudder input. It took me years to get consistent at it. When you do it wrong, you actually stop the boat.

Thistles on a run at Yale Lake, Washington. Photo by Paul Nelson

Go out in the heavy stuff.

One of the big advantages of racing is the peer pressure. Looking out at whitecaps and 30-knot puffs when you are alone on the dock, pondering whether to go, is one thing. It is different when everyone is rigging up and the mark boat is setting a course. You just go. You have a blast. You learn how to sail a little better in conditions that are just a little hairier than you are used to. Or you learn how to …


I can’t get my wife excited about this, but the best way to deal with the fear of capsizing is to capsize, over and over. If you have trouble recovering from a capsize, you need to capsize more and figure out what is going wrong. Wear whatever it takes to stay warm and buoyant. Fix your leaky flotation tanks. Learn how to dry roll. Learn how to get back in the boat. The Laser is a great boat for capsize recovery. There is nothing to flood but a cockpit the size of a foot bath, and the deck is about three inches above the water. If you are quick, you hop over the high side and don’t even get your feet wet when the sail hits the water. The Thistle tends to scoop a lot of water in a capsize, and you just have to bail. We carry a 5-gallon bucket and two little buckets. We use them regularly.

Thistles on a run at Yale Lake, Washington. Photo by Paul Nelson

These sailing skill improvement efforts transfer into other kinds of boats. We still take two sailing vacations every year. Our cruising boat is 22 feet long, and has a little galley, a dinette table, and a porta-pottie. It is not super fast, it weighs a ton, and it doesn’t capsize, but I tweak all the lines, and I rigged it to fly a big J/24 spinnaker.

Racing involves peer pressure. Photo by Mike Rees


Mike Rees is a past commodore of Willamette Sailing Club and the president of the Oregon Youth Sailing Foundation.

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