by Mark Johnson [copyright 1/19/95]

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 - Priorities for Practice

Chapter 2 - Rigging

Chapter 3 - Starting

Chapter 4 - Beating Upwind

Chapter 5 - Rounding Marks

Chapter 6 - Reaching and Running

Chapter 7 - Finishing



This guide is a detailed introduction to the sport of sailboat racing. It focuses particularly on intercollegiate racing in dinghies, such as the FJ and the Laser. However, the ideas can be applied to other boats, including keelboats, windsurfers, and iceboats.

When a sailor begins to race, many questions come up, such as, "How do the sails work," "Why do I always get passed on the mark roundings," and "What's a mark rounding?" You can answer many of these questions by poring over various texts on aerodynamic theory and tactics manuals. In fact, that's one of the best ways to improve your knowledge about the sport in a thorough and detailed way. However, this short intro should provide some quick answers to basic questions in a relatively painless and comprehensive way. It should also provide some background to make the reading of other sailing literature more familiar.

I will assume a basic knowledge of sailing (being able to get the boat to move, without running into a lot of stuff), as well as a basic knowledge of how to get around a race course (knowing upwind, downwind, and mark roundings, as well as a few basic rules). This guide is separated into the major steps you will go through during a regatta, in chronological order. Each chapter outlines the main ideas and theory associated with these steps. Some chapters include "TECHNIQUE" sections explaining particular ideas which are important to boat speed, and which are mentioned in outside racing literature. Also, "SKILLS" sections may be included, providing particular tasks to practice, directly applicable to the leg of the race upon which the chapter focuses.

The remainder of this introduction and the following chapter, "PRIORITIES...," outline some major themes and gives you an idea of how to use the manual, and how to think about the sport.


This is probably the most important aspect of racing-attitude. The one thing that can win or lose a race faster than anything is the attitude of the racer.


Every race, you'll make many mistakes. The key is to forget about them for the moment, and go on with the race. It never helps your game to dwell on a mistake. All the energy spent on the last blunder takes concentration-concentration that is needed for sailing a great race. It might help to say "fuck," but only once.

After the race, it will be time to recall the mistakes and put them on paper. Get a notebook and write as much of the race as you can remember, outlining it from start to finish. The point of your notebook is not to dwell, but to compile a list of frequently-made errors which can be easily fixed. For instance, I often run into trouble at mark roundings with other boats. Knowing that, I try to concentrate a little harder on what will happen before I get to the mark, in order to avoid problems. Use your mistakes later to clean up your game, but don't let them interfere at the time they happen.

Being a Student

Another area in which attitude is important is in your ability to take criticism. No matter the form of the criticism or the messenger, it can almost always be used to advantage. It is too easy to take offense at helpful comments, not to mention those you consider derogatory. However, each may contain a bit of truth that you can use in the future to improve. Keep in mind that even well-intentioned remarks can be wrong, so you must take each with a grain of salt. If you don't know if the advice is any good, give it a try-what the hell.

The most beneficial position in which to be is that of a student of the sport. Many times, when a person joins a club and begins to race, they will follow a faster boat and finish second or third. However, for some reason this stops, and they drop back in the fleet. It may be that "beginner's luck" runs out. But, more than likely, they just stop following faster racers.

Following a better racer is a great way to win, as well as to learn. These guys are often better for a reason, and there is much to learn. Follow them, figuring out why they went the way they did, or why they didn't do what you would have done. If you can't figure it out on your own, ask them after the race. Many people are flattered and will offer much more than just a quick answer. This applies at any level of the sport from club races to the national level in your class. Never be afraid to ask for help, or start a conversation on a part of a race that bothered you.

How to Practice

Keep in mind that sailing, like any other skill, should be practiced. It should be practiced with the intent of improving the slowest part of your game first. Roll tacks are fun, but if you can't "stay on the wind" on the first windward beat, you'll lose big, even if your tacks are the best in the world (if you don't know what a roll tack is, don't worry-it's explained a little later). You should always make a list of priorities, with the goal of making the biggest improvement possible. Here is a list for the beginning racer:


  1. Beating-stay on the wind. Learn to "feel" the wind.
  2. Transitions (tacking and jibing)-this does not mean roll tacks, just master the basics first.
  3. Sailing Close to Other Boats Without Getting Nervous-this mean centimeters.
  4. Starting-learn to get a consistent start. This means lots of boat handling practice.
  5. Mark Roundings-large gains and losses are made here.
  6. Reaching and Running-

After learning the basics of this manual, you should be able to pinpoint weaknesses on which to focus, resetting your priorities accordingly. Most importantly, keep in mind that the easiest things to practice are the things that you can do well. You will improve your sailing most by concentrating on skills you don't do particularly well.

Many of the skills mentioned in the following chapters can be practiced alone with no props, or with one buoy in the water. It is always good to practice with other boats, if for no other reason than to combat boredom. However, there is much to be gained even if no one else is around. Read on.

On to Chapter 1

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