These legs are often the fastest legs because of the increased speed of the boat. This means that there aren't as many lead changes as in the beat legs. Your goal on these legs should be to set up for the leeward mark rounding, without getting passed. The boats behind will catch up, but you'll be pretty hard to pass on the downwind legs if you are doing things right. Even if you do get passed by 1 or 2 boats, don't let it bother you too much-there is always time to catch up at the mark rounding or on the next windward leg.
Below are a few basic techniques for keeping the boat moving. Keep in mind, also, that clear air is important. If someone is driving over you on top of your wind, try your best to get away without making too much of a course change (large course changes are mostly bad since you sail a lot of extra distance).
If the class rules allow, you should sheet the mainsail directly off the boom, ignoring the last block in the cockpit. This gives you a great feel for the sail, and it also allows much faster reaction time when you need to sheet in or out.
Your attention on the downwind leg should be split 70% speed watching and 30% watching what's happening around you. The 70% speed watching is imperative. You can gain or lose a lot on the downwind leg due to correct or incorrect sail trim. It can be the difference between grabbing the puff and passing 3 or 4 boats, and getting "rolled" by 3 or 4 others who did it right. Sheeting off the boom allows you to react more quickly, and it also allows you to feel the power in the sail, while you're watching your surroundings the other 30% of the time.
If you ever see pictures of Lasers racing downwind, you will notice that most, if not all, are heeled to windward. There are two reasons for this. First, heeling the boat gets the sails higher into the air, where the wind speed is often greater. Second, it reduces the surface area where the boat touches the water, reducing drag.
Most importantly, the boat is heeled to reduce the pressure on the tiller. When going almost straight downwind, with most of the sail area on one side of the boat, it will want to head up. This tendency forces you to use the rudder more than you should to keep the boat going straight. To counteract this, simply heel the boat to windward until you no longer feel any tiller pressure. You should be able to steer with your fingertips loosely gripping the extension.
Given what you have learned above about drag on the rudder and steering the boat without it, this should now be easy. Because the boat is going so much faster, heeling the boat is very effective for steering. Also because of your greater speed, the drag on the rudder is increased, so you should be steering as much as possible without it.
Just remember, when you want to bear off, heel to windward. To head up, heel to leeward. You should always make your movements small since course changes cost extra distance. Unless it is necessary to make the correction quickly, keep the amount of heel to only 5 -10 degrees.
Jibing is one of the two major transitions mentioned in the PRIORITIES chapter. It is a very important maneuver because there is a huge potential for things to go wrong. When going downwind, the boat is much less stable. When the force of the wind changes drastically during a jibe, the boat can carve up into the wind, running you way off course, into another boat, or at the very worst, capsizing. The key to keeping control of the jibe is to keep the boat steady.
First, don't make a large movement with the tiller to turn the boat. Keep a straight course as you bring the boom across the center line. Also, keep your weight in the center of the boat, and keep it mobile in case you need to throw it to either side to prevent a capsize.
Finally, and most importantly, if the winds are moderate or heavy, make sure the boat is up to speed. Think about that-make the boat go as fast as possible before jibing. The reason for this is: If the wind is from straight behind at 15mph and the boat is going 5mph, you feel 10mph of wind. That's a lot of force! If, however, you are going 13mph, you only feel 2mph of wind. This reduces the force on the sails considerably, keeping the jibe under control. Wait until you are up to speed, then, when a lull in the wind comes, throw the boom across the boat.
Keeping an eye out behind you on the reach or run is always a good idea, especially when you're looking for wind. The main idea is to pick a side of the course and stick with it, but within that side, you can move a little to use the wind.
When a puff is approaching from behind, you want to head up slightly, so it gets to you sooner. Then, when you're in it, bear off and ride it until it runs out. The idea here is to get to the puff quickly, and then stay in it as long as possible. You can increase your speed if you head up while in the puff, but this is not a good idea most of the time. If you're going quickly across it, you will come out the other side sooner than you want-so stay in it.
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