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Performance Racing Trim

by © Bill Gladstone

Boat Speed, Boat Handling
and the Racing Pyramid

1.1 Why Do We Race Sailboats?

1.2 The Racing Pyramid

1.3 Boat Speed and Boat Handling

1.4 Performance Analysis

1.5 Using This Book

1.1 Why Do We Race Sailboats?

Sailboat racing requires a broad mix of skills: We need sailing and boat handling skills; an understanding of wind and weather; and knowledge of tactics, strategy, and rules. We also need specialized sail trimming technique; organizational skills to manage crew; and analytical skills to grapple with information. We need to be able to set goals and establish priorities, concentrate amidst chaos, ignore discomfort, and learn from our mistakes.

None of us can master all the skills. Part of the enduring appeal of racing is the breadth of the challenge it presents. Not only can we never master all the skills; we are challenged in new ways every race, for no two races present the same mix of challenges.

Sailing’s appeal goes beyond these challenges. We enjoy racing for the chance to be out on the water, for the thrill of working with the wind, for the challenge of competition, and for the camaraderie it brings.

1.2 The Pyramid

The building blocks of successful racing can be diagrammed in a hierarchical pyramid. Tactics lie at the top of the racing pyramid. Beneath tactics lie Boat Speed and Boat Handling. In order to race successfully you must work your way up the pyramid. To win races your boat handling must be second nature, and you boat speed second to none.

Fig. 1 – The Racing Pyramid

Boat Handling and Boat Speed form the base of our racing pyramid. You will win races when your Boat Handling is second nature, and your Boat Speed second to none.

Boat speed and boat handling are distinguished from tactics in several ways. For one, boat speed and boat handling are entirely within your control, while tactics involves factors of wind, current, and competitors which are decidedly beyond our control. Boat speed and boat handling, like a strong defense in basketball, will make you competitive everyday. Tactics, like a hot shooting touch, is great when you’ve got it – but is not something you can count on day in and day out.

Boat speed and boat handling are distinguished from tactics in another way: Tactically there are opportunities for enormous gains and losses, particularly in shifty wind conditions. The gains and losses from boat speed and boat handling accrue much more subtly. Sure, you can lose plenty if you drop your spinnaker in the water and wrap it around your keel, but more commonly the gains are a few feet here, a boat length there. But they add up, and they are the margin of victory.

1.3 Boat Speed and Boat Handling

In this book we will explore boat handling and boat speed. If you believe you need help with tactics you may be in for a surprise. When your boat handling is second nature, and your boat speed second to none, you may suddenly find you are a tactical wizard. If you’d still like to know more about tactics refer to the companion volume, Performance Racing Tactics.

Good boat handling is a prerequisite to successful racing. You must sail well before you can race well. Fundamental to good boat handling is good, regular crew. We’ll explore how to find, organize, and train crew. We’ll also look into specific techniques for boat handling upwind and down, including spinnaker work for conventional and asymmetrical spinnakers.

Fig. 2 – Consistent performance requires that you master the things you can control – boat handling and boat speed; while making the best of things beyond your control – tactics.

Good boat speed is also essential to successful racing. We will look at trim theory, and study each sail individually, and then as an integrated piece of the performance puzzle.

Fig. 3 – The difference between good and great boat speed is just 1 or 2%. The difference is subtle, but critical to racing success.

As we study sail trim and boat speed issues more closely we will see that the difference between fast and slow is just 1%to 2%. We’ll find that the cumulative impact of every nuance of trim adds up to the difference between winning and losing.

1.4 Performance Analysis

So, how are your skills? The Performance Analysis presented here is intended to help you look at your own racing skills and focus on areas of strength and weakness.


The hidden foundation of the pyramid is preparation. Your boat and equipment must be in competitive condition. Yes, every little bit does matter. The difference between winning and mid-fleet is the sum of many little things.

Boat: Hull condition, keel and rudder shape.

Weight distribution below decks.

Equip: Rigging, hardware condition and suitability.

Instrumentation – working, calibrated, integrated?

Sails: Is your inventory complete, and in excellent condition?

You should think not only about your own skills but the overall skills on the boat you race. If you are a tactical king you need to team up with a boat speed druid and a boat handling wizard. Of course, if you race single handed you’ll need to be all these things!

1.5 Using this Book

Performance Racing Trim is the most complete book on racing sail trim, boat speed, and boat handling. As such, the book covers a broad spectrum of topics, some of which you will find of more immediate interest than others. While the material in later sections builds on earlier chapters, each chapter is written to stand alone, and can be read independently.

If you are looking for an answer to a particular question, you can skim quickly by studying the illustrations and reading the captions. When you hit upon an area of particular interest, dig into the text for more details. You can also use this skimming technique for a quick review as needed.

The ideas presented here are by no means the final word on racing technique. They are a starting point. Use the information here as a foundation. Build on it to further your own racing success.


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