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Coach’s Corner

Tension – At times one might think that setting up a sail is as easy as pulling on a few lines.  At first glance, and perhaps on some occasions, this may be true.  However, setting up a sail can be as technical as building an airplane—and on some occasions, not too far off.

By applying the level of knowledge that some NASA scientists have in the field of aeronautics, a sailboat racer can get an edge over the competition. Does that mean that every sailor needs to have a rocket scientist on board?  No, mostly because the people who make the sails have already hired one to do most of the work, so when you get your sails, they might already be ready to go.


There are different ways to control different sails, and change their shape to optimize performance. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to go over three of the main sail controls that almost every sail has.  This may enlighten you as to how, with just a few simple concepts, you can make that even simple cruiser sail look like one of those nice America’s Cup sails.

Luff Sail Tension:  
This is often controlled using two things.

  • 1) Halyard Tension: Especially with the forward sails, genoas, jibs, reachers and blades.
  • Keep them tighter in heavy winds, and slack in lighter winds.
  • 2) Cunningham: Or to most race folk, known as the “smart pig”.  Use many purchases to
  • keep it easier to pull in, and thus easier to fine tune.  Try taking purchases out in light
  • wind, and add more for heavier wind.

Foot Tension:
As with the human body, at the bottom of every sail lies the foot.  Use the Outhaul to ease or tighten. Make sure you don’t let it out too much, always try to take a look down the boom, and try to see a nice even curve.  Ease downwind, and when there’s chop in the water to power through.

Leech Tension:
As far as sailing goes, this can be the difference between first and last.  Constant adjustment is needed in the Boom Vang to ensure that your sail has that nice airplane-wing shape going upwind, and a nice power twist going down.  Have someone on it all the time, especially on race boats downwind, to be ready to ease it out quickly to avoid a wipeout.


With sailboat rigging, every boat may have a different set-up.  Ask around, call the sailmakers and find the right settings; do lots of what are called “tune-ups” with boats that are similar.  A tune-up consists of two one-design boats going upwind right beside each other and seeing which one is faster.  Find out, and then duplicate it with yours, and maybe even improve upon it by trying something different.  After much trial and error, you may find yourself at the top of your class.  

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