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For the sailor raised on racing and performance-oriented boat operation, the modern charter yacht can seem an awfully dumbed-down machine. Often lacking basic controls such as a cunningham, traveler or an adjustable backstay, the Average White Boat produces equally average performance. Whilst some versions of the ubiquitous AWBs might sport a traveler, the adjustable backstay is the one control that could come in very handy in the BVI's often lumpy and breezy conditions.

Not every boat is lacking this basic sail control, however, and for those sailors lucky (or smart) enough to find themselves aboard a well-equipped yacht, here are a few thoughts on appropriate backstay tension.    


Broadly speaking, adjusting the backstay does two things for you. First, it tightens or loosens the forestay/jibstay. Second, it flattens or shapes the upper portions of the mainsail. Basically, then, when going upwind, the backstay should be at increased tension and when going downwind, at reduced tension. The amount of tension applied is dependent on the force of the wind. Tensioning the backstay has as its principal effect, increasing the pressure on the forestay or headstay, thus flattening the foresail and allowing the boat to point higher. This effect is less noticeable with a roller-furling foresail, since the halyard is already stretched to a maximum but on a hanked-on sail, the effect can be immediate and dramatic.

A further benefit of backstay tension is a similar tightening of the mainsail luff, particularly at the upper levels, as well as a stretching out of the middle part of the sail, resulting in a flattened, less powerful sailplan. This reduction in power will help decrease weather helm and heeling when beating. If there is sufficient crew aboard, then backstay tension needn't be a set-and-forget tactic. Working the backstay in choppy conditions can allow the crew to power up when pushing through the froth and then de-power when in cleaner water.

When reaching under genoa or jib in moderate breeze, it often pays to reduce backstay tension, thereby easing the pressure on the headstay and allowing more shape into the sail. Presumably when going even further off the wind, the aggressive sailor would call for the spinnaker—which has its own set of rules. With the wind over 20 knots, though, it's often a good idea to keep some tension on the backstay to keep the mast sitting up straight.

Overall, then, the adjustable backstay is a very versatile implement in the sailor's toolbox. Every boat has its own limits as to maximum tension but generally speaking that level can be reached without bearing down too hard on the hydraulic pump or the adjusting line. “Don't break the boat” is always the priority when sailing, and this is no exception to that rule.  

Upcoming Races


BVI Sailing Festival     29 Mar – 1 Apr
BVI Spring Regatta     2 – 4 Apr
Virgin Queen Pizza Pursuit Race     25 Apr
BVI Dinghy Championships    1 – 2 May
Quantum Sails IC24 International Regatta     12 – 13 Jun
Lowell Wheatley Anegada Pursuit Race    26 Jun
Firecracker (WEYC race)     3 Jul
Premier’s Cup     10 – 11 Jul
Manhattan Yacht Club Trophy Race    18 Jul
Back to Schools Regatta     4 – 5 Sep
Open Sail to Norman Island     25 Sep
Pete Sheals Match Racing     2 – 3 Oct
Willy-T Virgins Cup Race     9 Oct
BVI Schools Regatta     30 – 31 Oct
Drakes Channel Treasure Hunt     6 Nov
Round Tortola Race      20 Nov
O'Neal & Mundy Commodores Cup & Prizes     18 Dec

And if that's not enough, check out the forum at www.IC24.org for more weekly beercan racing action right off the southern end of Nanny Cay. IC24s are the new fad in racing and spreading fast to the rest of the Caribbean and North America.

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