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Optimize Your Tacking for Speed Around the Race Course

17th October 2019
Tacking is a costly manoeuvre in most boats, but the loss is unavoidable. The more you can reduce the loss, the more options you have Tacking is a costly manoeuvre in most boats, but the loss is unavoidable. The more you can reduce the loss, the more options you have

Tacking is likely the most common manoeuvre we execute on our boats. It is pretty hard to avoid in fact writes Graham Curran of UK Sailmakers Ireland.

Every second lost while tacking is multiplied 3, 4, 5, 6 times when beating, if not more! Having an effective tacking technique is crucial for speed around the race course.

Every boat is different, every crew is different, and every cockpit is different. Creating effective “lanes” within the cockpit when tacking is essential. It should be a finely choreographed dance. There is a lot going on in a usually crowded space. Putting a good system in place where everyone knows their lane will produce consistent, repeatable good tacks.

"Having an effective tacking technique is crucial for speed around the race course"

In general, I like to set up four lanes. The helm furthest aft in the driver’s enclosure. He has the most space as is usually out of the way so no problems there. If there is a cross over issue then the helm takes precedence. Wherever the helm needs to be before, during, and after the tack to ensure the boat moves smoothly is most important.

The mainsheet trimmer comes next, generally in the middle of the cockpit, usually always in the way. He has the traveller to deal with to best to give him some space.
Then come to the two trimmers. How you work together is important here as you are both on the rail before the tack. I assign trim one the task of managing the (one) winch handle, throwing off the loaded sheet, grinding in the new sheet, and finalising the trim of the sail. Trim two is assigned the task of pulling in the new sheet and tailing it while it is being grinded.

The process I use progresses like this:

  1. Helm calls the tack. Begins the “3 … 2 … 1 …” count.
  2. On 3 count; trim 1 comes off the rail and goes to leeward ready to release the loaded sheet. The windward winch is already loaded correctly (clockwise) with the new sheet and has the (one) winch handle in it orientated so it is not in the way when coming off the rail.
  3. On 2 count; trim 2 swings in off the rail and assumes the pulling position on the soon-to-be new sheet. He stays forward in the cockpit where possible.
  4. As the boat passed through the wind trim 1 throws off the loaded sheet and steps between the mainsheet man and trim 2 to the new leeward winch.
  5. As the boat passed through the tack trim 2 snaps the new sheet in, he then makes his way to the windward rail while tailing the jib sheet, he does not stand in the cockpit holding the rope. It is entirely possible to be fully hiked while tailing the new sheet.
  6. Trim 1 grinds the new sheet to 90% trim. He then grabs the sheet and shouts “my sheet” to trim 2. He takes the sheet and puts it in the winch self-tailor (if fitted) or puts an extra wrap on if needed. This short pause allows the helm some time to power the boat up of the partially under trimmed headsail after the tack.
  7. Trim 2 is now hiking his little heart out.
  8. Trim 1 brings the sail to max trim.
  9. Trim 1 ensures the sheet is securely cleated, takes the (one) winch handle and makes his way to windward.
  10. Trim 1 sits on the windward rail first, he then reaches back to load the windward winch with the jib sheet, pulls through any excess slack, and puts the (one) winch handle in, orientated correctly, ready for the next tack.

The above is the system that I like to implement as I believe it provides the most control to the trimmer and consistency to the helm. It is by no means the only system, as we will discuss below, but it works best in my experience.


There are many ways to tack a boat. Above I laid out my preferred method but I have sailed on several boats where it simply doesn’t work due to space/crew constraints.
A good example of this is the X302 or Beneteau First 31.7. Having two trimmers passing each other through the cockpit on these boats is just not possible. There is not enough space. As these are also boats primarily sailed with genoas, a mistake or delay can be very costly for boat speed and also the heart of the poor person who has to grind the sail in. The best solution I have seen for this is to have the mainsail trimmer throw off the loaded genoa sheet for the tack. This leaves trim 2 free to pass through the cockpit to tail, and trim 1 can be positioned over the new winch ready to grind as soon as the sail passes the mast, before it loads up.

Another similar example is a J109. Although the space is available on this particular boat, some crews prefer to have the pit person throw off the loaded winch and proceed straight to the rail. The two trimmers can then pull and trim in the jib as above.

It is worth experimenting to find a system that works best for your boat. Once you have found that system, stick to it, and make it second nature. That way when a new crewmember comes aboard, or as crew fluctuates throughout the season, you have a tried and tested procedure to teach, rather than having them figure it out themselves each time.


No matter what system you intend using there are little details that will make life easier. Stick to these and everything will run like clockwork.

Use one winch handle, two just doubles up jobs and causes confusion. If tacks are in short succession trim 2, instead of heading to the rail, or from on the rail if time allows, loads the new jib sheet and takes the winch handle from trim 1 if he is handed it. Trim 1 can also bring the winch handle across with him if under severe pressure.
Get over the winch. Whether you are releasing or grinding, the place to do it is standing directly over the winch. This is assuming your cockpit layout allows this. If you are above the winch you will be able to apply more force to the winch handle, making grinding much easier. Releasing the sheet is also much easier from this position as the sheet generally whips off the top of the drum once the sheet is held above it.

Deciding when to release the sail for it to cross the boat is the most important aspect of a good tack. Too early and the helm will need to use more rudder, slowing the boat. Too late and you’ll leave yourself with a lot of grinding to do. The trick here is practice and consistency. In medium sailing conditions, I tend to release once I see the front of the jib starting to luff/bubble. This indicates that the helm is just about to pass the boat through the wind. The sail is them pulled in on the new side as the boat is passing through head to wind, where there is little or no load on the sheet.

If the wind is lighter I will hold the sheet longer, allow the sail to ‘back’ to assist the bow through the wind. This makes pulling in on the new side a little harder but this is ideal as we do not want to be fully trimmed in in this lighter wind strength, we want to be slightly eased to build speed exiting the tack.
If the wind is heavy I will release slightly sooner. This will allow the boat to deload a little and flatten smoothly through the tack. It also makes it easier to pull in on the new side, which is going to be hard regardless due to the wind strength, and will mean a little less grinding for the primary trimmer.

Discussing and talking to the helm when making this decision is very important. If you’re going to back the jib then tell the helm, and your second trimmer, so they will expect it. If you’re going to do it then do it for every tack. Not one in every five. The helm can then dial in exactly how much rudder is needed to turn the boat with the aid of the jib. If you decide to stop backing the jib suddenly the helm will find himself mid tack and having to make a large correction to compensate to the change in jib trim.
Self-tailing arms and foot holds. The self-tailing arms on most winches can be very obstructive when trying to release a loaded sheet. On most winches it is possible to orientate the arms in different directions. I find having them facing at around 7 o’clock keeps them out of the way for the most part. Quicker release makes pulling in the new loaded sheet that bit easier.

Another big consideration is having a solid foothold on the rail for the trimmer. If you want to get your trimming over the winch then you better make sure they are comfortable standing there. Some yachts have a well-placed stanchion at this point, others have pre-installed wooden wedges. If you don’t have anything it would be well worth taking a look as this small change could transform your tacking.


Ultimately the point of all this is to minimise loss. Tacking is a costly manoeuvre in most boats, but the loss is unavoidable. The more you can reduce the loss, the more options you have, the greater the chance of you winning the race. We do this by maintaining speed, done by using less rudder (jib release timing critical!). By ensuring weight is in the right place as quick as possible (trim 2 getting to the rail asap). And by making the entire manoeuvre a repeatable learnable process. If you do this right and practice it; you will find yourself occasionally giving out about a bad tack, rather than being astonished by a good one!

uksails topper

About the Loft

UK Sailmakers Ireland brings modern professional sailmaking to Irish Sailing.​ Formerly known as McWilliam Sailmakers; the company was started 47 years ago to bring the latest technology to Irish sailors - we continue this mission today.

Under new leadership in 2018; our loft is dedicated to fulfilling the needs of all Irish sailors. ​As sailmakers, we do not just design sails for boats. We design and build sails for your boat. Our extensive and versatile product line allows us to produce sails to suit your requirements and expectations.   

​As a core loft within the UK Sailmakers Group, we are uniquely placed to draw from a worldwide pool of knowledge and experience - these ties have been recently strengthened with the return of Barry Hayes and Claire Morgan from Hong Kong. ​Barry held a key role in our primary production facility on Hong Kong Island for the past fifteen years. With their return comes a renewed focus on technology R&D on Irish waters.  

​With a wide variety of sailing conditions and an impressive pool of talent, the Irish cruiser racing fleet is the ideal testbed for new technologies.​ 

​As with all things in sailing; the secrets will be closely guarded - but for the first time in decades Irish sailors will be at the forefront of sail technology development.​

Although much has changed; some constants remain. The same great sail and customer service we have provided in the past will continue, as does our commitment and passion for growing the sport of sailing all over the country. 


Barry Hayes [email protected]

Claire Morgan [email protected]

Andrew Steenson [email protected] 

Contact Information:

UK Sailmakers Ireland

Hoddersfield Mill


County Cork

P43 EY26

Republic of Ireland

Tel: +353 21 4831505

Fax: +353 21 4831700

Email: [email protected]

Graham Curran

About The Author

Graham Curran

Email The Author

Graham Curran is a sailmaker and director of UK Sails Ireland

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