Downwind in Lasers

by Jon Emmett

Modern Laser races are finished at the bottom of the course, where they’ll be ready to start the next race. In fact, for today’s generation, the long beat to the finish that we used to do is unthinkable. Rather, we tend to have a reaching finish at World Sailing and other prestigious multiclass events, and a small beat to finish at ILCA and EurIlca events. As a result, especially on the pure windward/leeward courses, downwind speed is even more important now than it has ever been.

The Top Turn

A top turn is where we head the boat towards the wind (and up a wave), going from a run towards a reach. We make these turns either to simply reposition that way (perhaps to clear the wind), or to get to an area of more wind, better current, a gust etc., or more likely, to surf a wave and promote the boat to plane and therefore go faster. It should be the leeward heel rather than large rudder movement which drives the turn, and this heel to make the boat turn is allowed under rule 42. In a perfect world the boom is just off the water, although if in doubt, it’s better to have the boom “kiss” the water (just touch) in light winds than not do enough roll. (More kicker makes it easier to head the boat up but also makes the boom more likely to touch the water. Small changes in kicker tension can make a huge difference to performance.)

Leeward heel to head up.

The Bottom Turn

The bear away is just as important. Here we are going down the wave or further still, from a run to sailing by the lee. In light winds, you need a lot of body movement here but try and keep your bum out of the water because it will only slow you down. You also need to keep your weight forward so there is more of the bow in the water, which helps you turn faster. It is the shape of the bow which helps the turn, so the more this digs in, the more your turn will be fast and smooth. As the wind builds, you need to move back in the boat because the boat will naturally turn more quickly (it is also the same with the top turn but perhaps the results are more dramatic when you get the bottom turn weight wrong!).

Remember, flattening the boat will cause the turn to stop and accelerate the Laser in the desired direction. It is often easy to overturn if sailing in big waves with a loose kicker. Remember, the looser the kicker the easier it is to bear the Laser away. For the same middle leech position, you need a tighter sheet with a looser kicker and vice versa: looser sheet with a tighter kicker. The stronger the wind, the more open the leech becomes for the same kicker tension – downwind sailing can be more an art than a science because it is very much about feel.

One important point is that a Laser will normally be sailing at its fastest downwind when there is minimum corrective steering. That is, if you let go of the tiller, the boat would continue in a straight line. On a run this means a small amount of windward heel to give a light rudder and to “counter” the weight of the rig. Conversely, even a small amount of leeward heel will make the boat constantly want to head up and the corrective steering will slow you down.

Windward heel to bear away.

Body Movement

Body movement should be governed by the waves, so small choppy waves need small choppy movements (much like the steering), whereas big swell requires larger but slower movements. Precise timing is always important regardless of the wave type. This is why venue-familiarisation is especially important for downwind sailing, to really get in tune with the waves, which may be very different with different tide times and wind direction.

Sheeting needs to match the body movements, so you can slightly overtrim the sails to get the boat to head up and this means when the boat is on the new direction, the sail setting is perfect (you never want the sail to flap). This also means that by letting the sail out for the bear away, the sail is perfectly set when you reach the desired course. In light-to-medium winds, taking the sheet straight from the boom can work really well as it eliminates a lot of the friction in the system and really helps not only the sheet to move freely, but the sailor to feel the “weight” in the sail.

Your position downwind is very important, especially in marginal surfing or marginal planing conditions when just a few knots more of wind can make a huge difference to boat speed. So, we need clean wind (of course, in 25 knots clean wind is also a good thing, but the effect is not as large). This means not only clean wind as we continue to sail in the same direction, but we also have clean wind if we do a large upturn or downturn. Much like if you are sailing upwind, it is always good to position yourself so that you also have clean air both when you continue to sail in a straight line and when you tack on the next shift. Lasers that create a good space for themselves will find it easier to sail fast, although of course, the favoured side of the course is often busier and racing is always tight at high-level competitions.

For more information about covering, see article here.

Keep your wind clean downwind.

It may well be faster to surf on one tack or the other, and this also means you may need to gybe several times down the course if the wind shifts, if there is more pressure on one side or if the waves change direction. It may also sometimes be fast to be more of a broad-reaching angle or sometimes spend more time by the lee. Course testing is vital because often it is easier to go fast in one particular direction, so you need to centralise when you can. This means that if it is easy to surf from left to right, then you need to surf from right to left whenever you get the chance, or you risk a very slow angle coming back into the mark or simply having to sail a lot of extra distance. Just like upwind, you always want to sail the “long” tack (the tack you would spend the most time on) as much as possible to avoid having to sail on a header at the top of the beat because you are over the layline. The reason is that even the best race officers in the world cannot set a perfect course, so changes in wind direction or the current across the course make it incredibly hard to set a square line.

For more information about the perfect gybe, see article here.

Roll gybe pulling sheet across from behind.

Of course, there is no point in sailing super fast downwind only to give valuable places away at the marks, either at the start or the end of the run. As you approach the upwind mark you need to  know clearly which way you wish to go downwind (and that can be left, right, or middle – just like upwind), so that you can position yourself to find a good lane downwind. Likewise, before the downwind mark or gate you need to know which mark you want and your strategy for the next upwind. Last-minute decisions are rarely good ones, so ideally you need to plan six or more boat lengths before the mark.

For more information about mark rounding, see article here.

Good mark roundings are very important.

Downwind is certainly one of the most fun parts of Laser sailing and definitely one of the most rewarding. To really improve your downwind speed, consider getting a long tow upwind so you can really maximise your downwind sailing time. Remember, sailing fast downwind is safe: It is when you stop suddenly that you may be in trouble!

For more top tips about downwind sailing and many other topics Jon Emmett’s original book Be Your Own Sailing Coach is now available to download as an e-book.