Sailing Up Wind


The Upwind Groove

by Steven Jung

Ever wonder why the great sailors are always so much faster than the average middle of the pack guys like me and you? (I speak for myself on this one) I have asked myself this question. No matter how much you talk to talk to these guys and ask them questions, it seems that they always end up beating you on the race course. Why is that?

You can be the best technical sailor on the race course by reading all the most popular boatspeed books and rigging guides and tactical books but the great sailors have something extra. It's called "Practice". They've spent countless hours on the water and have competed in a ton of races.

Some call it "finding the groove" and others call it "feel". Whatever it is, the great sailors concentrate more on overall performance rather than technical things. I'm not saying that you forget about your boat rigging, sail trim, wind pattern, current, and waves. Instead you put ALL of this information into your memory bank and sail accordingly. Here are some excercises which might help you find the groove while sailing.


  1. The first step in attempting understand this concept is to sail on a course somewhere between close hauled and beam reach. At this heading it will be easy to achieve good boatspeed without having to excessively trim your sails. The best conditions for this exercise is in 12+ knots or where you will almost be trapezing. Trim your sails (telltails should flow without over or under trimming your sails) and feel the boatspeed.
  2. Sail Trim Drill - As you sail through puffs and lulls, do NOT alter your course but instead adjust your sail trim. When a puff hits, you'll have to ease your sails if you want avoid flying a hull. Likewise, when a you go through a lull, you'll have to sheet your sails back in. Concentrate on maintaining good boatspeed during this drill.
  3. Steering Drill - As you sail through the puffs and lulls, do NOT adjust sail trim but instead adjust your heading. When a puff hits, you'll have to head up if you want to avoid flying a hull. Likewise, when you go through a lull, you'll have to bear way in order to maintain good boatspeed. In sailing terms, you are never steering in a straight line but rather in an "S" pattern.
  4. Combination Drill - As you sail through the puffs and lulls, adjust both sail trim and heading. Only this time the sail trim and steering adjustments are more subtle because you are adjusting both controls. REMEMBER, when puffs hit, ease your sail slightly and head up slightly. When going through lulls, sheet in slightly and bear away slightly.

The general rule of thumb is both hands out in a puff (ie ease sails and head up) and both hands in in a lull (ie sheet in and bear away). You'll be amazed at how well you can maintain control and boatspeed without any drastic adjustments in your controls. This is the "groove" which everyone tries to find.


The purpose of doing the exercise described in Part I is so you'll appreciate the feel of the boatspeed while adjusting your controls.

  1. Sail from a reach to a close hauled course all the while trimming your sails properly. Try to maintain your maximum boatspeed while on your close hauled course.
  2. Repeat the Combination Drill - that is, ease your sails and head up in the puffs and sheet in and bear way in the lulls. Your adjustment should be very subtle and should be made BEFORE any significant loss of boatspeed. Try pinching (sailing on a high close hauled course) and then try footing (a low close hauled course - all the while maintaining good boatspeed and staying in the "groove". The moment you have slowed down, you have in fact stalled your sails. You may think that you're sailing high but you're sailing high and slow.


If done properly, you can go faster and point higher through all the puffs and lulls. In light winds it is probably not necessary to adjust both controls. However, in moderate to heavy winds, adjusting both controls is a must. Otherwise, your adjustments will be too drastic and you'll slow down by stalling your sails or rudders. I make it a habit in heavy winds not to cleat my mainsheet so that I can make any adjustment in an instant.


© Ken Christie 2022 - E Mail us for more info.