Sailing downwind is a lot about putting different parts together to a whole picture. You need to pump the boat at the correct time, with the right heel, the necessary steering and body movement.
Balance is import, the combination of the above mentioned parts is important.
You might be very good at pumping the boat and accelerating through the waves but there might be someone else with the same skill plus being able to go the same speed while going very low. First it will look like you both are doing as good. Until the wind drops and the guy further to leeward can just head up to keep the boat up to speed while the windward boat needs to go straight to not miss the next mark. Then you will see the difference.
So how can you become an expert on going downwind?
The basic technique
The basic technique on both reach and run is to accelerate by going high and when you see a wave you try to catch it by pumping the sail hard and surf it. While you surf the wave you go low. When the boat starts losing speed you head up again to catch the next wave.
So far so good. But when is the right moment to pump. Waves come from behind so that`s where you have to look for them (unless you sail a high performance boat and overtake them). Try to get the boat up to speed before the wave catches you. The moment the wave is rolling under your boat you pump the sail hard. The next moment you can already feel if the timing was right or not.
Sailing Downwind Trim Basics
When you sail downwind the trim needs to be quite different compared to sailing upwind.
- Sails should be a bit fuller (open the outhaul)
- use the vang when you are pumping
- Ease out the cunningham completely
- Bring the centreboard up
How to train sailing downwind
There are different ways to train sailing downwind. I really like all the different drills as I think that sailing downwind guarantees great fun – especially in the breeze! 🙂
To get the balance you need to feel the boat, the little moments that decide if you go fast or superfast downwind and this can only be practiced on the water. The more time you spend on the water – especially in waves – the better you get. First try to start out and sail the boat very aggressively. For this style you need lots of energy, so you won`t be able to keep it up for too long, but after a while you can feel what really makes the boat going faster and which movements are just tiring your body. When I haven`t sailed in waves for a while I also start sailing the boat more aggressively to get the feel back. This will help you to find the right movements again quite quickly. So that you can concentrate on the useful movements and let go the not so useful movements.
Sail without rudder
When you sail without rudder you need to coordinate your body much better. As long as you have a tiller in your hand you are able to compensate too extreme body movements with rudder movement. This slows you down. When you sail without the rudder you have to steer with your body and keep the boat in balance otherwise you will go for a swim. It also looks quite cool if you launch from a shallow beach and after sailing a couple of hundred metres you pull the rudder down. 😉
Train to go low
I have already mentioned the skill to going low and fast is quite important on reaches. Go out and sail in waves and try to extend the time surfing on a wave after you have caught it while going very low. First you will often find yourself missing the moment to head up again to keep the speed in the boat and then start from new. But after a while you will become an artist at going very low and even lower at high speed and still feeling the latest moment to head up again to catch the next wave.
In big fleets this is an essential weapon to recover from a poor start. With this technique you will be able to go around the top mark in poor position and overtake all the boats in front that fight each other to windward.
Super long Downwinds
The problem with downwind training is always that normally you have to go upwind for quite a long time to enjoy a much quicker downwinder. The best thing for doing very long downwind legs is taking a friend driving somewhere with a car and sail from there back to your home club – downwind of course. You then need somebody to drive back your car and trailer. Also a coach boat can take you to windward much quicker. Not everyone has a coach and a coach boat.
Enjoy the ride
After having spent some more time practicing offwind sailing you are able to feel what is right and not. You might even have days when you can feel that you are not on top of your game. Then don’t try too hard but enjoy the ride. Going downwind in waves and windy conditions is so much fun. Normally as soon as you start concentrating on the experience you will be able to get back into the flow. Whereas upwind it sometimes feels like fighting against the elements downwind the wind and the waves are your best friends. Be thankful and enjoy the ride!
Checkout the following videos and get inspired about how much fun downwind sailing could be!
Finn Pumping explained by the great Ben Ainslie:
Myself sailing in Aarhus with my Danish friends:
Sailing a laser in over 35 knots: