Three Tips for Trimming Your Sails Upwind

A few years ago while leading a flotilla of six boats in the Caribbean one of our passage days between islands ended up being a long beat to windward. My plan for the day was to leave early in the morning to make it well before sunset. That is, if we all sailed well upwind.

The skippers on the other boats were average cruisers with a good amount of experience and crews who had novice through advanced sailing skills. Once we got out and headed to our destination, all five other boats started footing off onto a close reach. In just a few miles I ended up well in front and to weather of the fleet. The problem: every single boat needed to trim their sails better if they expected to make it in a reasonable amount of time. So, I hailed everyone on the VHF and gave them these three tips.

1. Trim your sails in tight. The old saying, “when in doubt let it out” only applies to reaching. The reason all the boats were footing off was because their sails were eased out too far. The tops of the jibs were luffing open, spilling air and the mainsails were doing the same, meaning they were all trimmed for a close reach, not close hauled. Tightening your sheets will reduce twist and make your sails far more efficient, thus, enabling you to sail better close hauled.

2. Pay attention to the little things. I sincerely do listen when cruisers tell me why they don’t have or use a boom vang, cunningham, outhaul, traveler or even battens in their sails. But I still don’t get it. The reality is, those boats will be slowly plugging away to weather while you are sitting at anchor enjoying the sunset. Which would have been the case with our flotilla, and the boats who arrived late would have had to enter the anchorage in the dark.

Your cunningham, backstay, outhaul, boom vang, traveler, sheets, and halyards are all there for a reason. If you have them, use them! Let’s take the traveler for instance. When sailing upwind and experiencing weather helm and excessive healing, keeping the mainsheet in tight and easing the traveler to leeward will allow you to point higher and sail flatter and faster (on most boats anyway). All by easing one line.

3. Get your sails in shape. Sail shape is similar to a throttle. In general, flat sails have less power and deep, full sails have more power. On our way to windward, the breeze picked up and the crews did not flatten their sails to reduce power; with the exception of a few who reefed, which was a great idea. But, reefing is another topic for another day.

As the wind pipes up, remember to pull your outhaul tight on the main and bring the jib fairlead cars aft. Also, sail shape has a lot to do with the life of your sails. Newer sails have a better shape and are easier to adjust for power. Older blown out sails are hard to shape and even the outhual will do little on a badly blown out main, especially if it has no battens. In light wind, ease your outhaul and move your jib fairleads forward. Also, ease the sheets slightly to create a small amount of twist.

In the end, all six boats made it to our anchorage in good time and we enjoyed a great conversation about the learning experience over dinner and drinks while watching the sunset.

By Andrew Cross (photo is of a few of the boats anchored after our day of beating)

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