After experiencing the 2005 Tyne Tees Laser Qualifier, I felt I should write a short article about some of the top tips I have learned over the years which perhaps we should all be familiar with, when conditions get a little out of the ordinary!
I learned my first tip from Mark Littlejohn during my first serious winter sailing the Laser. We found ourselves in a race with winds occasionally gusting 35+ knots at Chichester Yacht Club Snowflake Series. I was new to the Laser – and found myself using increasing amounts of kicker and Cunningham as the wind increased, until I could not pull anymore on! I was sailing upwind with my boom out beyond 1.5m from the corner of the boat – and still the boat was jumping and lurching in the gusts. It was becoming increasingly gusty and I could barely control the power or weather helm and found myself either stalling head to wind or capsizing in the biggest gusts. Mark seemed to be coping much better than I was. He told me after the race that he had released the kicker and sailed with the boom high in the air.
Technical bit - when you release the kicker and let the boom rise, the mast straightens which takes the fullness (and power) forward; the sail gets fuller and the leach opens. The leach opening reduces the power and the fullness moving forward makes the boat more balanced on the helm. What you feel - you cannot point as high, but the helm is more neutral and the power has mostly evened out. The result – it’s a get you home setting in 35+ knots. Remember - the boom is sheeted out - and the sail flaps a lot!!
The second tip I sadly learned myself. I was sailing a Europe at Draycote Water Sailing Club. It was not even a particularly windy day, but I had capsized. Perhaps due to the lightness of the hull and the height it floated out of the water or perhaps I was just slow to pull the boat up; but by the time I found myself on the daggerboard, the rig was to windward. Simple you might think – just jump in and cross the boat quickly and stop it capsizing on top of me. Unfortunately the wind got underneath the sail as the boat came up and it threw the boat at me so quickly that I ended up with 6 stitches.
Here the sailor has capsized to windward. As he attempts to right the boat, the wind gets under the sail.......
.....the wind under the sail capsizes the boat on top of the sailor who is desperately trying to climb back into the boat. The complete capsize takes only moments and can lead to injury to the sailor.
I had heard of a something called the ‘San Francisco roll’, where the sailor hangs onto the centreboard and goes underneath the boat, but never seen it performed, nor had I fancied trying it out, From that day forward I made myself try it out the next time I had the chance, purely from a safety point of view.
Once again the boat has capsized to windward. The sailor takes a deep breath, clutches the centreboard and waits for the wind to get under the sail. As the boat is righted, the sailor(still holding the centreboard) is taken under the boat and up the other side. It is now an easy job to right the boat and climb on board.
It was not until sailing a 470 in an extremely windy Bloody Mary, again perhaps 40 + knots for about 15 mins that I realised how it helped us right the boat. Having capsized, the boat quickly turtled due to the windage on the hull. We tried righting the boat conventionally but despite our best efforts the windage on the hull was greater than the weight we could apply to the hull. It was not until we used the windage to help us blow the hull downwind that we were able to begin moving the boat at all. It then took both of us to hang onto the centreboard and act as a water break to stop the boat from capsizing again with the windage on the sails. The lesson from that was simply don’t try and right a boat in a strong wind by using your weight - use the elements to your advantage and keep safe by going underneath the boat rather than through the cockpit.
It was much later that I discovered how dangerous sailing can be if you are not equipped with the San Francisco roll. I was the Officer in Charge at a sailing centre in Portsmouth harbour when I met a typical cruising sailor. They are a strange breed, but I guess the same could be said of us. They enjoy sailing around for fun. Armed with a level 3 RYA certificate they could take out a laser from the centre. On this occasion, the wind increased dramatically for a period and I saw him capsize about 6 times in quick succession. I likened it to a washing machine. He had capsized, turtled. He pulled the boat up and then the wind capsized the boat on top of him. By the time he had scrabbled onto the centreboard the boat was half way up again and yes it went right over again, and again and again! Poor chap, when we got to rescue him, he was completely knackered! He had never heard of a San Francisco roll.
The last strange safety feature when sailing a Laser - is to wet and dry the centreboard from new. If you don’t, you may find the board too waxy to hang onto when you are it in the water. Be aware that there are rules to modifications to the centreboard, but so long as you are just removing the waxy finish –you should be legal and safe.