Speed & Smarts: Upwind troubleshooting guide

WHEN you are racing to windward, do you have trouble pointing as high as other boats? Or is your main problem that you can't go as fast as your competitors? Perhaps it is a bit of both.

When it comes to evaluating upwind performance, there are two very important measures – your forward speed and your height, or pointing. If you commonly find yourself falling behind the rest of your fleet figure out which problem you have. Then look in the charts on these two pages to find some possible remedies.


The problem: You're not able to point as high as the other boats around you (or, if you do aim your boat as high as the others you can't sail as fast as they do).

Possible reasons

1) Your boatspeed is too slow.

2) Your headsail is too full.

3) The entry of your headsail is too round.

4) Your headsail is trimmed too tightly.

5) Your mainsail is too flat, too twisted and/or undertrimmed.

6) You don't have enough windward helm.

7) Your equipment is not good enough.


Before you can point high, you must be going fast to get the water flowing over your foils. Go fast first!

If your jib or genoa is full relative to the main, it will tend to pull the bow away from the wind and make pointing difficult.

If there is too much shape in the front of your jib, the sail will start to luff there before you can point very high.

Sometimes the jib trimmer thinks overtrimming the jib will help pointing. But this pulls the bow down and may have the opposite effect.

The aft part of the mainsail makes the boat turn toward the wind; for good pointing you need a relatively full main and a firm leech.

You need a certain amount of helm (4-6 degrees if possible) so the boat constantly wants to head up closer toward the wind.

Even if you sail and set up the boat perfectly, certain limitations in your gear may keep you from pointing as high as other boats.

Things you could try

– See the next page for lots of ideas on how to improve your boatspeed.

– Reduce headstay sag by pulling on the backstay or mainsheet.

– Increase jib luff tension.

– Reduce jib luff tension.

– Reduce headstay sag by pulling on the backstay or mainsheet.

– Try different trim settings for your headsail (a good time is when you are two-boat testing). Make sure you try easing the sheet further than you think is right.

– Pull harder on your mainsheet.

– Move the traveller car to windward. 

– Ease the outhaul. 

– Ease the backstay to make the main fuller and tighten its leech.

– Sheet the main harder (see above).

– Heel a little more to leeward. 

– Move crew weight forward. 

– Add rake; move centreboard forward; power up mainsail.

– Get new sails.

– Work on the shape of your foils.

– Any other factors that slow you down will also hurt pointing.


The problem: You're not going as fast through the water upwind as the boats around you (or, you can go as fast as they do but only if you foot off pretty far).

Possible reasons

1) Your steering is not especially good.

2) Sails are overtrimmed.

3) Failure to change gears.

4) Your rig is not tuned as well as it could be.

5) Too much windward helm.

6) You need better boat preparation.

7) Your equipment is not good enough.


You will be slow if the boat is not “in the groove” and sailing at its target speed and angle for most of the windward leg.

Trimming sails too tightly is one of the most common causes of boatspeed blues, especially in light air and/or choppy seas.

The wind and wave conditions change constantly as you sail upwind, so you must continually adjust the trim of boat and sails.

Having a mast tuned correctly is a basic building block for getting your boat up to speed ð without it, everything else will be off.

If you have much more than about 6 degrees of weather helm, you will be slow because of too much rudder angle and drag.

Every aspect of your hull, rig and sails should be tweaked as much as possible to achieve maximum speed.

Even if you do everything possible, with the gear you have, sometimes you need an upgrade to make your boat competitive.

Things you could try

– Make “groove” wider by easing sheets and giving jib fuller entry.
– Give the skipper more practice.
– Bear off to trade some of your pointing for more speed.

– Ease mainsheet and jib sheet until your boat starts to accelerate.
– Let the vang off completely.

– Don't cleat the mainsheet (unless you're on a big boat or it's windy).
– Have a spotter who calls the puffs, lulls and waves that are coming.
– Improve onboard communication.

– Set up your rig according to your sailmaker's tuning sheet.
– Bring a 'tuning expert' on board to provide advice on tuning.
– Set aside specific time for tuning.

– Make sails flatter & more twisted.
– Sail the boat flatter.
– Move crew weight aft.
– Remove some rake.
– Move centreboard aft.

– Work on your bottom and foils.
– Reduce windage and weight aloft.
– Remove all unnecessary weight from your boat.

– Get new sails, new boat (!) …
-Try a crew weight that is heavier or lighter.

IF YOU want to be consistently fast upwind, you must be able to set up and sail your boat in a variety of wind conditions. When you have a moderate breeze it's relatively easy to get your boat “in the groove” because you have sufficient wind strength to keep the boat moving and you aren't overpowered.

The real challenge is sailing upwind in very light or heavy wind, when you are constantly trying to power up or get rid of power. In order to go fast in these conditions, you need very different techniques, and you have to be especially sensitive to the feel of your boat.

On this page and the next are a bunch of comparative ideas about how to change gears for maximum speed in these extreme conditions.

Light air

Tuning set-up. You should usually set up your rig with maximum rake and pre-bend and minimum rig tension for fuller, more forgiving sails.

Windward helm. You are usually trying to increase the amount of helm. This makes it easier to keep the boat in the groove upwind.

Angle of heel. Sail with slight leeward heel to give the boat a bit of weather helm and a positive “feel.” In really light air, heel the boat more so gravity helps the sails keep their shape.

Weight placement. Move crew weight forward to a) give the boat a little more windward helm and feel; and b) reduce wetted surface by getting the flatter aft sections of the hull out of the water.

Pointing or footing? Unless the water is very flat, it's better to err on the side of keeping the boat going fast. If there is any chop, you definitely want to foot a bit (with the leeward jib telltails flowing straight aft) to keep the boat moving.

Light air (continued)

Crew movement.
In light air, it's usually better to be smooth than quick. Move your weight gently around the boat so you don't disrupt the flow of water on the foils or air around the sails.

Power. In light air you are looking for more power to go faster (until your crew weight is as far to windward as possible). Therefore, you are always trying to power up your rig and your sails.

Steering. Don't over-steer in light air because if you turn the rudder too much you will disrupt the water flow and create drag. Minimise rudder movement by planning ahead and making smooth turns.

Anticipate and shift gears. Because there is not much power available from the wind, it's critical to anticipate changes so you can get the most out of every puff and lull. Look ahead at wind on the water and adjust your boat and sails so you will be at optimum trim as soon as the change hits you.

Weight in the boat. Extra weight is relatively painful, so leave behind non-essential gear and bail all water out of the bilge. Store gear forward.

Luff wrinkles. It's good to see some horizontal “speed wrinkles” along the luff of your main and jib. These let you know that the sail has not been flattened too much with luff tension and that it's not too round in the front.

Use battens that are softer, especially in their forward section. This will help keep a smooth transition from the batten into the sail.

Leech cord.
If your sails have leech cords, be sure these are eased enough so they don't make the leech hook to windward at all.

Heavy air

Tuning set-up. Set up your rig with minimum pre-bend and rake (to reduce helm) and go for maximum rig tension for flatter, depowered sails.

Windward helm. You are usually trying to decrease the amount of helm. This makes it easier to steer and keep the boat going fast.

Angle of heel. Sail the boat as flat as possible (by depowering the sail plan, hiking hard, pinching, etc), to minimise windward helm (and drag) and make it easier to steer the boat through the waves.

Weight placement. Move crew weight aft to a) prevent the bow from ploughing into the waves; b) help reduce windward helm; and c) stabilise the boat by sailing more on the flatter aft hull sections.

Pointing or footing? If you can foot off a little and get your boat planing upwind, that is definitely the way to go. Otherwise, you should go for pointing (this will also help keep the boat flat) unless you need to foot off to power through the waves.

Crew movement. In heavy air, it's usually better to move quickly rather than smoothly. The boat has lots of power and is already bouncing around in the waves, so move your weight promptly as necessary.

Power. In heavy air, you almost always have more power than you need (assuming the boat heels too far if you trim your sails all the way in). So you usually need to depower your rig and sails.

Steering. It's okay to steer aggressively because the water is already bouncing around the rudder a lot. Turning the boat to meet the waves properly is more important than the drag created by steering.

Anticipate and shift gears. Because the boat is usually balanced on “the edge”, it's important to anticipate changes in the wind and waves so you maintain that fast trim. If you don't see a puff coming, for example, you will heel way over, develop too much windward helm and generally slow down.

Weight in the boat. You may get a lot of water in the boat so leave bailers open if you have them (the extra drag is worth it). Store gear aft.

Luff wrinkles.
Luff wrinkles often mean that the draft of your sail is too far aft or, in a mainsail, that you may have too much mast bend. Pull on the cunningham and jib halyard to flatten the sails and move the draft forward.

Battens. Use battens that are stiffer, especially in their aft section. This will help keep the leech open and prevent it from hooking to windward.

Leech cord. If your sails have leech cords, be sure these are tight enough to eliminate flutter and are securely tied or cleated.

This article is extracted from Speed & Smarts, a newsletter published by David Dellenbaugh filled with how-to information for racing sailors.

Dellenbaugh, tactician aboard the 1992 America's Cup winner and an adviser to the German United Internet team for the 2007 AC, besides being a top sailor is a skilled communicator on tactics, rules and boathandling.


M.O.S.S Australia
JPK 11.80 July 2024
JPK 11.80 July 2024