Q&A How to Race a Dinghy Successfully the Low Stress Way.

Some Ideas on how to Improve Your Race Results

When I moved back to Adelaide about around 2000 I decided to get back into Dinghy Racing.

I have sailed most types of Dinghies raced in Australia at some time or another but have spent most of my time in Australian Lightweight Sharpies and NS14s.

Sabre plywood dinghy. Make one yourself. storerboatplans.com

At the time I decided to get involved in the simple Sabre Class singlehanded dinghy.  These great little boats are still mostly built in plywood and that ready supply of home built boats keeps the price down. The fleet size is quite large with one of the major Adelaide dinghy racing clubs fielding a fleet of 30 plus for their regular Saturday race.

Plans, lists of second hand boats and information on the Sabre Dinghy is available from the Sabre Dinghy Class Association.

I ended up picking up an elderly boat for $375 including a trailer.  It needed some work, but I knew how to do it all.

I bought a new sail and made a new centreboard and rudder and found myself performing quite nicely – finishing in the top 10 in most conditions, except for light winds where I just couldn’t get the the boat going.  This was particularly annoying as Light Winds have always been a strength of mine.

Anyway, my racing career was cut short by a nasty bicycle accident which has limited my flexibility and stamina.

I wrote the following for the Sabre Newsletter to share what I had discovered after the first few sails.

It applies to most other sorts of boats too.

It also gives a bit of a rundown on my theory about why many people fail to improve quickly when they start racing.  The theory is based on the idea that most people worry about the most about the least important things.

The main culprit in this case is looking for some SUPERFAST/PERFECT boat setup in terms of equipment and layout.  My experience is that most good sailors can jump into a boat that is less than perfect and still do very well in racing.

The SKILLS make the difference – the boat makes a more modest contribution – its job is to keep the skills afloat!

Actually I exaggerate – but maybe you can buy a not so good boat and in a couple of weekends work get it to the point where it won’t slow the skills down too badly!

Learning the Sabre (What? Me Worry?)

I decided to start racing Sabres for four main reasons.

  1. Single handed boat, so no crew hassles.
  2. They are class that still allows (encourages) amateur building so there is a supply of good second hand boats at reasonable prices.
  3. South Australia has very good fleet sizes.
  4. The level of sailing at the top and middle of the fleet is excellent.

Since then I have found an additional reason.  Sabre sailors are friendly and prepared to share information with newcomers.

As a philosophic idea, the willingness to share information and the size of our fleet provides the conditions to develop one’s sailing skills to a high level quickly.

The group of sailors that have done this most effectively are the 505 sailors from Lake Macquarie in NSW – by sharing information and working on improving the performance of the WHOLE fleet they dominated the world titles for pretty well a decade.

As my part of a potential “fleet development program” I want to write down my thought processes during my somewhat interrupted introduction to the class (crushed fingers) to assist others who may be struggling, plus providing food for thought for the stars.

Top level sailors know that the careful development of skills contributes the most to success.  General skills are 80% of the battle.  They break up into two main areas.
a. How to go ( I know something about this)
b. Where to go – (I am sure there are others that can advise better than me –  SA is new territory for me and tactics/strategy are a current weak point.  Rule 1 – keep an eye on the good guys).

Boat set up is the remaining 20% – very much secondary – providing the main things are approximately right.

So to take the easy one first.

Boat set up.

My philosophy is of the “no worries” school.  I have to do just enough work on my boat to not worry when racing.  Then I can concentrate on the game at hand.  My list is relatively small as I know that set up is only 20% of the battle.  Everyone will have a different list of what worries them – the following is mine.

My big worries are the sail and foils (the wing in the air and the wings in the water) and the set up of the control systems so I can adjust things easily from a hiking position.  A further worry is general reliability – not falling apart (talking boat here, not the skipper) – a fairly fast way to lose races.

When I bought my boat it had crap foils (like fence palings), a sail of unknown quantity, control lines that were single ended and terminated at the mast base and didn’t really work well, some flaking paint on the bottom and no traveler.  It was also cosmetically pretty tatty (But what do you expect for $375 on trailer?).

I made new foils out of western red cedar, epoxy and ‘glass, shaped using templates.

Templates are ESSENTIAL to good home made foils so that leading and trailing edges are consistent along the span of the foil.  There is a lot of guff talked about profiles – but to allay any potential worries, and to avoid a time wasting debate with myself,  I use the shapes developed  by Melbourne aerodynamicist Neil Pollock.  He developed them 10 years ago for classes that only allow shaping at the leading and trailing edge with a flat section between.

The centreboard and rudder in this pic are not for a sabre. They are for an Oz Goose. They are also unfinished. This is at the stage where they have been glassed and sanded with one coat of epoxy after. They are waiting on being sanded and then paint or varnish.


If anyone wants templates I can print them out for a modest cost.  If you have manufactured foils from YMS or others, you have something which is just as good – so don’t panic or think I have something special (Panic – worrying combined with both positive and negative feedback loops).

I bought a new sail from KA sails (I worked in the chandlery downstairs) built on the “deep sail” thinking that has been current for around 10 years.  On measurement night at Brighton/Seacliff it was clear that this sail was also “big” compared to all other sails measured.  A nice new sail – no worries there.

Control line set up is pretty standard – I found the class rules and instructions both vague and inconsistent.  I ended up fitting cleats to each sidedeck about 200mm behind the main bulkhead.  4mm spectra for the highly loaded vang.  4mm prestretch (excel pro) for the others – it’s cheap and comes in a variety of colours.  I used a metal clamcleat (CL211 mkII) for the vang and am trying the plastic Ronstan vee cleats for the others – rumour is that they wear pretty quickly, but the outhaul and cunningham don’t get worked anywhere near as hard so probably OK.  I generally can’t be bothered with ball bearing blocks – use some in the vang where the mechanical advantage leads to a bit of friction, not much mechanical advantage anywhere else, so not much friction, so use cheaper blocks.  Cheapest way to reduce friction in general is to use smaller diameter ropes.

I revarnished the deck where the coating was cracking and glassed any doubtful seams  – water had sprayed out when I had hosed the inside of the tanks to get rid of the salt (hosing is recommended a couple of times each season).

Fixing paint and holes in sailing dinghy. storerboatplans.com

Lots of links on quick methods for repair and maintenance of plywood sailboats here.

The bottom finish was pretty crappy – I didn’t want to spend weeks sorting it out, so decided to repaint below the chine only (Remember – only 20%).  I gave it a good grind with a random orbit sander to flatten the surface, trying to not go through to wood, ground down any suspect seams and laid light (1.2oz, 40gsm) glass in them,  then bogged (with epoxy and lightweight filler) up to the original paint level.  Did a little bit of bogging and fairing and then spot undercoated and went over the lot with gloss (2 coats).

For reliability I replaced the stays (I had no idea how old they were and standard stainless wire is a cheap investment compared to having the mast fall down..  I also replace the gooseneck plug of the boom which was showing some deformation, checked spar and rudder fittings, replaced tiller extension (a very flexible piece of plastic conduit) with aluminium tube – mainsheet was replaced with one of smaller diameter for lower friction.  Also fitted a traveler (in the Sabre class it is a simple Laser style bridle which may have its tension altered).

I spent an hour at home setting up the mast position from Buster Hooper’s measurements – they are a few years old, but,
1) Buster is a good sailor and wouldn’t be too far out.
2) There was a handy copy of these measurements at work.

He did have a three measurements for mast rake – for light medium and heavy air.  I decided to ignore the light wind position as you don’t want to be changing the rake for every 7 knots of breeze or WORRYING about having the rake set wrong for the breeze.  If in doubt use medium weather rake.
Mast step position – back of mast is 8ft 8 inches from transom
Medium weather rake – middle of transom to top black band on mast is 18ft 8in
Heavy weather rake – middle of transom to top black band on mast is 18ft 4in
For those who really need something extra to worry about the light weather rake was 18ft 11ins

Sailing skills

I have sailed most types of boats at some time or another, sometimes with quite good results – so I have confidence in my general sailing ability.

Books about sailing well?

My bibles have always been Eric Twiname’s books.  They both have the message that anyone can do well at a National level and that improvement comes from changing the way you think.  They are possibly out of print but I see them not infrequently in second hand bookstores.

Start to Win” – goes through the techniques required to handle a boat efficiently.
“Sail, Race and Win” gives examples on how to make the techniques automatic. Out of print and hugely expensive, so keep an eye out.

The overarching principle is, to improve, spend time on the water practicing.  The practice has to be task oriented.  If you can get time aside from racing to practice, well and good.  If you only ever race it is worthwhile moving the priority from finishing well, to focus on some aspect to improve during the race (eg, one or two of: roll tacking, roll gybing, pumping sail downwind, surfing, sailing boat flat (or windward heeling), sailing in the right direction when looking elsewhere etc).

Most important in order of importance:
1/ Keeping boat flat -the biggest difference between the sailors in the top third of the fleet vs the bottom third.  A bit of heel in the very light stuff is OK, but as soon as the boat is moving reliably – flat.  Practice by sailing a medium wind race keeping the boat heeling a few degrees to windward upwind and on the reaches and a bit more when running.  There are no excuses for not being able to keep the boat dead flat through use of steering and sheeting.

2/ Keeping sail moving – sheet in and out – steer in concert – wind is never static – know how to use the tufts on the sails – they should be flying almost all the time (though they won’t fly on a run).

3/ Being able to set up sail adjustments quickly for changes in wind or point of sail.  Texta (permanent marker) marks on boom, mast and control lines when you feel you have been going particularly well.  Is it worthwhile to stop just past the windward mark to draw texta lines on your boat when it has been moving well?  YOU BET!  If concerned about the appearance, put some clear contact film on any areas that you may need to mark beforehand.

Sail Adjustment in General.

I should presage this section to say that I am really crap at sailing a Sabre in a light wind – so have no detailed advice – perhaps someone can fill in the gaps.  Light wind is usually one of my strengths, but the wily Sabre has me spooked  – Hell, I can’t even find a reasonable place to sit.

Rule One of sail adjustment (and everything else) is watch what the fast guys are doing – how loose is their traveler, outhaul, luff tension, where are they sitting?  As I am learning “Sabre Specific Behaviors” I spend the time before the start following the good guys, copying their settings then setting off upwind myself to see if I need more power or pointing.

Rule Two is that if you can’t adjust it quickly during the race without losing speed or direction it is better to not adjust.  Save the adjustments for the beginning of each downwind leg and before the beginning of each upwind leg.  If  in the bottom third stick to mainsheet and tiller otherwise unless badly underpowerd/overpowered and concentrate on keeping the boat flat.  As this becomes more automatic you will have additional time to optimise settings for variations in windstrength

Specific Sail Adjustment

Light wind – Looking for power and finding stronger wind

Winds where getting boat moving is unreliable (see paragraph above, grumble).

Wind less than 3 or 4 knots.  In principle, sail should be relatively flat and quite twisted.  Crew weight should be well forward and a bit of leeward heel.  Perhaps pull a bit of rudder up to reduce wetted surface.  If in doubt, ease mainsheet and get speed up, then think about pointing.  No point in adjusting sail controls for reaching and running (all points require a flattened sail with reasonable twist), though I would use a little more vang on the run.

Medium Wind – looking for speed and pointing

Boat moves reliably and can be held flat without easing sail.  Wind 5 to 13 knots.

Upwind – foot outhaul adjusted so about 75mm (3ins) between sail foot and boom, vang adjusted so windward tufts at each level of the sail stall at the same time when you point up a little too much.  Leach tufts should all be flying  No or very slight luff tension.  Traveler loose.  Outer end of boom above inside face of buoyancy tank.  Legs behind thwart, body leaning slightly forward so midpoint of shoulders is in line or slightly ahead of thwart.

Reaching – if sail is eased and tufts still flying, that’s reaching.  If you can’t ease sail enough to make tufts fly, you are running – so see below.  From beam reach to broad reach ease foot outhaul  to give 1 in 7 curve to bottom of sail – fit a stop so that it can’t go past this.  Vang readjusted so lee tufts stall at same time at all heights.  No or slight luff tension.  Mainsheet can be adjusted so leech tufts flick behind the sail briefly from time to time.  Centreboard raised a foot

Running – No tufts will fly.  Foot tight so that only a tiny amount of curve remains.  Vang firm so leach does not twist. Traveler irrelevant – Centreboard as high as you can manage without death rolls (There are toothmarks in the stbd side deck where I got carried away with this in my third race).  Move weight forward a foot or so, heel boat to windward approx 5 to 10 degrees (brings helm back into centre to reduce rudder drag and moves middle of sail up higher).

Stronger wind – Keeping the boat on its feet upwind and down

Sails are having to be eased frequently to keep boat upright. 13+ knots.

The big trick to sailing in strong breezes is to pre-empt the effect of the breeze – see a gust approaching, get boat double extra flat (if not actually heeled to windward a bit) and ready to ease a bit more mainsheet and point up (if going upwind) or bear away with big ease of main (if going down(wind)).

Wind is never even in strength – there are times when the wind is stronger on average (ie wind is stronger in BOTH gusts and lulls) and lighter on average (ie wind is lighter in BOTH gusts and lulls).   These cycles last from 5 to 15 minutes, the trick is to set up the boat for the current cycle.   The vang is the most important adjustment

Upwind – the objective is to flatten the top of the sail to prevent heeling, but have enough fullness in the bottom to give adequate power and to make the boat point – if foot is flattened excessively it is hard to make a Sabre point.  Same if the traveler is too tight.  This is quite different from most boats I have sailed.  Vang is the most important adjustment and will be adjusted frequently and hard – the trick is to set it up so that boat can be kept flat 90% of the time for each wind cycle.  If you see a big gust approaching, pull on heaps of vang before it hits, then ease it back out after the gust has passed as you become underpowered.  Luff tension can be medium or pulled out to the black band if vang is not adequate to keep the boat flat.  If really blowing the crabs out of the sand pull up 150mm (six inches) of centreboard.  If you can’t avoid a nasty wave face ease the mainsheet a little, bear off a few degrees and hike HARD (flat boat) – you will still hit the wave – but speed will reappear quickly – then point again while pulling main back in and go back into your normal hiking position.

Reaching – upwind vang tension is excessive on the reach so you can afford to ease it from the tight upwind setting. – if you don’t you will notice the mast bending strongly to windward in the middle from the boom compression.  So vang firm rather than hard.  Downhaul as per upwind – doesn’t make much difference in these conditions.  If you feel underpowered ease out main foot toward the one in seven position, if still underpowered ease downhaul.  Centreboard 1/3 up.  Sit behind thwart and lean body aft if nose is digging in.

Steer for balance. Reaching, if overpowered ease sail and bear away as much as you need to keep the mainsail full. Another way of describing it is to steer to keep the boat under the sail.

oz Goose seconds before massive nosedive. Video here. Storer boat plans

Running – as per medium breeze but weight should be as far back as necessary to prevent nose diving but keep trying to move forward – sitting in the stern when it is unnecessary is dead slow.  Centreboard 1/3 to 1/2 up.  When surfing down the faces steer for the low point of the wave in front

To Summarise to seek enough speed and make the right decisions

Main thing is not to get too caught up in the search for the perfect boat.  Rather, spend time working on specific aspects of your skills, try to identify weaknesses and work out practice strategies to correct them.

For example my weaknesses are: Light wind, starting, strategy under the simplified rules, not using body weight actively enough to maximise advantages from waves and small fluctuations in wind (a legacy of sailing larger boats – Sharpie/Yachts) and  not pushing the boat hard enough downwind in medium to strong conditions.  I am prepared to blow race results to improve these areas by practicing on the race course.

Fleet Improvement

So this is my attempt to accelerate the information sharing among the SA Sabres.  The advice may not be perfect (can anyone help me with the light stuff?), but if you are generally in the bottom or middle third there are fundamental ideas here that will improve your sailing.

If you are in the top third you can improve your own sailing by sharing information – if the fleet improves, you will too.  The ability to improve is how you got into the top third in the first place!.

The club fleets could look at formalising practice sessions of different types.
Eg  Boat swap days, assigning better sailors to mentor backrunners, having several short races in one day, a day practicing starts, timed downwind sprints – the imagination is the limit.

I’m racing Oz Geese in the Philippines now and use much the same approach as above. I improve the boat as much as I need to and sail as much as I can. I work to make everything, including me, work smoothly. I really don’t care to have fancy stuff on my boat. No ball bearing blocks for example. But everything is good enough and works well.

And we can build ten of them for the price of importing one Laser Dinghy with some spares. And it fulfills the training role better than any boat that I have sailed, moving on well with an instructor and two adult students aboard.

One up they spend a lot of time over 10 knots downwind.

Now we are doing fleet development to try and get everyone to improve as much as possible.

That’s me leading out from the start. THAT start anyhow.

Oz Goose easy build sailing dinghy for family or racing ... opengoose.com

Oz Goose Square Boat in really strong wind. storerboatplans.com


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