Dave Curtis on going fast upwind

By David Dellenbaugh. Republished by permission - Speed and Smarts

During the past twenty-five years,  Dave Curtis may have won more major one-design championships than any other sailor.  He has captured world titles in Etchells, Solings and J/24s,  plus national and/or North American championships in those classes and Lightnings,  110s,  210s and Interclub Dinghies.  Curtis,  a two-time Yachtsman of the Year,  is a long-time sailmaker with a reputation for building fast sails.  He currently runs the one-design division at Doyle Curtis Sailmakers in Marblehead,  Massachusetts. 

 I recently crewed for Dave Curtis during the first-ever Sonar World Championships, and I saw first-hand how this one-design guru sails a boat fast on the first beat.  Later, I had a chance to pick his brains about upwind speed. Here are my questions and his answers.

DAVID D:  How do you prepare the bottom of a dry-sailed boat?

DAVE C: In the ideal world, you should let a new fiberglass boat cure for at least six months before you do a good, thorough wet-sanding job. I use a two-foot-long board with 320-grit sandpaper to start, then 400, and 600-grit to finish. 

The next step is to buff it with compound as smooth and as hard as possible. Then on top of the buffing I use a teflon polish. I might do this last step several times a year to help repel dirt and oil and make maintenance much easier. Plus I think it’s fast.

When you are going fast and “in the groove,” describe how the boat typically feels

I think the best way to describe most boats when they are in the groove is “smooth. There may be a better word to describe this, but the boat feels like it won’t do anything you don’t want it to. It goes along nicely without heading up or bearing off, and it goes through the waves smoothly.

It’s like you’re driving on a nice smooth highway. The boat wants to go along and all you have to do is guide it. If you have to fight the boat at all, it’s not set up right and you’re probably not going fast. When it’s in the groove, you don’t really even have to steer it - you just nudge the tiller a little bit. 

When sailing upwind,  how do you evaluate your speed?

The easiest thing to do is look at other boats around you. However, you must be able to sail fast even when there are no other good boats nearby as a gauge. 

To do this, you need lots of confidence and time in the boat you’re sailing. When you have that, speed is no longer such an issue because it’s easier to go fast most of the time. If you can eliminate speed as a major concern, you’ll be able to concentrate on tactics and strategy that’s what racing is really about. 

I think many sailors worry too much about going fast, and they miss the big picture of what’s important. Of course, you need a lot of time in the boat before you can stop worrying so much about speed. Until that point, you must work hard to go fast. Watching nearby boats and having one crew report on how you’re going is probably the best way of doing that. 

When you don’t have other boats around, there are a couple of things you can do. First, try to get that nice smooth feeling we talked about earlier. And second, put all your sail controls on the settings that have proven fast for those conditions in the past. Once you have a lot of experience in the boat, you won’t have to worry so much about being fast – you just have to be smarter than the next guy.

When tuning your rig,  what are the basic steps you follow?

The first thing I do is make sure I have the rig centered sideways in the boat. Larry Klein had a method that was simple and ingenious, at least for dry-sailed keelboats. 

With the boat on the trailer, he would set up a step ladder about two or three boatlengths directly behind the boat and tie a string vertically between the top and bottom steps (making sure it didn’t hit any supports). He’d get behind the step ladder in a position so the string was lined up exactly with the centerline of the keel. Then he’d put his head down lower so the string lined up with the mast and the keel at the same time. It was a pretty good way to see if the mast was centered in the boat. 

The other way to center your rig is simply to measure side to side with a tape measure or just a taut wire halyard. I always use the jib halyard for this (instead of the main halyard) because the jib halyard usually comes in to the mast at about the same point as the shrouds. It’s very important to get this point centered by adjusting your uppers. 

The second step in tuning your rig is to understand how the fore-and-aft relationship of mast partner position, mast step position and forestay length work on the type of boat you’re sailing. These variables affect helm, mast bend, sail shape and so on. You must understand their geometry and mark their various settings so you will know what changes to try when you’re racing.

How do you know how much mast rake you should have? Do you change your rake day to day?

On most boats you control rake by adjusting the length of your head-stay. Typically there will be one rake setting that works best across all conditions. I recommend that you find this (by testing or from your sailmaker’s tuning guide) and stick with it. 

I spend a lot of time tinkering to get my rake where I like it on a particular boat, but once I’ve got the headstay at the right length I leave it there. This doesn’t really seem to hurt performance, and by eliminating the variable of adjusting the forestay, you are free to concentrate on more important things.

Some boats need to have maximum rake just to get them balanced upwind. A J/24, for example, wants the mast as far aft as you can go to get as much helm as possible (since the sailplan is forward relative to the keel). You have to remember, though, that on some boats rake will make a difference downwind, too.

On an Etchells, for instance, when you let the backstay off on a run, the mast goes way  forward, which is good. But if you rake too far back for upwind, you will lose some of this benefit. So I try to sail with the least amount of rake that will give me the upwind performance I want, and this gives me more forward rake downwind.

What kind of feel in the helm do you try to have upwind?

I don’t think you ever want to sail a boat that’s trying to bear off, so I always set the boat up so it’s trying to go higher. I like to have a slight bit of weather helm – maybe a few inches on the tiller (measured from the boat’s centerline to the end of the tiller). When I get a puff, this creates a little more weather helm so the boat actually turns itself up. This is good because most puffs bring temporary lifts in apparent wind due to the increase in velocity. 

The main problem in heavy air is that you often end up with too much windward helm. Wind usually brings waves, and this means you have to turn a lot to sail fast. But if the boat always wants to head up, you’ll be fighting the helm constantly, and it will be difficult (and slow) to steer through waves. 

Ideally, it would be good to have a nearly neutral helm when sailing in heavy air. This would make it easier to steer (especially to bear off) through the waves and would reduce rudder drag.

How do you judge if it’s better to sail higher and a little slower or lower and a little faster?

The answer to that depends somewhat on your sailing style. I have sailed a lot against Jud Smith in Etchells during the past ten years or so. We are both very fast in the class, but we definitely sail our boats very differently. Judd is always higher and slower while I’m faster and lower. But our overall speed comes out amazingly similar. 

The higher you try to sail, the harder it is to maintain your speed. So if you are unsure about what angle to pick, a high angle is more dangerous because it’s more critical and less forgiving. It’s usually better to pick a slightly lower course where you will be assured of better speed all the time. 

Remember that when you want to point better, the first thing you need is speed. So make sure your boat is going fast first. Once you have good speed, then you can start playing a balancing game between speed and height. 

This is difficult in heavier boats like Etchells because they decelerate at such a slow rate. By the time you realize you’re going slow, it will take you 30 or 40 seconds to get back up to speed because they accelerate slowly as well. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because you can point high and look good for a little while!

Where do you put your weight in the fore-and-aft direction?

Weight location depends a lot on the boat and conditions. I don’t think there are too many boats where you want to sit aft upwind, so keep your weight centered or farther forward. A Soling, for instance, likes the weight in the middle because it has a fine bow. The J/24 also likes weight in the middle because it’s so much beamier there, and this gives you more hiking power. Since it’s critical to sail a J/24 flat, you must put your heaviest crew at the widest part of the boat. We nickname our middle crew “Max B-man.”

An Etchells is one boat where you want your weight forward. Since an Etchells is long and skinny, its widest part extends fore and aft quite a bit, so you don’t really gain much by keeping weight in the middle. I put my heaviest crew well forward to keep the bow in the water. This works on an Etchells but not a Soling because the Etchells bow is much more bouyant. That makes it painful to hit waves, so you want to keep the bow immersed.

How much heel do you want for going fast in different conditions?

I don’t like to heel any boat just for the purpose of getting more weather helm. I prefer to sail the boat fairly upright unless it’s really, really light. Then I think extra heel is good to steady the sails (due to gravity) as  9 Speed and Smarts #70 well as for generating some additional windward helm. 

I think the general practice in most boats recently has been to sail more upright. While this may be faster, it is also a much less comfortable way to sail the boat. The boat usually feels better when you have more heel because it seems like you have a little more wind and the boat is easier to steer. When you have less heel, the helm is more neutral, but most good sailors seem to be able to get the boat to go faster. It’s definitely something that takes practice to make it work. 

When you have more wind, the optimal amount of heel depends a lot on your boat’s characteristics. An Etchells, for example, will sail fast even with its rail in the water. You don’t usually need to depower the boat just to reduce heel because it is narrow and has a large, forgiving keel shape. 

On the other hand, wider boats like J/24s and Sonars will not go as fast when they are heeled very far because this pulls the keel out of the water. With the boat heeled at, say, 20 degrees, the top of the keel is hidden behind the bilge that is dug in to leeward. This makes the boat go sideways. So you need to stay flatter by depowering the sails, hiking harder, pinching and so on.

How should the telltales on the front of the jib be moving? How about the telltales on the main?

In light air, almost every boat wants to have the jib telltales streaming straight back on both sides. The lighter the wind, the more important it is just to get the boat going fast, and you almost don’t even think about pointing. This might hold true up to 5 or 6 knots. If the wind increases just another three knots, however, most boats will go from a non-pointing condition to a high-pointing condition. 

When the wind is blowing 8 or 9, now your boat is at (or nearly at) hull speed, and you can start using your speed to make the boat point high. The jib telltales, which were flowing straight back almost all the time at 5 knots, should now be lifting up (parallel to the luff) almost all the time, especially in flat water. 

The leech telltale on the top batten of the main is similar. In light air (up to about four knots), you want that top telltale flowing straight back almost all the time. To realize this, you must ease your mainsheet to get a lot of twist in the sail, and you may actually have to make the sail flatter (e.g. with more pre-bend). If it’s too full, the sail will stall sooner, and the telltale is a good guide for this. 

When you have 10 knots of wind and flat water, you can trim the main the hardest and be in maximum pointing mode. On most boats I trim the main until the top telltale is stalled (curled around the back of the leech) for all but a few seconds out of each minute. It’s important, however, that the telltale flows straight back at least once in a while; otherwise, the sail may be overtrimmed. If in doubt, try easing the sheet a tiny bit since this will make it easier to keep the boat going fast and in the groove. 

In general, as the water gets choppier, you want to have the upper telltale stalled less of the time. And, of course, your mainsail trim depends to a certain extent on the type of boat you’re sailing. An Etchells and a J/24, for example, like a mainsail that is trimmed harder (i.e. with the telltale stalled more of the time) than other boats.

When you are setting up the trim of your jib,  what do you look for?

The first thing I do is set up the jib leads so the telltales break as evenly as possible up and down the luff. It’s important to mark the holes in your jib track (and all other sail controls) so you can reproduce the fast settings from race to race. 

Another guide I find helpful is a telltale on the top batten of the jib. My rule of thumb is that I don’t ever want to see this leech telltale do anything but flow smoothly straight back. Once your jib trim is in the ballpark, then you just have to sail against someone else before the start and see how you’re going. 

Why does it often seem fast to race with “speed wrinkles” along the luff of the jib and main?

A lot of people like to trim their sails so they are smooth and wrinkle-free. But that does not necessarily give you the fastest shape. Because sails get fuller and more draft-aft as they age, new sails must initially be flatter and more draft-forward than what is ideal, so they will last longer. 

This means that if your sails are relatively new, you must use your controls to make them fuller and more draft-aft. One way to do this is to keep the luff of the sail pretty loose so you have wrinkles along the headstay or mast. This introduces a little more vertical camber in the sail and moves the draft aft. In essence, you are trying to create the ideal shape that will eventually stetch into the sail. As the sail ages, you can reduce the size of wrinkles in the sail.

Other speed-related wrinkles are the longer diagonal wrinkles that appear in your mainsail when you bend the mast a certain amount. We often like to see a hint of these wrinkles to know we have the correct amount of mast bend. If you don’t see these wrinkles, you may not be bending the mast enough to match the mainsail’s shape. The sail is not designed to have these wrinkles, but when you just start to see them, you know you are in the right ballpark.

When you’re trying to go fast upwind,  what kind of information do you want from your crew?

I don’t like to ask about what’s going on, so it’s always nice to hear something from the crew rather than silence. When I’m steering upwind, I look in front of the boat and watch the waves, so I don’t really need to have a crewmember call out what waves are coming. However, this information could be helpful to the trimmers and other crewmembers, so I don’t mind it. 

What I do like is information about the wind because puffs and lulls don’t usually come from directly in front of the boat. This makes them hard for the helmsperson to see, especially on boats like J/24s where the crew are usually in the way. It’s also helpful if the crew can paint a picture of where the other boats are and how we’re doing. This way I don’t have to look around as much to check out our speed.

How much do you “change gears” when you are racing upwind,  and how do you do this?

Once you’ve got your boat set up so you are pretty fast in general, the ability to change gears is incredibly important – you won’t be competitive without it. When conditions are variable, the ability to change gears will make more of a difference than not having your boat set up right in the first place. 

The hardest thing for most people is changing gears when the wind pressure decreases. If you’re sailing along and you get a puff, that’s pretty obvious. People have to scramble up to the rail, the sails tend to wrinkle up, you get more helm and so on. But it’s harder to recognize when the wind dies because you don’t see all the visual signs that occurred with the puff. For example, the sails still look the same without any new wrinkles. 

The ability to change gears in a lull is probably more critical than changing gears in a puff. That’s because when you get a puff the boat will accelerate even if you do nothing. Though your sails will be undertrimmed, this is almost always better than being over-trimmed. If you don’t respond in a lull, however, everything will be too tight and that will hurt a lot more.

One of the first clues you’ll get about a lull is having to move crew off the rail. When this happens, you should also start making other adjustments, like easing your main or jib sheet. If the wind changes in small increments (i.e. a knot or two), the first thing I do is adjust mainsheet trim, and that may be all that’s necessary. Sometimes I also adjust the jib trim slightly, and if the wind increases a little more, I might pull a tad on the backstay to match the mainsheet.

I like to keep things as simple as possible, so we don’t make a bunch of adjustments every time the wind changes. I generally don’t touch the cunningham, outhaul or jib lead position. Instead, I focus on the mainsheet, jib sheet, backstay and jib luff, in that order. This keeps us going fast, but still lets us focus mainly on where we’re going.

What’s the most common reason why people go slow upwind,  and what can they do to fix this?

I think the most common reason why boats don’t perform well upwind is that their sails are not trimmed hard enough, especially the main. I’m guessing that people see the telltale on the main’s upper leech and think it should be flowing all the time. But we know if the top telltale is flowing in anything but the lightest air, the main is too far out. So you can’t be afraid to make the top telltale stall. If you don’t trim the main, you won’t point. 

On the other hand, trimming too tight is probably the worst thing you can do for boatspeed. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, let it out.” Don’t get carried away, though. The most common complaint I hear from sailors is that they are not pointing as high as other boats. The best way to point higher is usually to trim your mainsail a little harder. However, you must be going fast first. The trick is finding a middle ground where you are trimmed tight enough for good pointing, but not so tight that your sails stall and make you go slow.

No matter how well you know any boat, there will be times when you get completely mixed up on the sail trim. You’re out of sync and slow. This is why I’m a firm believer in using lots of reference marks. I mark my jib halyard, jib leads, outhaul, mainsheet and backstay. I figure if we can get all these in the ballpark, we should be OK. 

When we’re going slow, we let everything out an inch or two so we’re in an undertrimmed, bow down, fast mode. The goal is simply to get our speed up so we are sailing faster, although lower, than the boats around us. Then we’ll just start slowly trimming back in again and work on height.