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A brief introduction to racing your yacht

This guide is intended for the novice who is perhaps racing or sailing for the first time in a bigger crew, under the supervision of an experienced skipper.

First – some basics.

Racing should not be frightening – it might be scary, exciting, and different, but you need to have confidence in your skipper and those around you. There are only 4 basic manoeuvres in racing which need any real team co-ordination. They are: (1) tacking; (2) spinnaker up; (3) spinnaker down; and (4) gybing the spinnaker.

For each of the manoeuvres, it helps if you can try and watch what is going on, and where the wind is coming from.

These manoeuvres need the various members of the team to do certain things at certain times. The team 'roles' are going to be:

RoleTackingSpinnaker UpSpinnaker DownGybing
HelmCalls the tack and steersSteersSteersCalls the gybe and steers
RunnersTakes up slack on old runner, lets off newMake sure runners on – on hand to assistMake sure runners on – on hand to assistTake up slack as boom comes in, release old runner
MainsheetEase main, then tightenEase the mainReady to trim mainPull main to centre line and release rapidly
Genoa/spinnaker trimmerPull in on new side and trimTake spinnaker sheet ready for trimmingReady to switch from spinnaker sheet to genoa sheetEase sheet out till spinnaker centred, cleat old sheet, when pole attached take tension on new guy, switch to other side
CockpitLets off old genoa sheetHoistRelease spinnaker on command, lower pole (watching foredeck) then gather, and packReady to dip pole on command, dip, then re-hoist on other side
WinchGrind the winch for new genoa sheetGrind for spinnaker hoist, then grind for spinnaker sheet Assist in gathering spinnakerGrind back guy with the turn of the boat, cleat off, take up tension on new sheet, release old guy for pole dip, change to other side
GuyCross boatPull back guy 3 feet; trim guyRelease guy, then assist gatheringWatch guy coming back, assist with change, change to other side
ForedeckIn light winds helps the genoa around the mastSet spinnaker, Set poleStow poleGo to very front, gather slack guy, wait for pole dip, switch old for new
ALLMakes sure all ropes run that should, keep feet clear, throw ropes down the hatch, check all clutches closed – when you are doing nothing 'GO TO THE HIGH SIDE', and hang your legs over the edge.

So, taking each in turn:


When cruising, and at any good sailing school, a helmsman will be expected to say 'Ready about' – to check that his crew is ready, then 'Lee-ho' or similar to signify that the turn has been started. This means that the turn is anticipated by all members of the crew.

When racing it is rather different. Most helmsmen will signify the turn with the word or shout 'Tacking!' and the crew will be expected to move fast. For beginners it always helps to give a little more time – preparation makes the whole things much more enjoyable!

So the crew would expect to hear 'Ready to tack'.

Step 1 - The helm watches the preparations. Runners trimmer checks that the slack on the old runners has been pulled in. Genoa trimmer makes sure that the new sheet has had the slack pulled in and there are a couple of turns on the winch. Nobody else move.

Step 2 – Helm makes sure there is room to take, and starts the turn. Cockpit man moves quickly to the 'old' genoa and as the genoa backwinds, releases it. Everyone else cross the boat.

Step 3 – The boat goes through the wind. Mainsheet is eased a couple of feet (of sheet). Genoa trimmer pulls as fast as possible, and when he can pull no more, puts a couple more turns on the winch, and grinding begins. Step 4 – Helm steers the new course. Mains is brought back in. Everyone to the high side.



The spinnaker hoist is started well before someone starts to pull any ropes. First the spinnakers needs to be properly packed. That is best demonstrated rather than explained, but it is simple enough. Second the lines all need to be set up properly. The sheet and guy need to be led forward and, well before the hoist, clipped on. The foredeck man will then set up the pole, pulling the mast end up to about head height and putting the guy into the end of the pole. The cockpit man then hoists the pole so that it is parallel to the deck. Then the spinnaker is hoisted. So take that step by step.

Step 1 – Helm makes sure that they are on a steady course, and is not going to tack. That causes all sorts of problems!

Step 2 – Foredeck man checks that the sheet, guy and halyard have all been led to the front of the boat and are 'outside everything'. None of the spinnaker ropes should go inside anything.

Step 3 – Foredeck man then clips the guy, sheet and halyard to the spinnaker, and puts the guy through the end of the pole. Never attach the pole to the spinnaker itself. Thumbs up to the Helm.

Step 4 – Cockpit man hoists the pole. Genoa trimmer cleats off the genoa sheet and readies the spinnaker sheet.

Step 5 – The command is given to 'hoist' and cockpit man hoists as fast as possible.

Step 6 – The man on the guy pulls back on the guy rope to bring the sail about 3 feet off the luff of the genoa.

Step 7 – Winch man helps hoist the last few feet of the spinnaker if necessary. Foredeck man yells 'up' when it is at the top.

Step 8 – Spinnaker trimmer trims the spinnaker, with winch man grinding if necessary.

Step 9 – Drop the genoa.

You then sail fast until the drop or gybe. As the drop is more important that the gybe, this is covered next.


Ideally the spinnaker drop is executed as you round the bottom mark. In a smooth slick motion the main sail and genoa are pulled in as you turn and the spinnaker is pulled down under the mainsail. However it almost never happens that way. The key to a good spinnaker drop is again preparation. Having everyone in the right place means that it can be done in about 20-30 seconds, giving confidence to everyone to put it back up!

The easies spinnaker drop is when it is pulled down behind the mainsail and genoa. It is the Helm's job to make sure that that can happen. So, again, step by step.

Step 1 – Everyone makes sure that ropes are free to run, especially the guy.

Step 2. – Cockpit man hoists the genoa, foredeck man guides it into the luff groove, and spinnaker trimmer makes sure that the genoa sheet is cleated off.

Step 3 – Winch man positions himself to grab the loose sheet under the mainsail. This will be used to pull in the spinnaker. When he is in position everything then happens at once.

Step 4 – Cockpit man releases the halyard, and helps to stuff the spinnaker down below. Guy trimmer releases the guy and makes sure is runs out fast so that the spinnaker can 'fly' flag like outside the boat.

Step 5 – when the spinnaker is in the boat, genoa trimmer trims the genoa for the new course, main sheet trimmer trims the main, cockpit man lowers the pole, and foredeck man stows the pole.


The spinnaker gybe is probably the manoeuvre that sailors approach with most apprehension. It need not be so. If the spinnaker is full then there is a strong force on the boat, which takes propels the boats at speed. Forces on the other sheets, and the main, are reduced. The main should cross the boat easily. It’s a simple case of swapping the old guy for the new guy. Unless… Anyway, taking it step by step.

Step 1 – The helm calls the gybe – its helps if everyone can see where the gybe is going to happen, for example round a mark.

Step 2 – As the boat starts to turn the guy trimmer pulls the guy back. It is important that the helm and guy trimmer work together. As the guy is pulled back the spinnaker sheet is eased to keep the spinnaker flying.

Step 3 – when the spinnaker is square, and the boat going dead downwind, the helm will call 'gybing'. A number of things happen at the same time. The guy trimmer takes up the tension on the 'new' sheet, and releases the 'old' guy. The foredeck man gathers the 'new' guy which is hanging loose and takes it to the front of the boat. The cockpit man lowers the pole. The pole gently arcs to land in the hands of the foredeck man. Ideally the foredeck man will call 'got it', but will normally shout 'f*** my head' as the pole crashes down.

Step 4 – the foredeck man takes out the 'old' guy and puts in the 'new' guy. The pole is hoisted by the cockpit man to the other side.

Step 5 – mainsheet man pulls the main into the centre of the boat, and the runner trimmer pulls in the slack of the 'old' runner. As the boom flips to the other side the mainsheet trimmer lets is out quickly, and everyone waits to see if the runner trimmer has pulled in the 'new' runner (if not there is a remote chance the mast may fall down…)

Step 6 – guy trimmer trims the guy, spinnaker sheet trimmer trims the sheet, everyone else relaxes…


Genoa Drop – the cockpit man releases the genoa halyard and the foredeck man gathers and tidies the sail.

Genoa Hoist – the cockpit man hoists the sail, and the foredeck man guides the sail into the luff groove.


If the yacht wins the race, it is due to outstanding professional crew work, with the team working in harmony, and powering the boat to victory. Any idiot can steer.

If the yacht is last, it's because the helm is an idiot.

Teamwork is important, but beer overrides that principle. Skipper buys the first round.


Talk to each other – regardless of how simple or stupid it feels, keep the chat coming. Information should flow up and down the boat.

If you haven’t done what you should have done, then shout – its is important that the rest of the team know where we are in the manoeuvre.

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