Tacking – 8 steps to perfect your tack

Yachts sailing to windwardThe way to develop the proper timing when tacking your boat is to practise. At first, start each phase slowly. You will be surprised how soon it becomes a slick operation. 

Here’s what you need to do:

1. While sailing upwind, the boat should always be ready to tack.

Why? Because at any time you may need to avoid other boats, ferries or shipping.

What does this mean? For the headsail, being ready to tack means that:

  • the lazy sheet has at least one turn around the winch
  • the working sheet is securely held with three or more turns around the winch and ready to be uncleated, its tail ready to run freely
  • any crew on the rail are ready to move across the boat, out of the way of the tacking headsail

For the main, being ready to tack means that:

  • the mainsheet is cleated and the traveller can be quickly pinned
  • the mainsheet trimmer is ready to move the traveller into position for the new tack

2. Helmsman should keep sailing close-hauled right up to the point of tacking

What I mean here is that while deciding when to tack – e.g. looking around for good, clean air, avoiding close encounters with other boats – don’t allow the boat to drop off the breeze on to a close reach. And don’t let yourself be distracted by crew preparations.

3. Helmsman decides to tack and calls ‘ready about’

Crew prepare for the tack:

The headsail trimmer takes sheet out of the cleat or self-tailer but ensures that trim is maintained without any easing. As already mentioned, the leeward sheet must be free to run when required.

Mainsheet hand ensures the traveller is locked and stands by ready to adjust the traveller for the new tack.

Crew call ‘ready’.

4. Helmsman calls ‘helm to lee’ or ‘tacking’ and turns the boat slowly, keeping as much speed as possible through the tack. If you turn too fast you will lose boat speed, if too slow you will lose momentum. If you lose too much momentum you may end up in irons (stalled).

5. As the headsail starts to back, the headsail trimmer releases the leeward sheet quickly so that the wind carries the sail across the foredeck in a single smooth motion.

6. Pull in new sheet hand over hand and then trim on using the winch handle, with a second crew member tailing to make it more efficient and prevent over-rides. (Make sure the new lazy sheet is free enough to allow this to be done without hindrance.)

7. Crew change sides of the boat.

8. Prepare the lazy headsail sheet for the next tack by reloading the winch with two turns – spinning the winch to ensure the turns are the right way around. Make sure there is no pressure on the sheet that could affect the shape of the headsail.

When you’re safely on the new tack, give the crew feedback and talk about how to improve the next tack. This instant replaying of the manoeuvre is a good way of developing your team. It’s a far better way of learning than having a chat back on the mooring at the end of the sail, when everyone is keen to get ashore.


One Response to “Tacking – 8 steps to perfect your tack”

  1. Which reminds me that I’m too old to have ever used a self-tailing winch. I was taught to free a sheet by pulling straight upwards to clear the turns quickly off a jibsheet winch – what do you do with a self-tailer to avoid getting hooked up when you’re releasing in a hurry?