The two-handed drill for puffs and lulls

The two-handed drill for puffs and lulls

A while ago, James Clarkson recommended one of Frank Bethwaite's books on sailing to me. I forget which one, as I now have three of them. They're incredible but incredibly dense, so I'd only recommend them to the "quants" of the sailing community. And even then, you'll read a lot more about  weather systems than you ever wanted to learn, and more detail on everything than you can comprehend. That's how Frank was. He was a pilot (of commercial flying boats, think about that), a meteorologist (the official metereologist of the Austrailian Olympic team in several Olympics in the 1970s), and a sailing fanatic as coach and designer. Three of his kids (sons and daughter) won Olympic medals, and one of them may have invented the gennaker (as always with inventions, there are priority disputes). Frank died in his 90s in 2012.

For the patient reader, there's really wonderful stuff in his books. One is an explanation of why sail twist needs to be very different in light winds than in higher winds (another post?). And there are many others.

One very practical thing I got out of his books was a technique and a teaching technique of how to respond to puffs and lulls. We all know how to do this, we do it, and we teach it to some extent. You have three controls: weight placement (out in a puff, in in a lull), tiller (pinch in a puff if the boat can do it, fall off in a lull), and sheet (easy in a puff, trim in a lull, not just mainsheet, but also jibsheet if you're really concerned about speed). I tell basic students that they have these three controls, and to use one or more  of them when they get a puff (at this point in their development, they're not so worried about lulls).

Frank was obsessed with keeping the boat flat and as fast as it can go (these are correlated). Assuming a decent wind, you're hiked out. We're assunming you have the tiller extension in one hand and the mainsheet in the other. A puff will heel the boat to leeward, and a lull will heel it to windward if you don't move your weight in either case. His technique is this: when the boat heels, don't move your weight, but move both hands to the down side, the sheet hand more than the tiller. Never luff.

So in a puff, you're easing the main as you're pointing slightly upwind. In a lull (or in the recovery after a puff), you're doing the opposite - sheeting in the main and pointing slightly downwind.

So what's new here? La solita scoperta di acqua calda (the same old discovery of hot water, an idiom in Italian) - nothing that wasn't obvious  before. But Frank Bethwaite considered the idea so counter-intuitive (or maybe counter-culture) that half of one of his books is devoted to motivating it (did I say his books are dense?).

But this movement is what the good sailors do. What was new for me was a way of explaining it

in terms of body mechanics (both hands to the side of the boat that's down, sheet hand more than tiller hand) that could be used to teach at a fairly basic level.

For basic students, there's a critical point when they have to control both the mainsheet and the tiller at the same time. This is a difficult time, as how the sails work becomes important, and you need to both understand the theory and get the theory to animate your body movements. This is the point where the student laments not understanding where the wind is coming from and much more.

I've tried the "two handed drill" with students at this critical point of controlling mainsheet and tiller at the same time, and it has worked reasonably well. Get the boat trimmed correctly heading upwind with a decent blow beyond the wind line, and do the drill. What it seems to do is get students out of the "OMG a gust is going to knock me over" mode into one of calmly and gently dealing with it, keeping the boat moving at the same time. As they get better at it (usually in one lesson), they luff less and less in the puffs. Also, their confidence builds in general, and they sail upwind in stronger winds without luffing.

For you instructors, does this make sense? Try it  out with your students and see if it makes sense to them. Please post feedback here, so we can all learn from it.

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