Almost all of Cal Sailing's dinghies are equipped with a trapeze kit, and with good reason: our typical stiff summer breezes make it all but a necessity to send someone out on the wire. Having crew out on the wire can be tons of fun for both you and your crew, but can also be quite a challenge. Here are some tips which can help.
Let's assume that you as skipper have two goals:
Now, your crew will probably be most comfortable if the boat is kept relatively flat, sudden changes to heel angle are avoided, and the crew is not required to shift her weight. In other words, she can calmly stand on the rail doing nothing but admiring the view (and calling out gusts and lulls).
On the other hand, in order to make your boat move upwind as quickly as possible, you want to keep the boat flat, and to keep your close-hauled jib at the proper angle of attack to the wind, so that it neither stalls nor luffs.
You, the skipper, have three controls at your disposal: tiller, main sheet, and your body weight. So how do you keep both your crew and the boat happy? Firstly, steer with the tiller to keep the jib at the proper angle to the wind. Secondly, use a combination of body weight and main sheet trim to keep the boat flat. In practice, it is a good idea to hike out moderately and then trim the main accordingly. Indeed, the more you power up the main (while keeping the boat flat), the faster you go. Furthermore, if the wind comes up or down, you still have two controls at your disposal: in a gust, dump the main and hike out hard, and in a lull, sheet in and shift your weight leeward.
If the wind were completely constant, your life would be easy, but maybe also a bit boring. In gusts and lulls you'll of course need to worry about boat balance, but also about the trim of the jib. In a gust, apparent wind tends to shift aft, so you should pinch up a bit, whereas in a lull the opposite occurs. A light touch on the tiller will keep your crew safely anchored to the rail.
Finally, note that it can often be advantageous for the skipper to pass the main sheet to the crew. She can take over primary responsibility for keeping the boat balanced, while letting the skipper focus on keeping the jib powered up.
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So this technique requires you to distinguish between a wind puff and a wind shift when you suddenly get an increase of heel, does it not? A bit of finesse would seem to be required. But that's what wins races, I suppose.
Waves also play a role in changing the apparent wind: when the bow nose dives into a wave the boat may slow down changing the apparent wind and therefore requiring adjustements in the jib's angle, main sheet and weight distribution. Never a dull moment
A number of people have mentioned surprise at my recommendations on easing the main to keep the boat flat while sailing close hauled. Didn't we all learn that close hauled means all sails trimmed as tightly as possible? This is something that unfortunately many sailors at CSC teach incorrectly. I think over 50% of our juniors sail the boat with WAY too much heal. Except for special circumstances (e.g. extremely light air or specially made boats) you NEVER want the boat healing more than 20 degrees, and ideally you're always in the 0-10 range. Some boats are more forgiving than others -- the decrease in speed caused be healing isn't as noticeable in the Bahia as it is in a JY15, or (even more extremely) the RS500.
Now, if it is the case that you can't get the main anywhere near all the way in when close hauled without healing the boat (and your crew and your are trapping, hiking out, etc), then this means you are overpowered! So you should do some combination of the following: reef, get heavier/more crew, get someone to trap, loosen the vang, etc. This will make you go faster, and that is what it is all about!
I was once told that the boat should be so flat, and the crew should be so low on the wire, that they can see the shoreline underneath the boom. This is maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a good goal to aim for. As mentioned above, some boats are more forgiving with regard to heal than others, so an extra 5 degrees won't matter then, but for some boats it does. The JY15s are fairly sensitive, so as an illustrative exercise, take one out and experiment with heal angle, seeing how it affects speed. (First, make sure that you get checked off on the JYs. THAT'S RIGHT: the JY15s require a special checkoff, another CSC misconception!)
Of course, it is not advisable to keep the boat so flat that you keep on dunking your crew in the water; this will happen more often if you are inexperienced, or the wind is full of holes. So find a heal angle that is comfortable for you and your crew, and then push yourselves to decrease it a little bit.
But honestly: too little heal and you might dunk your crew in the drink. Too much heal and when a sudden gust comes, you capsize to leeward with your crew crashing into the boom. If you do the first to me, I won't care, but if you do the second, I probably won't sail with you again.
This may be a matter of preference, but in sailing close hauled I prefer to feather up when I start getting overpowered a little with my crew on the wire. Ideally, to me, in a good trim both the sails start to luff at the same time when the skipper feathers up. That means a full sheet in on both sails when close hauled. That also means that easing the vang is ineffective as the main sheet keeps the boom down. I would ease out the main momentarily only if I get surprised by a strong gust. It's a pretty good skill to learn: how to keep the boat on a good stable comfortable heel while feahering in a strong and somewhat shifty wind. So if you don't like it, or you are really overpowered, it's time to reef if that's not done yet. Unless you decide to ease out the sails to fall off a little.
Also in a close haul many think about falling off to prevent teabagging. I think this can be done only a little, and definitely not beyond the stall point. Stalling causes the boat to slow down and further decreases the apparent wind, and that makes it worse. Rather, if the crew is still too low on the rail even after fully bending his knees the skipper should move to leeward to increase the heel - and be ready for the next puff.
Personally when on the wire I prefer a stable 15 - 20 degree heel. When the rail touches the water it's time to do something. Please don't capsize with your crew on the wire, the jump is pretty high and there are a lot of things to hit!
The jib is very powerful. I noticed that on some boats the sheets are too short and I can hardly hold them, lest be able to uncleat to ease if needed, while on the wire.
I think you want to avoid capsizing, as your crew may not likely know when/how to unhook quickly and then the jump is pretty hgh...
Not stalling is of paramount importance.
The "proper" technique is different depending on the boat and which you choose depends on the mode you're sailing in. If you're in a planing dinghy (JY?, RS500, 29er, etc.), the ideal method is to ease the main just prior to a gust, get a slight weather heel, head up 4-5 degrees (to account for apparent wind angle shift) and trim on again as the puff hits to stop the roll and flatten the sails. This "squirts" you to windward and gives you a better VMG. As the gust eases, you come back down to your previous course. This works best for longer gusts that you see beforehand.