I've had chance recently to sail with some skippers that did uncontrolled gybes, on purpose. As in, that's just how they gybed. We're going to unpack a lot here. What is a controlled vs uncontrolled gybe? Why does it matter? What can go wrong with an uncontrolled gybe? Before we can even define controlled vs uncontrolled, first I want to talk about different types of gybes and when they're appropriate. But before we can do that, first we need to talk about two different modes of sailing: planing vs non-planing.
We'll keep this quick and simple. Non-planing is the "normal" mode of a sail boat, and especially most of our boats, most of the time. The boat is pushing its way through the water, reluctantly and (relatively) slowly. The dinghies we learn and teach on operate in this mode, except for in extreme and exciting circumstances. When you get into more high-performance boats, like our RS500, they are made to plane, which means they pop up on top of the water and, almost literally, start flying across the top of the water.
Why is this relevant to gybes? Because you gybe these two types of boats very differently. On a planing boat, its fastest point of sail is, by far, on a broad reach. And often you're flying a gennaker, because that's what they're made for, so you're moving at near (or above) wind speed. To gybe, you go from a broad reach at really high speed and drive down fast onto a dead run, at which point the apparent wind drops to almost nothing (because you're still planing and moving fast). As you keep turning through the wind, you just let the main sail flop over on its own, because there's very little pressure on it (pressure on the sail is determined by wind speed minus your speed. i.e., apparent wind speed). Then you keep turning up onto the new broad reach, maintaining your speed, and continue on your very merry way (or you don't do everything perfectly and you capsize, but ssshhh we don't tell people about those). This is often referred to as a racing gybe, as you're doing it at high speed and with minimal loss of speed.
But on a non-planing boat, or more accurately, on a boat in non-planing mode, you want to gybe differently, which is from a stable dead downwind course. This is how we generally teach gybing in our lessons. Get on a dead run, grab the main sheet falls and pull the main across. Here is how I like to teach it. Now, what you DON'T want to do is perform a racing gybe when you're not planing – which would be an uncontrolled gybe. Let's talk about why this is significant.
Remember, the reason a racing gybe works on a boat that's planing is because the force on the main is fairly low, so the actual flop of the gybe is relatively gentle. But if you're not flying downwind at high speeds with the kite up, the force on the main sail is much higher (due to the higher apparent wind), so if you just turn through a downwind course and let the wind catch the back of the main and flop it across the boat, it's going to do so with MUCH more speed and force. Several things happen here:
These reasons are why we pull the boom to centerline to gybe. Ideally you want to be sailing at an angle to the wind so that when you pull the main across, the wind catches the backside of it when it's close to the center of the boat. That's when it starts accelerating. Which means 1) people's heads are safer, 2) it's much easier and safer to hold onto the falls to keep the sail controlled and moving slowly, and 3) when the sail settles into its new position, it does so gently and with minimal effect on the boat itself, allowing you to calmly start sailing on your new tack.
As with anything sailing, always ask yourself, ‘what could go wrong if things don’t work out how I expect them to?’. If you don’t like the answer (or don’t know the answer), ask around. Sailor’s love ‘what if?’ scenarios, and especially explaining why what other people are doing is wrong ;-)
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I try to avoid using the direction "pull the main across". People get the idea that you should violently yank the falls over too the other side. Which is fine and maybe necessary in 3kt, but in our typical winds it just adds unneeded momentum and makes people grip the falls tightly and hold on.
What I try to do and teach is to grip the falls as you're setting up, not too tight, just to feel the tension on them. When it feels like time to gybe I just cup my hand on the falls and pull them back, not across. I do this not entirely by pulling with my arm, but leaning back with my body too. Moving the falls back also effectively pulls them across, and when you are in position to gybe you should not need to move the boom very much for the wind to take it to the other side. With my hand cupped on the front of the falls rather than gripped tightly, if the falls get out of hand, so be it. Let them go. If not as the sail transits and fills on the other side my weight getting pulled back up by the falls helps soften the gybe.
Or in short, I prefer not "pull the main across" but "pull the falls back slightly".
Great article. Thanks. As Neil says above, in addition to cheating the sail in before the gybe happens, I often use a little windsurfer technique and let my body weight lean back against the falls slightly as the sail breaks for the other side. I've got some weight against it and its a comfortable counterweight to slow things at the right time.
Something I do when teaching is to make sure the student really feels how the boat wants to round up when it heels over a bit. I'll sheet in quickly on a reach and they can feel that they have to work to keep it from rounding up. We do this a few times outside a gybe scenario. Then, in that moment after the gybe if they let the boat go to far up on the reach or want the boat to go to a reach, they know they have to really fight to stay straight while it powers up. Not being ready for that if you round too far is a swimming opportunity.
That is not how it happened in my day! What happened to getting on your knees and steering with your hip while you sheet in the main with both hands? Crusty and I wrote up this technique last century and it was taught for decades at CSC. We have the scrolls on which the entire technique is documented (unless he used them to smoke the last of his stash). Unfortunately, there were no digital copies made which is why you are having such problems with these young whipper snappers gybing like there is no tomorrow. Of course we did not have planing dinghies back then, they didn't even self bail. We were just happy if the boats floated and our bail buckets were handy, those were the days!