Frontier Land - Asymmetric Dinghy Crewing Techniques

By Zeb Elliott


One of the great advantages of asymmetric spinnakers over the conventional symmetrical style is their simplicity and ease of handling. With no pole to set, the fuss of trying to keep the spinnaker filled through the gybe is eliminated. The asymmetric is like a big jib and like a jib all you do now is simply let go of the old sheet and haul in the new one. Many crews complain that this has made a lot of their crewing skills redundant, bringing everybody back to a level playing field. But is this really true?

The art of downwind crewing has undoubtedly been simplified, but to maximise potential at all times still requires skill, fitness, and above all practice. An Australian I sailed with this season had a very black and white view on the role of the crew: 'Crewing takes place in Frontier Land while the helmsman wallows around at the back in Fantasy Land.' My interpretation of this somewhat simplistic statement is not that all helmsmen are foolish, but that they can function effectively only when they have absolute faith in the ability of their crew to perform consistently under pressure.

Sailing to windward the game hasn't changed. For a crew, the most important attributes are still tactical awareness and agility - physical fitness goes without saying. That extra edge of speed is provided by the crew which has the ability to move smoothly around the boat, being able to reach controls easily and maintaining good balance at all times, allowing the helm to concentrate on driving the boat flat out.

The Hoist
As the windward mark is rounded, you enter Frontier Land. With the helm at the back in Fantasy Land still trying to decide whether to gybe set, hold the hoist, or do whatever, the crew takes over.
Preparation is the key to a good hoist. Whatever boat you are sailing, always work out in advance the best place to hoist from. Your position in the boat is as critical in a drifter as it is in a real foam up. Identify a clear area where your feet can be planted positively, to maintain good balance, and where your arms can swing clearly. If you are well prepared the sheets will be free to run, with the halyard and pole line unobstructed. A knot with the kite half hoisted can lead to disaster, so spend some time on the upwind leg ensuring everything is well set up, regardless of the grief from the back of the boat.

It is inevitable that a snarl up will occur at some stage during a race, and one of the crew's key skills is to unravel it with a minimum of fuss. In the back of your mind identify the most likely areas that knots occur, so when things jam the problem can be solved methodically and quickly. However, familiarity with the boat and with systems which are well sorted will always minimise such eventualities.

You will have marked the halyard to inform you when the kite is fully hoisted, and at this point the priority is to trim the kite correctly, taking care not to oversheet. The temptation is to sheet on blindly, while at the same time throwing your weight over the side. Always trim, then balance.

This is a two-stage operation but co-operation with those in Fantasy Land will, with practice, make the transition between the two stages seamless. The speed difference between having two sails set and three is so great that with good teamwork there are huge gains to be made.

Trimming
The further away from the boat the kite sets the faster you go... An asymmetric is trimmed for optimum speed when the luff has just begun to curl, looking like the lip of a frisbee, and the sail is as free as possible. A good crew will never take their eyes off the sail, adjusting the sheet constantly to maintain that slight curl. Oversheeting the kite is akin to applying the hand brake.

Gaining Leeward Ground
When sailing windward/leeward courses the biggest gains are made by those who can sail low and fast. It is the ability to achieve this, whilst keeping the boat moving at maximum speed, which is where the skill in downwind sailing lies. Optimising the boat's VMG is a dynamic process requiring the continual trimming of sheets, shifting of weight (fore and aft, as well as in and out), and altering of course. The crew has to develop a sixth sense, knowing exactly where to position their weight to accelerate the boat in the gusts and down waves, thus generating apparent wind which enables the helm to bear off and sneak valuable leeward ground. For trapeze crews the top tip is to keep yourself high on the wire, for two reasons: first, your weight will have a less dramatic effect, helping to keep actions smooth and fluid; and second, to clear your backside of any obstacles (i.e. gunwhale or rack) as you move in and out.

Tight Reaching
Tight reaching is probably the most physically demanding part of the job. With the helm sailing as high as he dares the boat will be well-heeled, the main inside out or ragging, with all the load on the kite sheet as the boat is driven solely by the spinnaker!
The trick is to allow the kite to curl around the luff as much as possible without letting it collapse. Some spinnakers can be rolled several feet along their luff, which effectively reduces the sail area, allowing ground to be gained to windward. Be careful, however, as the chances of collapse are high, and it is dangerous - if it does collapse it is vital to sheet it back on immediately. To get it to fill you will have to oversheet considerably, which is where problems can arise. As soon as the kite refills give it the big ease, enabling the boat to accelerate quickly, ensuring that the helmsman maintains steerage and the boat is not forced off to leeward.

Gybing
Generally the call for the gybe angle comes from Fantasy Land as the crew will be absorbed in trimming.
Coming into the gybe maintaining maximum speed is crucial. Resist the temptation to come into the boat too early, allowing the helm to pick his moment and gybe smoothly at a controlled pace. Gybing is as straightforward as dropping one sheet and hauling in on the new one, but the essential principals that applied to the hoist still apply here - preparation, sure footing and agility.
The trick is to work on an even continuous action. If trapezing, swing in keeping hold of the old sheet as you move across the boat and pick up the new one ready to trim on as soon as the boom is over. Once filling you can move out on to the trapeze with the helmsman sailing the boat around your body weight. Don't drop the old sheet too early as this can easily result in a wine glass.

The Drop
Again, the same basic principles apply. The biggest gains are made from leaving the dowse to the last possible second, but remember who gets the blame when it all goes pear-shaped. Pressure on the crew can be enormous, especially when the opposing boats are close. Get organised early, know the procedure in your mind and get the boat sorted. The mechanics should be automatic; get plenty of oxygen into your lungs and then go like smoke. If things do go wrong the priority will always be to sheet the jib on. This allows the helm to start sailing to windward while you sort things out ready for the next hoist.

If the course is long enough you may just get you breath back before round two...

- Zeb Elliott

Zeb Elliott, International 14 World, European and National champion, was front-hand on Lawrie Smith's Diamond, winner of the 1995 UK18 foot skiff circuit, and is a much sought after top crew on the Laser 5000 and Topper BOSS circuits, as well as being a regular crew on Smith's Ultra 30 Frontera.

This article is reproduced courtesy of Seahorse Magazine