Telltales (or Tufts, Ticklers, Flies)

Telltales (or tufts, or ticklers, or flies) are incredibly useful for letting you know what the wind is doing across your sail, and therefore can be used to help with sail trim and sail setting.

What the Experts Say

Ben Ainslie - The Laser Campaign Manual

Telltales are a vital guide to how the sail is being trimmed and set up

Frank Bethwaite - High Performance Sailing

We had learned that those crews who adjusted their sail shapes, so that they sailed with the most powerful sails it was possible to set with the tufts (i.e. telltales) still streaming smoothly, sailed faster than boats had previously sailed

Paul Goodison -Laser Handbook

(Telltales) are your best tool to make sure you are trimming the sail properly

Videos for Telltales

A good, clear video covering the basics of luff tell tales well

A short video of a Laser saiiling on the reach with comments on the telltale usage

A useful beginner's guide to using telltales upwind

Another relatively basic guide to using telltales

A video guide for putting telltales onto a jib

Books with information on Telltales

Websites and online articles for Telltales

A good article on telltales from the ever-excellent Michael Blackburn

A very comprehensive piece with details of how to interpret what your telltales are telling you

This is a good article covering the main aspects of telltales

Although this page is more for yachts than dinghies, it has quite a good technical description of how telltales work

There is a brief discussion on tell-tales about halfway down this page

This document has information about tell tales on page 8

This article covers some basic principles when using telltales

An article specifically on the leech telltales

Where to Buy Telltales

Telltales - Davis Air FlowThese telltales are excellent for dinghies. They are easy to fit and come with instructions for where to place the telltales and for how to use them once you have them on. There are lots of good reviews for them, and each pack comes with 14 tell-tales so you'll have plenty to cover your needs.

You can also ask your nearest chandler about telltales - all good chandlers will have them in stock.

What We Learned...

Telltales (or tufts, or ticklers, or flies) are incredibly useful for letting you know what the wind is doing across your sail, and therefore can be used to help with sail trim and sail setting.

Understanding telltales to a basic standard is important for anyone but the most basic sailor, and you don't necessarily have to have a deep understanding of them to sail to a very high standard.

There are two main places for telltales:

  1. on the sail - normally a little way in from the luff of the sail so they are not getting any disturbed air from the mast or the luff-wire;
  2. on the leech - normally on the top batten, and most classes will benefit from having them on the next one or two battens down as well.

Telltales on the Sail

The first thing to say is that it is probably a good idea to avoid having too many telltales on your sail. Your attention is limited, and too many telltales will give you too much information to process. It is better to have a couple of well placed telltales that will give you the most important information.

Where should they go?

This varies from class to class, so the best thing to do is to look at where the best sailors in your class have them positioned. Ask them if you can measure where possible, but failing that it can be fairly easy to make a good estimate by sight (even from photos).

Essentially you want to avoid being to close to the front of the sail as there is a lot of disturbed air there, and so, as a general rule of thumb, you are looking to have them around one to two feet back from the luff of the sail. The general consensus seems to be that you should have a lower set at a good level for glancing at while looking at all the other important things you need to be focused on (like waves, competitors, etc.), and an upper set somewhere around the height of the top batten.

How do you use them?

Telltales are very easy to use. For almost all classes you are aiming to have the telltales on both sides of the sail streaming back at all times (the back one may lift up a little - at maybe a 30 degree angle). There are some exceptions, listed here.

On a two-sail boat sailing upwind the jib telltales are the more important than the main telltales. Assuming the boat is well set up, the jib telltales should help with the optimal pointing angle, and are more sensitive and accurate than the main telltales. That said, the main telltales should be watched to aid the trim (and also check that the set-up is good).

If the telltale on the near side (i.e. the same side of the sail as you) stops streaming it means you are either:

  1. pointing too high and need to bear away a little to get it streaming again; or
  2. your sail is eased too much and needs to be pulled in a little to get the inner telltale streaming again.

If the telltale on the far side (i.e. on the "back" of the sail) stops streaming it means you are either:

  1. pointing further away from the wind than is ideal for your sail trim, and you therefore need to point up towards the wind to get the telltale streaming again; or
  2. your sail is over-trimmed (i.e. pulled in to much) and needs to be eased a little until the back telltale is streaming again.

That is the basics of telltales on the sail, and is as much as most people need to know about them up to quite a high standard.

Telltales on the leech

Telltales on the leech of the sail give you information on how the wind is exiting your sail. This is helpful as it gives you information with regards to the leech shape, and tells you whether the wind has remained attached (and therefore driving) across the full span of the sail.

Where should they go?

For most boats, the leech tell tales will go on the top batten of the mainsail, and perhaps the next two battens down as well. There is a good image here (as well as an interesting article - although it is geared towards yachts rather than dinghies).

How do you use them?

The general consensus is that the top leech tell tale should be flying around half the time (although some experts recommend two-thirds of the time).

The idea is that if they are flying for more than half the time then too much air is flowing freely over the leech and more needs to be 'captured'. This is generally achieved by increasing the vang and/or trimming in the mainsail. If they fly less than half the time then the leech is probably too tight, so either the sheet or the vang should be eased.

Other Types of Telltales

Buddy Melges never used a "masthead fly" or mast top burgee, instead preferring to have some telltales on his shrouds to help with wind direction. He would then use the masthead flies of boats around him to check wind direction and also to ascertain if he was in a boats wind shadow, or clear of it.

The Exceptions

There are occasions when you can't get both the jib telltales (i.e. the inside and the outside telltales) flying - generally when sailing offwind. This is because the jib becomes too full to have them both always streaming. In these situations it is important to concentrate on getting the outside telltale (the one on the far side) to stream, as this is the side that drives the sail.

Lasers: Because Lasers have an unstayed rig and quite a flexible mast, sail set up is a bit more of a compromise than with some other boats. Here are some tips:

Paul Goodison recommends really focusing on getting the leeward telltale flying all the time when sailing upwind and reaching. He says that, when sailing upwind, the windward telltale should fly "occasionally when searching for speed and power". He says that both should be flying most of the time when reaching, but the focus should be on making sure the leeward telltale is flying.(Quote is from the Laser Handbook)

You rarely see leech telltales on top Laser sailors' sails, but instead you might see a top telltale in line with the top batten, 1 to 2 feet in from the mast. This helps with offwind sail trim: if the top telltale is "showing the (top of the sail) is under-trimmed while the bottom telltale is flying then this indicates the vang is too loose. If the top telltale flies and the bottom of the sail looks under-trimmed then the vang is too tight". (Quote from The Laser Campaign Manual)

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