Learning not to death-roll

When I got back into sailing after several years away from the sport I decided to buy a Laser. My reasoning was the same as it is for a lot of sailors - they are fast, fun, easy to rig, not that expensive for a reasonable boat, and you don't need a crew to get out on the water. And there is almost always another Laser or two (or more) to race against.

After an initial, traumatic test sail (about which more in another post sometime), I quickly got up to speed. Most normal, single-hander techniques work well in a Laser.

But I found that in a force 4 and up I had one problem: death-rolling.

I remembered coming across the feeling of a boat going "wobbly" on downwind legs from other boats, and I had been taught to sit relatively still and let the boat steady. As Laser sailors will know, that is all very well in an Enterprise, but in a Laser it just means you get wet having sat still rather than wet having moved around.

So, in the spirit in which this website was put together, I decided to see what the experts had to say about all this.

Laser sailors are lucky in that there is a lot of information out there about how to sail them, but it is not always easy to navigate the good information from the not-so-good information. The forums are very useful, but as there is material available from world and national champions, Olympians and Olympic medallists, I tend to go to these experts first. After all, they've done all the hard work of figuring out how to sail these boats better than anyone else, so I like to hear what they have to say.

So, armed with good information, I set about fixing the problem. A Sunday came up with plenty of wind (force 5+) so I read over the material one last time (I even re-watched part of the Downwind DVD I had) so that I was clear in my mind what I should be doing. I then headed down to the club a couple of hours earlier than normal. As there were people around, I made sure that they'd keep an eye on me in case I got in to trouble, and then I went sailing.

I sailed upwind as far as I could, and then I bore off onto a run, and started actively trying to induce the beginning of a death-roll. Which is pretty easy to do. And then I tried to save it. Which is less easy to do.

I did this for two hours. And I capsized a lot.

A lot.

One capsize was at such speed that I bent my tiller extension as I was flung forward, crashing into the mast.

But, man, did I have fun. When you practice something outside of racing it doesn't matter if you get it wrong, and so the thing you are practising is a little easier. There's less riding on you getting it right. And when you practice saving death-rolls in a force 5 it all becomes a lot of fun.

After two hours of practice I had made big improvements. Not only was I happy I could save all but the most extreme death-rolls, but I also had a much better feel for what the boat was telling me as I sailed it downwind. My turns were smoother, my sheeting was more in tune with what I was doing, and I could anticipate when the boat was going to accelerate or slow down and I could adjust accordingly.

Sailing downwind is much more fun now than it was before, as rather than holding on for dear life and fearing the worst I could now sail the boat fast and feel in control.

But funnily enough, my favourite day was the day I learnt those skills. It is fun to improve something significantly, and it is also fun to capsize at high speeds when there is nothing riding on it.

6 thoughts on “Learning not to death-roll

  1. So what are the secrets to avoiding a death roll?

    I know some things that work for me but one recommendation from a well known coach who has published a lot of stuff about Laser sailing didn’t seem to work at all for me.

  2. We’ve just moved house, and we’ve no internet at the moment, and it’s going to be a couple of weeks before it all gets sorted. Apparently that’s how long it takes here(!).

    I’ll post a proper piece with everything I found about avoiding death rolls when we’re up and running, but the abridged version is: bear away and/or sheet in a bit. And, when the boat is heeling over to windward do not push the tiller away (i.e. point up) – if you do you’re toast.

    I’ll post a link here when I’ve something more comprehensive written.

    What did the well-known coach tell you that didn’t work, Tillerman?

  3. It’s that thing about bearing away Damian. It’s what Steve Cockerill teaches. But I have proven to my own satisfaction that I can death roll just as easily whether I bear away or head up.

    Not letting the sheet out too far is key. I have a mark on my sheet which corresponds approx. to top batten at 90 degrees to boat which is my “fast” downwind setting, and I will pull in the sheet more than that if it feels like it’s going to death roll.

    I think a bit more vang also helps prevent death rolls (stops top of sail getting ahead of the mast.)

    Keeping weight on both feet also helps with balance and getting weight over to leeward if it is starting to roll.

    And the boat always feels more stable if I move my weight further aft.

  4. I’ve updated the page on Averting a Death Roll now.

    It’s funny how something works for one person and not for another. I found the bearing away thing worked like magic once I made it an automatic reaction, especially when coupled with sheeting in a little.

    It is certainly true about practice days away from the pressure of racing. I find it nearly impossible to make significant improvements if all I do is race.

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