Off Your Knees, Please

Last week I wrote a little about how dashingly handsome I am, and I also mentioned some stuff about tacking. It got me to thinking about how my tacking has changed over the years, and one of the biggest changes came when I was around 13.

At that time Optimist sailing in the UK was developing at a rate. We'd had decent Optimist sailors, but a more rigorous approach to coaching and development kicked in, driven by Jim Saltonstall. There were pluses and minuses to this new approach - the British Sailing Team over the last 20 years or so show that it was successful in producing elite sailors, but the approach possibly cost us some other sailors due to burn out or excessive competition.

Whatever your view of the approach to Optimist training at the time, one thing is for certain: it changed the way kids in the UK tack forever.

Up until 1988 kids had tacked or gybed on their knees quite a lot - at least in strong winds. We knew how to roll tack, and it is pretty hard to roll tack on your knees, so light wind tacking wasn't so bad. But strong wind tacking was a different story. Here's one of the very best strong wind sailors in 1988 tacking in a breeze:

I'm not singling out one sailor here - I could have chosen dozens of examples of tacking on your knees. This one just happens to be a good close up of it in action, and as he finished 3rd (I think) in this regatta, it shows that it was prevalent throughout the fleet - from top to bottom.

At the time the UK had never won the Optimist Worlds or Europeans, and I think I'm right in saying they'd never even placed in the top 10. It's quite surprising when you think of Britain's proud sailing history, but there you are. We weren't at the top of world sailing for that age group at the time, and the people in charge of Optimist development set about changing that.

When the Worlds and Europeans teams returned that year, having had a top individual overall finish of 28th and 25th respectively, the coaches had a number of things that they felt would raise the level of UK Optimist sailing. And one of them was boat-handling. So that winter and the following spring at every training session we would work on tacking and gybing on our feet.

The way they generally decided to work on it was to make any sailor that tacked or gybed on their knees stop and do 10 press ups in their boat before carrying on.

Doing ten press ups on a beach in Barbados, with a glass of rum waiting for you when you finish and calypso music playing in the background would still not be my idea of a good time. So doing 10 press ups in an Optimist in a force 4 in the winter on Rutland Water was definitely no fun at all. So we learned, pretty damn quickly, to stop tacking on our knees.

At the selection trials the following year all the top sailors and most of the rest of the fleet were tacking on our feet. The wind was much lighter for the event in '89, so the closest equivalent I can show you is this:

Some difference, right? The breeze may be a notch lower, and the waves smaller, but you can see that tacking on your knees was fast becoming a thing of the past for young Optimist sailors.

I don't bring this up just for historical reasons. I've noticed that a lot of beginners (and quite a few non-beginners) spend a fair bit of time on their knees when sailing - especially in club sailing. Having had it tortured out of me during the winter of '88/'89, I wince a little at it - not just because of the memories it brings back, but because it is so demonstrably slow.

I'm not just talking about tacking and gybing here, but all points of sail. You'll often see people sailing on their knees downwind too, and even upwind in lighter winds. And it is never fast.

One of the big aims when you're sailing is to be manoeuvrable and light on your feet. In light airs this is so you can move about gently and smoothly so as not to disturb the air flow on your sail or foils. In strong winds it is so that you can act and react quickly and effectively to get the most from your boat (and to keep the mast pointing towards the sky).

Staying off your knees also helps with weight distribution. It is impossible to be accurate with where your weight is if you are kneeling, because so much of your weight is on the bottom of the boat. If you are on your feet and bum then you can be much more accurate with where your weight is, and therefore have a more balanced boat.

So if you spend time on your knees in the boat, am I suggesting that you hire a team of top coaches to follow you around demanding you do physical exercises in impossible situations throughout the winter months?

Yes. That is exactly what I am suggesting.

(But, failing that, I suppose you could just be more conscious of your body position, weight distribution and manoeuvrability, and spend some of your time on the water working towards improving all these things.)

2 thoughts on “Off Your Knees, Please

  1. I race a Laser year round on a smallish river, which in the summer enjoys a steady north wind with only minor shifts. But from October through March, it’s out of the east and southeast and extremely shifty with 20+ knot gusts. Tacking on headers, I find myself on my knees (praying?) in the middle, as I can’t trust the pressure to resist my roll on the new tack. Skittish I am of tea-bagging in 43 degree water. I know it’s slow. I do tend to pinch and maybe shouldn’t be so close-hauled in these conditions. Suggestions?

  2. I grew up learning to sail on gravel pits, so I know something of the pain that dramatic headers, gusts and lulls can cause and I can empathise.

    My main issue tended to be when I was hiking out and then a sudden header/lull would have the boat falling on top of me and I had a mad scramble to avoid a windward capsize.

    With regards to exiting a tack, I’m not sure I ever had that issue – coming out of a roll I’d tend to adjust the flatten by feel. With lake or river sailing, keeping a watch for what’s coming is important – so knowing what you’re likely to be tacking into should help. Watch for gusts or light patches up ahead and watch how the ripples are fanning on the water – over time you can start to predict headers and lifts as well as puffs and lulls.

    Lasers generally don’t sail fast when pinched – they slow too quickly. Paul Goodison recommends keeping the back tell tale flying, with the near tell-tale mostly flying. You don’t want to be sailing with the luff going too much – it is slow and if the wind suddenly heads then you’re in the windward capsize danger zone.

    Hope this helps a little – I’d be interested to hear what others think on this.

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