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Fair Wind Sailing School Sailing Lessons: Beginning Sail Trim

Aug 17, 2007
Sail trim can be one of the great mysteries of effectively sailing a vessel propelled solely by the wind. Ask someone who has been on a racing vessel, or even just watched a racing yacht, and you are likely to hear how much work sailing is or how the sails need constant adjustment. This view is really incorrect -- sail trim can be as difficult or as simple as you want to make it. While it may be true that a racing sail boat trying to achieve every last tenth of knot of boat speed does require a fair amount of sail trim adjustment, that is certainly not true for the typical day sailor out for a pleasurable afternoon or even for a cruiser making a passage. In these situations, it is not uncommon to set the sails (and the autopilot for that matter), sit back and enjoy the day, the water, the boat and your sailing companions. This article describes for the beginner a simple method of sail trim that can be used to effectively and safely sail a boat on any point of sail without lots of trim work (subsequent articles will address more sophisticated methods of trim that also do not require a lot of work).

To start, you must know your points of sail. The sail trim techniques described here are based on your boat's relative position to the wind, in other words, your point of sail. Next, we will also assume that at a beginning level you won't be sailing in strong wind, so for now we won't discuss techniques to use when the rig is overpowered. We'll assume you are sailing in light to moderate winds for your boat. We'll follow a very simple procedure -- set the mainsail to a predetermined position and then set the foresail so it is parallel to the mainsail. Done!

Let's start our trim lessons with the mainsail. First, let's simplify the sail controls. For now we will leave the main traveler centered on the boat and the boom vang in one position. All our mainsail trim, then, will be with the mainsheet. For our purposes, we will assign three and only three possible sail trim positions for the mainsail. The first is "all the way in" with the boom at the center line of the boat. The second trim position is "all the way out" with the boom as far out as it will go before the mainsail is against the spreader. The final position is "half-way"; midway between the two extreme positions. Those positions are easy to understand and to execute using just the mainsheet. The only question remaining is when to use each position. We'll use three rules to determine which trim position to use:
- Rule One: use the "all the way in" position when you are sailing close-hauled.
- Rule Two: use the "all the way out position" when you are sailing lower than a beam reach (i.e. broad reach or running).
- Rule Three: use the "half way" position all the rest of the time (i.e. close reach and beam reach).

That's all there is to it. No constant tweaking or adjusting. Just set once and sail. Using just these three positions and setting the sails just once will keep your boat moving at good clip and allow you to have fun while sailing!

With our mainsail trimmed, now let's turn our attention to the foresail. We'll use just two rules to get our foresail into a reasonable trim position.
- Rule One: the curve of the foresail should be parallel to the mainsail. This rule does not require precision -- just get it close. With just a little practice you will get quite close - just be sighting between the two sails.
- Rule two is even easier: when you take the mainsail out, take the foresail out too. Conversely, when you pull the mainsail in, sheet in the foresail too. How far, you ask? Just follow Rule One -- simple!!

Using the above procedure, the beginning sailor can sail reasonably efficiently by setting both sails just once for each point of sail. This takes a great deal of mystery out of sail trim and allows for significantly more enjoyment on the water.
About the Author
Captain Dave Bello is the President of Fair Wind Sailing School, offering sailing lessons and sailing charters in the BVI, US Virgin Islands, Florida and the Chesapeake Bay.
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