Rutland Race Training 2009

I awoke early on the Friday, around 5.30am so to make an early start for the drive up to the Midlands. With full sailing gear, tent and change of clothes packed in the car, I set off from Guildford on the two and a half hour journey. Destination was Rutland Sailing Club for the annual Merlin training weekend. This year I was teaming up with helm Charlie Morgan in his boat 1978 Lady Anne, a Procter 9b design; circa 1967!

Enjoying that holiday feeling, it wasn’t long before the shores of Rutland water came into view; one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe.

Parking the car in the adjacent camp site, I joined up with Charlie and the other course attendees at the sailing club - some who had travelled as far afield as Glasgow in Scotland (Brian Kelly & Lorna Dryburgh from Clyde Cruising Club (Dinghy Section) - and prepared for the 10.00 am briefing. In total 18 boats had registered for the course and over the duration of the next couple of days a great camaraderie was to be established.

What follows, is my account of the training weekend hopefully with the aim of providing an overview of the topics and activities covered. I apologise now for any bias towards a crew’s perspective and likewise an older boat, but you tend to take away what’s relevant to you. Likewise, apologies for the “bullet point” nature of some of the text, but there was honestly so much information provided over the duration of the weekend that it is the only way I can communicate some of the content of the 20 odd pages of notes taken.

Finally, a huge thank you to Dan Alsop the class training officer for organising the weekend; and his amazing team of experts who selflessly gave up precious time to impart their knowledge and experience with great skill and passion: Pat & Jilly Blake, Mike Stephens, Mike Calvert, Jenny King & Liam Dempsey.

Day 1: Friday 1st may - wind 3 / 4 cloudy with sunny intervals

Summary of activities:

Series of short races with video commentary; a summing up of What We Saw by Pat Blake; lunch & formal introductions; exercise: follow my leader – control boat speed; exercise: tacking on the whistle; exercise: gybing on the whistle; exercise: the river race (postponed as wind picked up)

What we saw by Pat Blake After a series of mini races with the aim for our instructors to assess overall capability and areas to work on, Pat highlighted the following observations: Mainsail not to top therefore boat not powered & balanced as should be. Kicker tension – leech of main – more required in windier conditions. Outhaul – more required in conditions as sail too baggy and over powered. Not sailing flat – let out main or head to wind or crew sit-out more. Keep weather eye to windward so prepared for shifts gusts etc. Mark rounding, if windward let kicker off a little, stabilise boat prepare for spinnaker lift. Spinnaker – importance of having a system in place (see below on Spinnaker for more details). Position in boat – where possible weight forward to keep transom out. Emphasis on team work – understanding & communication. Boom to centre line when beating. Watch top tell-tale of main and adjust kicker accordingly to ensure airflow over. In light winds or downwind then loosen. Pull on in windier conditions to close leach and harness power.

Afternoon Exercises Follow my Leader – An exercise in controlling boat speed Merlins set off in convoy behind a rib on a close hauled course with the object of leading boat at front to maintain a boat’s length behind rib which will deliberately alter its speed. To speed up sheet in (main / jib) and to slow down ease off. To stop, head to wind and push out boom. Tacking on the Whistle Merlins form into a line. On the first whistle, head up close hauled; then on the second whistle tack. Thereafter tack (port or starboard) on the blow of each whistle. Gybing on the Whistle Merlins from into a line. On the first whistle, bear away onto broad reach; then on the second whistle gybe. Thereafter gybe (port or starboard) on the blow of each whistle.

The River Race (postponed until next day as wind picked up)

From a start, two ribs representing an imaginary shore line slowly converge towards a windward mark therefore narrowing the course. Merlins under normal port / starboard /water for the shore rules - sail towards the windward mark / finishing line needing to tack more often as the course becomes progressively narrower. Great fun, if not a little stressful for the helms!

Repeat exercise down-wind this time following the ribs acting as marks which you must gybe round towards a finishing line. Sadistic nature and or whim of rib pilot very much a determining factor in the “difficulty” of the gybe mark!

A reflection on what we saw

Back at the club house, we were “treated” to video footage with commentary by the training team on various elements of the exercises. While a little humbling to watch, particularly if caught on camera making a boo boo; the feedback and tips offered are priceless and a fabulous learning tool.

With the time approaching 6.00pm, so drew to a conclusion the end of a very satisfying first day. Remembering I still had a tent to put up and feeling a little tired; I headed back to the camp site with sleep in mind.

Day 2: Saturday 2nd May - wind 1/2 Sunny

Summary of activities:

Practical tacking demonstration by Mike Calvert & Jenny King; On-Shore practical spinnaker demonstration by Dan Alsop & Jenny King; Boat MOT; River sailing – How to Win by Mike Stephens; Boat set-up & tuning for modern Merlins; Sailing exercises unable to complete previous day with one-on-one training and Evening meal. Awaking around 8.00ish, I walked to the club house canteen for a full English breakfast – much required for the busy day ahead. Meeting up with Charlie and our fellow comrades we readied ourselves for the 9.00am briefing. Joined by Liam Dempsey, Dan explained we’d build on yesterday’s work, although in the morning as the conditions were lighter we’d concentrate on some theory / on shore practical work and then go out in the afternoon when hopefully the wind would’ve picked up.

Tacking Having gone through the theory, we then went out on to the balcony for a practical demonstration in front of the club house by Mike Calvert and Jenny King. In sitting out weather, key point is for crew (taking cue from helm in the corner of his eye) and helm to move together in unison onto the new windward side (literally both to duck under the boom & step across the boat as smoothly and calmly as possible). Crew - having un-cleated the jib when in the eye of the wind at the point it momentarily backs, takes the new jib sheet with him squeezing in when on the new tack. Traveller is then pulled in when boat is well through tack and at speed. The helm can assist the crew in this respect by giving a few inches of main sheet. The helm should not change hands with the tiller and mainsheet until fully on the new tack. In lighter conditions (see below Mike Stephens – river sailing).

On-shore Spinnaker Practical Demonstration by Dan Alsop & Jenny King

Dan and Jenny demonstrated in 3634 Ministry of Pleasure EZ Roller the basic principles of spinnaker work, from the hoist; run to run / reach to reach gybes and the drop. Essentially, but by no means definitive:-

Helm concentrates solely on steering boat at correct angle for hoist and keeping boat flat – NOT to watch crew. May also operate puller / snodger depending where positioned in boat. Ease off kicker on rounding mark.

Crew, as quickly and efficiently as possible having lifted centre plate a little and cleated off jib, pulls an arm full of spinnaker from chute into boat, put’s pole out, hoists spinnaker, pulls on snodger, sets spinnaker, cleats guy and positions in boat accordingly all the time micro adjusting sheet to ensure spinnaker working – i.e. pulling sheet in each time luff collapses.

To gybe run to run – helm should aim to steer boat through gybe so burgee is pointing over corner of transom – crew cleats both sheet and guy, uncleats jib, releases snodger, pole off, pulls boom over, pole on, snodger on, cleat jib, set spinnaker (general rule spinnaker pole 90 degrees to direction of burgee).

To gybe reach to reach, crew starts to square pole as helm begins to steer through, crew cleats both sheet and guy, uncleats jib, releases snodger, pole off, tug old guy / new sheet to pull spinnaker round jib, pulls boom over, pole on, snodger on, cleat jib, set spinnaker as above.

On the drop, crew uncleats spinnaker up-haul and rapidly retrieves on the down-haul, snodger off and simultaneously with one hand removes pole and with the other grabs a handful of spinnaker pulling in so to avoid sheet / guy dropping under bow, plate down, squeezes in jib ready for the windward leg, kicker on.

Boat MoT Mike Calvert came over to inspect the boat, set-up and rigging and to offer any advice in respect thereof.

River Sailing – How to Win by Mike Stephens

Many of the tips below are based on lighter wind conditions. Concerning rigging – no rake in mast, ease of jib Cunningham, use tightish mainsail, less kicker required, but still adjust whenever crew is required to sit out or move in for example. Get out early to check start line, bias, course to first mark etc (see later). Be aware the effect of stream’s flow and assess if better closer in to bank and be prepared to tack up a particular side of the bank to stay in the slack water. Conversely if heading to a mark downstream, use the stream’s flow to your advantage by staying in the middle. Tape up transom flaps as stops water coming in if you need to check rudder for weed. Crew & helm keep weight well forward to keep transom out of water. Keep boat flat. Helm to minimise use of rudder which acts as a brake – particularly when going downstream. Be aware of rule 42 – propulsion- and its consequences. Be aware the effects of wind shear, i.e. when the wind direction from channelling along the river course is different from the direction of the wind coming over above the river banks – sometimes best to loosen kicker to enable the top of the leech to open up. In very light conditions never pull jib in too much. Allow rig to breathe. Utilise good Roll-tack technique. Boat Set-Up & Tuning for the Modern Merlin

Using 3578 White Rabbit Canterbury Tales as an example, an on-shore practical demonstration was given illustrating to the helm and crew rig set-up and control available for optimal performance in various conditions. If you’ve heard terms like uppers, lowers, rig tension, mast rake, calibration, inverted, leech, pre-bend, kicker, Cunningham, Barber-haulers, slot, jib cars, spreaders; but never quite understood their meaning or application then this was the perfect opportunity to learn more.

Merlin Evening Meal

With two full-on days training under my belt and a ravenous appetite, I was ready for the Merlin evening meal held in one of the club’s conference suites. Showered, suited and booted we all sat down for a wholesome dinner with all the trimmings. After some raised glasses and toasts – to all those helms who have had sex with their crews and a few jokes to boot; some of the congregation (hardcore) headed to the Wheatsheaf to no doubt plan and discuss the impending Open while others made off for a good night’s sleep eager to put into practise the skills and knowledge learnt during the first two days of training. Little did we know what tomorrow’s weather would have in store.

Day 3: Sunday 3rd of May – Silver Tiller Rutland Open Meeting

With the wind around force 5 gusting to 6, Charlie made the decision (somewhat aided and abetted by me) to make the start although understandably a little nervous. A few of our fellow comrades had decided to sit the race out and as we soon learnt not without good reason. As we didn’t have a lifting rudder, we had to take the boat out rudderless and soon learnt it was impossible to fix a rudder moving at speed. A sudden change in direction forced the rudder against the transom pintle bending it and rather miraculously (given the circumstances) we headed back to shore in one piece. Fortunately no serious damage was done (except to our pride) and we were able to buy a replacement at the chandlery and make a temporary repair. With our options limited and no let-up forecast in the conditions, we headed to the bar for a pint(s) of the local brewed Cooking Ale!

Day 4: Monday 4th May - wind 3 / 4 cloudy with a little drizzle

Summary of activities:

Presentation on Couple Sailing by Pat and Jilly Blake; Rudderless Training by Mike Calvert; Starting and Rules by Liam Dempsey; Exercise: Transits; Exercise: Starts; Capsize Recoveries by Mike Calvert; Splitting Roles by Jenny King; Mini Race and Awards.

Presentation on Couple Sailing by Pat and Jilly Blake Criticism should be positive and not personal – good communication is key. Look at the bigger picture and try to view the position from each other’s perspective for a better understanding. Be aware the power of criticism can have and the negativity and lack of confidence it can foster if not constructive. Treat relationship during competitive sailing on a business level. Remember synergy, when the sum of the whole is greater than its parts –i.e. good teamwork. Sail with other crews / helms – it’s all good practise and broadens horizons. Save any gripes for afterwards by having a proper debriefing about what did and didn’t go so well with a view to improving next time. Have systems, procedures and drills in place – practise makes perfect.

Rudderless Training by Mike Calvert

First organise self, lay rudder in boat where easily accessible but not at risk of losing overboard. Crew gets in boat, with helm holding bow head to wind. Crew puts a touch of centre plate down – 50% max. Helm pulls boat round and steps over transom into boat.

Helm issues instruction to set the jib and may sheet in the main (however crew may also work the main from the boom if experienced enabling helm to fix rudder immediately).

Set a course to a safe spot then head into wind letting both main and jib loose so reducing boat speed – helm can then easily locate rudder without risk of damage to pintle (see above!).

To bear windward, bring in main and release jib; conversely to bear away, back jib and release main. Also remember, by heeling the boat right you will turn left and vice versa.

When rudder on, helm should clearly communicate this to crew who will put plate down and sheet jib appropriately.

Starting and Rules by Liam Dempsey


To make a good start, you should be at the right end of the start line; on the start line and be in a position to accelerate away when the start begins.

Concerning bias and which end of the line to be on, one method is to sail along the start line in both directions – the end of the line you found hardest to sail to will be the end you should aim to start from. Be aware of courses set with a lot of port bias as you will need to be high enough at the start to make the line .

Knowing where the start line is will require you to take a transit. To do this, sail along the start line between the committee boat and starting mark and follow the line on visually - using the starting mark as a “sight”- to the shore noting the most prominent land mark for example a bush. This bush when in your line of vision will indicate the start line.

Accelerating away at the start will enable you to avoid dirty air and maximise your chance of reaching the windward mark early. The idea is to create a gap in which to bear off in to at the start by accelerating through carefully squeezing in both the main and jib. To work this position will however require you to hold your ground on the line using the techniques described earlier.

Rules Key point is since no course is underway until the start and therefore no requirement to sail a proper course, then a windward boat must keep clear of a leeward boat with luffing rights established from an overlap. Consequence is windward boat could be luffed over start line.

Transit Exercise

A long start line is set up and each boat takes it in turn to cross the line through the middle. At the point the crew / helm think they’re at the line they raise their arms. The actual point at which the boat reaches the line is indicated by a whistle from the committee boat; normally a good few seconds after the arms were first raised! The exercise was then repeated but this time after having taken a transit – needless to say the whistle and raising of arms were synchronised.

Start Exercises

A series of starts and quick races were initiated where the bias was adjusted and even a surprise start included necessitating the skills required to hold your position on the line until the start whistle.

Capsize Recoveries by Mike Calvert

Leeward Capsize

Very important to prevent boat going turtle, therefore get someone on centre plate as soon as possible. Crew to un-cleat kicker, and drop spinnaker if necessary. Crew to help helm on centre plate to right boat. As boat starts to right at earliest moment, crew gets into boat and sets jib so starting the process of bearing away.

Helm then gets into boat, catches tiller and pulls towards him so bearing away onto a reach and opens transom flaps and puts kicker back on.

Never attempt to hoist spinnaker when boat full of water as you’ll risk breaking the mast – there is simply too much weight and drag with a boat full of water.

Capsize to Windward following a Death Roll

Crew if possible, grabs hold of bow and swims boat round to avoid situation where boat once righted is blown immediately back over (see Leeward Capsize above). Alternatively, although this method takes practise; mast is lifted just a fraction whereby the sail is sufficiently caught by the wind to blow the boat round. Follow method above.

Splitting Roles by Jenny King

Map out and plan the year ahead for open meetings and stick with your commitments so as not to let your team down. Both share burden of packing / unpacking boat from trailer. For open meetings give yourself at least 2 hours set-up time. Crew to enter boat and collect course details etc. Agree split of finances and expenses. Agree in advance who will get food & drink for the day. Above all, good communication and work out between selves a system of procedures and drills for boat handling.

Mini Race

After lunch, we headed out sadly for the last time to compete in a mini race with the aim of putting everything learned into practise. A few sweatshirts for the winners were also up for grabs!

Although our own race didn’t go to plan, capsizing in the first and losing our spinnaker sheet under the boat for the second; the positives gleaned from the weekend were more than evident. Had it been just a few days earlier we might not have considered going out at all in the conditions, let alone attempt to hoist the kite; and herein is the essence of the weekend – it’s an amazing confidence builder which safely takes you out of your comfort zone to learn and grow as a sailing team.

Congratulations to David Baker and Jim Green of Tamesis SC sailing 3578 White Rabbit Canterbury Tales for taking first place and to Jonathan and Heather of Hampton SC in 3566 Pocket Rocket Laurie Smart Make It So as runners-up. Both were awarded their sweatshirts over tea, cream and jam scones – what a finish to a wonderful weekend!

Report: Joe Woods
See also:
    Race Training