By Airwaves writer Lydia Whiteford
Upon entering high school or college sailing, most crews who have been sailing for a while are very familiar with the Club 420. However, if these crews are coming out of club sailing, it can suddenly become a different boat altogether when it is stripped of its trap and spinnaker rig. Then, a variety of different other dinghies, sometimes unique to certain schools themselves, suddenly pop up in collegiate sailing and crews have to learn these boats as well as any other. In this article, I’ve compiled a list of helpful tips to assist new college crews in adapting to the number of different boats they may face in their careers.
420s: There is a surprisingly large difference, technically, between crewing in a club 420 rigged with a spinnaker and trap and one rigged for high school and college sailing. The biggest difference is that the boats are often heavier, with some venues filling the rails of all their boats to minimize damage in collisions. Also, collegiate races are shorter than club races, so boat handling really becomes important to going fast as opposed to just straight-line boat speed. Therefore, the biggest thing for crews who are used to sailing club boats to get used to is the boat handling. Roll tacking a 420, in particular, can be a deadly weapon and can guarantee good boat speed especially in conditions where the wind is limited. Because good roll tacking is mostly dependent on timing, my advice is to develop a practice with your skipper in which you can count down to a roll. A simple “ready to tack” followed by a “3…2…1…tacking” is the best way to get this started, and eventually you will be so practiced that the timing will become muscle memory. 420s are often the easiest boat to adapt to, because most crews coming into college sailing are already familiar with them.
FJs: FJs are arguably the most sailed dinghies in college sailing. Because of all the schools with venues that are on lakes or rivers, FJs are usually the boat of choice. Crewing in an FJ is vastly different from crewing in an FJ, starting with the fact that while sailing upwind the crew sits backwards. This can be difficult to get used to, but it is something you should do the first time you get into an FJ so you can start practicing immediately, even though it is tempting to sit forwards the first couple of times. The major benefit of sitting backwards is that the crew is now facing the skipper, so timing for maneuvers is easier to coordinate if you can look at your skipper or crew throughout the whole thing. Also, an FJ roll tack or roll jibe should feel a lot snappier than a 420, as the boats are more tippy and maneuverable. A 420 roll tends to involve your entire body to achieve the same feeling that a properly timed shoulder snap can give you in an FJ.
The second biggest thing to get used to when crewing in FJs is that the leads for the jib are adjustable, and they don’t cleat. The jib is much bigger, so it is more important in these boats to be able to ease and trim constantly to achieve top speed. However, because you cannot cleat your jib it is easy to not have it trimmed correctly. My best advice on this is to play around in practice and make sure to inspect your jib whenever you make a change. Once you can see what easing, trimming, or moving the leads does to the jib shape, it is easier to recognize when it looks correct or when it looks bad and adjust it accordingly.
Vanguard 15: While, admittedly, this is not a boat sailed often in college regattas; it is a favorite off-season dinghy of many college sailors, including myself. V-15s are an excellent opportunity for sailors who want to keep their skills sharp when they’re not in season, as the class has most of its regattas over the summer months or in the winter. They are a lot like college dinghies, but they also introduce some aspects of higher performance dinghies with their adjustable stay-masters. The biggest challenge for crews in a V-15 is the hull shape. It is extremely shallow, so foot and body placement can be tough for those who are used to the shape of a 420 or FJ that has plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, if there is light wind this means a lot of squatting and a lot of balance, but with enough practice you can find a spot that is comfortable for your legs, and this spot will be different for every crew. The hull is also wide, so it can be difficult to cross without the leverage that the deeper-hulled boats offer for your legs. The best way I’ve found to solve this problem is to hook my foot under the far hiking strap instead of the near one, that way my body covers more distance and I don’t lose my balance as easily. Also these boats have dagger boards instead of centerboards, so extra planning downwind to handle a board that you can’t lower with a line will often pay to avoid getting stuck with the board up.
Other: This may seem like an odd category, but there are actually boats in college sailing that you will find in one venue and probably never see again once you graduate. The Larks at Tufts and Fireflies or Techs at MIT are a few examples, as well as the new Collegiate 420 that will soon replace the old boat we love so dearly. These boats often times cannot be mastered, unless you go to the school where they have them and practice them everyday. However, there are things you can think about before stepping into any dinghy to help you figure out the best way to crew in them. Do a couple of tacks as soon as you get on the water with your skipper. Is it more comfortable to sit forward or backwards, based on where the jib leads are? Should you do a really hard roll tack like you would in a 420, or do the boats require more of a load and flatten technique? These are questions that you should be asking yourself and your skipper before any race starts, so that you can be prepared for quick maneuvers during a race. Also, some boats have their rigs set up differently from what you can be used to with 420s and FJs. For example, both Larks and Fireflies have the vang rigged to the skipper for easy adjustments and the centerboard rigged so that you hoist it close to the mast. This is why, if you have never sailed or even seen a particular boat before, it is important you try to rig it yourself so that you can become at least a little familiar with it.
The bottom line is, any boat can go from alien and awkward to (pardon the pun) a breeze to sail with enough practice. If you are faced with a boat you are not comfortable in, make sure to try and get lots of maneuvers in during a practice, especially in the areas you are most uncomfortable, like jibes or tacks. If it is a situation where you will not get to practice in the boat until the regatta, then communication between you and your co
ach and you and your skipper can go a long way to cohesive sailing in an unfamiliar boat.