Tim Townsend’s Alternative Guide to Sonata Boat Trim Downwind (in a fresh breeze)
Editor’s Note: never take Tim Townsend too seriously!
Having sailed the Sonata for a number of years now with only modest success I believe it really is a Class to which the words of Paul Elvstrom can truly be applied (and I paraphrase—slightly) “Boatspeeds are so similar it is like running up the down escalator—everybody can travel at the same speed until they stumble and lose their place and can make it up only when the next person makes a mistake and stumbles.” Nowhere is this more true than on the downwind leg where in most conditions the speed differential between most Sonatas is almost negligible.
Photographs by Nick Kirk
The Downwind Edge
We, on Exposition, have searched for some time to try and find an edge downwind over our competitors. Steve Goacher recommended some years ago in an article that because the Sonata is short and fat, fore-and-aft boat trim is as critical as sail trim. In a strong breeze downwind, in particular, he advocates that all the crew should be aft in the cockpit and low down, the spinnaker should be strapped in. Well, that’s all very well Steve, but if we all did that nobody would have a speed advantage at all. So with that in mind, we in Exposition decided to carry out a scientific study of the factors that could improve boatspeed downwind.
We reckoned that having all the crew as far aft as possible might have a marginal benefit in terms of stability but worried about the increased drag. Over trimming the spinnaker might improve stability but it does little for speed and takes no account at all of wind shear (we said it would be a scientific study!).
We therefore aimed to reduce drag and balance the boat in such a way that the wetted surface area could be minimised. We looked at the balance of the boat as it would affect the weight on the helm. And we also looked at ways of reducing the effect of wind shear on the rig (particularly the spinnaker) thereby making the sails easier to trim.
Theory to Practice
Our experiments all came together at the 2002 Nationals at Royal Tay and we had ample opportunity to practice our techniques starting in the Practice Race and culminating on Thursday afternoon with multiple successes in just one race. We had tried to keep our new skills secret but we noticed a number of our competitors trying to copy our technique. Even Goacher The Broacher tried it in one race and it obviously benefited him because he won that one!
We think we got it right however. Certainly when Nick Kirk (the official photographer) gave his slide show on Thursday evening our demonstration brought applause and gasps of awe (and not a little jealousy—we think) from our competitors. Some were even making notes so they could return to their home Clubs and pass the word around.
Just do it (or maybe not)
So what is this new technique? Rather like the “Wild Thing” (which they do on catamarans) it is rather weather dependant.
In our case we have found that 35 knot gusts and a square run over a shallow bank in wind-over-tide conditions is just about perfect. If you practise hard you may find you can do it in less breeze.
You need to run very deep indeed and then the spinnaker trimmer over rotates the spinnaker allowing the clew to come to windward of the forestay.Don’t over-vang the main. This allows the boat to run deeper still and a gentle roll to windward is encouraged.
At the crucial moment the foredeck crew (best qualified is a cross between Nellie The Elephant and Fred Astaire) advances to the pointy end and starts to tap dance on the foredeck. As the boat continues with its roll to windward the cockpit crew (at this time combining this role with that of spinnaker trimmer) lights his pipe to relieve stress. In the twinkling of an eye the keel breaks free (thus reducing wetted surface area), the mast hits the water (thus bringing the spinnaker closer to the surface and thereby reducing the effect of wind shear) and the helm goes light (further reducing drag). For a (disappointingly short) period of time we have a speed advantage over the rest of the fleet.
For those of you who weren’t at the 2002 Nationals I refer you to the Nick Kirk website (where you can also see Cobweb, Napper and Bad Company trying to copy us, though we might say without the same style, panache or artistic quality. If you look carefully you will also see Exposition doing it in unison with another yacht. The photos have also appeared in Yachts and Yachting where you can study the over rotating spinnaker, and the other skills outlined above.
I summarise below some of the pros and cons of this technique, which you too can enjoy if you practise hard enough. So try it…and let me know how you get on!
Pros and Cons
- You can run very, very deep
- Reduced wetted surface area
- Reduced effect of wind shear
- Very light helm
- If you can wrap your spinnaker around your Windex you may never have to pack that one again
- Helm can practise backstroke
- If you can get the keel out of the water often enough you may not need to do so much pre-season prep on the foils
- Speed advantage is only fleeting (we’re working on that one)
- Sometimes the boat resurfaces facing the wrong way (give yourself lots of sea room until you gain confidence)
- We’re not sure about the hydrodynamic qualities of the coachroof (perhaps somebody can help us here)
- If you get really good we suggest you sand off the moulded non slip and anti-foul the sidedecks
- Immediately before the helm goes light it’s quite heavy really
- This technique normally promotes some urgent and noisy advice from the crew. Personally I like to sail on a quiet boat so the noise does affect my concentration and some of the crews’ observations can be quite hurtful…