Improving the humble tack is an area where many crews can make gains, even marginal ones. Olympian and Ocean Race skipper Robert Stanjek shares some key areas to focus on for improvement with Andy Rice

While a tack is one of the most fundamental manoeuvres, it’s also hard to execute well. The more crew on board, the harder it is to co-ordinate the timing of the roles. The bigger the sea state, the more critical the timing and execution of the tack to minimise the boat-stopping impact of the next wave.

Coming from an Olympic sailing background, having raced in the Laser single-hander and represented Germany in the Star keelboat, Robert Stanjek has taken his obsession for the small details into the big boat scene. He gives a lot of thought to every aspect of the race course, including what makes a good tack.

He only asks that you don’t judge him by his tacks on an IMOCA. “They are a 60ft tank designed to go fast in a straight line for hundreds of miles,” he says. “Tacking them around a short course is not a pretty sight because they’re just not designed for it!” [Note: this was before the major collision between Guyot and 11th Hour Racing at The Ocean Race Leg 7 start].

Instead, Stanjek offers his five best tips on how to tack a more conventional, fully-crewed keelboat.

With close upwind traffic in one-design fleets, like these ClubSwan 50s at the Rolex Swan Cup, marginal gains made through each tack can have a big pay off. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

Alter your rate of turn

Tacking is not a simple manoeuvre. For a good tack on a fully crewed boat you need everyone working to the same rhythm. The helmsman, mainsheet trimmer and headsail trimmer all need to be on the same page. Most of the time the tactician calls the countdown and the driver puts the boat into the turn.

But you need to vary the rate of turn for different conditions and sea states. In flat water you start on a wider radius to accelerate into the tack, so that you extend the middle of the tack and make useful metres towards the next mark while you’re going through head to wind.

The heavier the boat, the better the momentum through the mid-part of the tack and if there are no waves to slow the boat, you can really take advantage of that windward gain.

Target speed before angle

For the last part of the tack, you exit on a slightly smaller radius and a bit below your target angle, somewhere between 10-12° lower. The headsail trimmer is pulling the jib on, say 85%, and the helmsman is leaning nicely into the jib. I always like to have the trimmer calling target speed. The helmsman has eyes on the water and the telltales, and the trimmer has eyes on the numbers.

Keep pushing for target speed, and only when you have reached it do you start heading up for target angle. Throughout this speed build it’s important the jib and the main trimmer are working in unison, gradually tightening the sheets until you’re back to 100% trim.

Choose your moment on waves

As soon as you have any significant sea state, you need to turn on a tighter radius because if you hit a wave badly during a tack it’ll really slow you down. You can’t afford to go for the long glide towards the breeze, so now it’s about completing the tack as efficiently as possible, in the flattest part of water you can find.

If the waves are long you should start to turn the boat as you go up the wave, and you can accelerate the boat out of the turn as you are going downhill. In this case the wave can actually help you. But in most cases where the boat is too long for the wave you need to choose the flattest spot available.

Normally you’ll find there are five or six consecutive waves in a pattern and then two to three bigger waves – so time your tacks for the smoothest part of the wave cycle.

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Use crew movement to steer

It helps to have the crew all leaning in a bit to help promote the tack. Even better if they all do a quick hike before they change sides to do a kind of ‘roll tack’ to help initiate the turn. The crew needs to match the speed they cross the boat to the speed of the wind.

In stronger wind it’s a case of getting from one side to the other as quickly as possible, with minimal time off the rail. But when it’s light airs you need everyone to be patient and wait a little longer on the old side, let the boat tack and only when the sails have fully filled on the new tack is it time to gradually bring the weight up to the new side.

Don’t panic in traffic

It’s one thing to execute a perfect tack with lots of space around you, but then there’s the challenge of continuing to do that on a busy race course. A common mistake I see is helmsmen spinning the boat too quickly and losing the boat’s momentum because they’re in a bit of a panic about the traffic.

Avoid the temptation to turn the boat through a smaller radius than usual. Stick to your usual timings and processes, and have the confidence to execute a standard tack even in the heat of battle.

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