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Trimming A Folkboat For Speed

© 2001, Dieter Loibner All rights reserved. Reproduction of any kind prohibited without written permission.


-Step One: Stepping The Mast

-Mast Rake

-The Dependence of Sails & Jumpers-A primer in Witchcraft

-The Vang

-The Whiskerpole


Ever scratched your head after a race, wondering why you weren't moving? Maybe you have been slow switching gears. Or maybe you were sailing around with a set-up that simply didn't work. Blaming the boat or the crew won't help. Instead, take a breather, have a beer while listening to what experts have to say. The following suggestions may not be the answer to all speed problems, but they certainly address the important basics. These tips were published in the German FolkeNews 4/2000. They were compiled by Fritz Lübbe - I call him Uncle Fritz - who has sailed Folkboats for more than 20 years and probably forgot more about it than you and I will ever know.

Step One: Stepping The Mast

Take a long dock line, tie a bowline hitch of at least three feet in diameter on one end. Running rigging plus jump stays are inside the bowline, fore- and backstay and shrouds are on the outside. Slide the loop up the mast until 2 feet below the jumper struts. To prevent the loop from sliding up any further, tie the line off at the whiskerpole fitting. If you sail with a lot of rake or if you have a sensitive Windex in the mast , clip the crane hook into the loop in front of the mast but you have to watch for the jumper struts and the space bar to keep them clear of the hook as the mast is being stepped.
Once the stick is upright and the foot is secured in the mast track down below, the hook can come off. If you are paranoid, go ahead attach shrouds and forestay, but you don't have to. As the hook is being lowered for unclipping , the hoisting line is sliding down freely since we left the standing rigging on the outside. An elegant method that saves tons of time. For Europeans the only way to go at big races, where more than half of the fleet is coming by trailer and antsy folks are champing at the bit to get to the hoist.

Mast Rake

The German Method
Before you load up the boat, and while the rigging is still loose, check the mast rake. Perform this trick on a calm day. In a few minutes you'll understand why. The boom is attached to the mast at the mark. The aft end rests in the crutch. Put a yardstick into the boom track, make sure the zero-end touches the mast inside the mast track.
Now tighten the jump stays evenly so the mast does not bend and leans back so it rests on the rim of the mast hole (gotta have the rubber off). Now hang a weight (Danes and Germans use their anchor) on the shackle of the main halyard, lower it far enough so the halyard intersects with the upper edge of the boom. Don't lower it too far or it will hit the cabin top. It has to be able to swing freely. To avoid banging it against the mast, tie a thin line to the weight and take the bitter end with you when you step off the boat either onto the dock next to it or onto the neighboring boat.
That's where the calm conditions come in. Wait until the weight has stopped swinging and check where the halyard intersects with the boom. According to Uncle Fritz, on his boat this distance is anywhere between 35 and 40 cm (one foot plus 2-4 inches.) This distance varies from boat to boat and depends on your crew weight, the type of sails you are using and the flexibility of your stick. Whatever it is, remember it so you have a point of reference. Now tighten the shrouds evenly while repeatedly checking that the mast's position in the hole remains centered.
Now tighten the forestay. If the mast starts moving away from the aft edge of the hole, you've tightened too much. Now go forward and pull at the forestay with your weight. Uncle Fritz is tall and weighs at least 200 lbs. He says that when he pulls at the forestay, his mast goes forward to the middle of the hole. Next step is to secure the mast in this forward position by tying a rope from the mast ring to the forestay. Why? To tighten and measure the backstay.
Once you have taken the slack out of the backstay while the mast is forward, tie a figure-eight knot at the inboard end of the trim line to prevent the mast from going further forward in a breeze which inevitably leads to fracture. And finally a few common sense tips: Secure the bolts with cotter pins, not with O-rings. When frenzy breaks out and someone steps on the chain plate where the shroud is attached, O-rings - even the taped ones - can come loose and fall out.

The San Francisco Way
There is a simpler way of checking your mast rake. Take the jib halyard and bring it down to the top edge of the lower measurement mark on the mast. Mark it at the intersection point and bring it forward to the forestay and mark the spot where the mark on the jib halyard intersects with the forestay wire. Use a felt pen or the upper edge of a strip of duct tape. Now measure the distance from this mark down to the deck where the forestay is attached. That distance should be in the neighborhood of 52 7/8 inches, which is a starting point for your individual experiments. The caveat: you must have a jib with a long luff (like most newer jibs do.)
Tighter shrouds help you point, but will cost you downwind. Bruno Splieth, one of the winningest Folkboat skippers back in the Sixties, found out by serendipity that a loose mast pumps downwind, making the boat go fast. The right mast trim depends on many factors like sails, crew-weight, stiffness of the spar and sailing style. You have to find out for yourself. Your arse will tell you. If you are not sure, call up a friend in the fleet for some speed testing where the wind is steady and the current is even. Experiment. Keep records. The difference is in the simple stuff everyone can do.

The Dependence of Sail and Jumpers - A Primer in Witchcraft

Uncle Fritz admits that even he was not born smart so he had to learn about the effects of the jumpers on the sail profile from experts. In his case he got an idea in 1980 when he sparred with Horst Werner Schtze, a German Admirals Cup helmsman, and later with Horst Nebel, a sailmaker with North, who collected national titles like others collect beer caps.
Here's the gist: if you have a sail that matches the bending curve of your mast when the jumpers are loose, you hardly ever have to work the backstay upwind, because the depth of the sail profile changes automatically, corresponding to wind pressure. Just get the slack out. If you notice that in an increasing breeze the leech opens too much, making the sail too flat right behind the mast, tweak the jumpers. Indulge in jumper-knowledge since it is a cheap way to pick up some boats.
Few sailors have clued into the dependencies of jumpers tension, wind pressure, sail profile, backstay tension, forestay, and a change in the profile of the jib. A deep profile in the top requires loose jumpers. Sails with a homogenous profile, a continuous depth-to-width ratio, require medium tension. The Folkboat with 17 sqm of main and 7 sqm of jib (nearly a 3:1 ratio) does not need a lot of backstay tension to open the leech of the main, causing it to shed pressure. A strong breeze does this automatically, tightening the forestay in the process. In a building breeze, say at 12 knots, take out the sag.
Once the breeze hits 18, you will notice that the previously straight backstay wire sags again. Why? The mast has bent more, the sail behind it is flatter. Wrinkles. More stuff to worry about. Tighten the downhaul to get them wrinkles out. Look at your jib. This profile has changed too, necessitating a re-adjustment of the jib-sheet. If the wind drops, the mast wants to straighten out again, which means it would add depth to the profile of main and jib. If the backstay stays tight, you throw a wrench into this automatic transmission. The result is devastating since you are sailing an undercanvassed boat to begin with and a tight backstay keeps you from powering up when you need it most.
Another thing to remember: you are shipping a ton of iron in the bottom that needs power to be moved. No power, no speed. No speed and they will pass you because you sail with the PARKING BRAKE on. And those who pass are the ones that understand how and when to shift gears. Unless you have a friend in the sailmaking business or you are a hot-shot, chances are you use a set of sails that are not closely matched to the mast curve. Sailmakers are aiming for the golden compromise, and manufacture their wares so they match an average bend. This puts more focus on the right adjustment of jumpers.
The good news: a lot of different products can work equally well on different masts. The bad news: all those great products invariably suck if you can't find the right mix. Trim sheets are nice, but biased to the sailmaker who writes them. As long as there are wooden masts with different characteristics out there, trim sheets can only point you in a direction. The fine-tuning depends on experience and - again - on measuring and record keeping. Take solace, though. If and when the standardized aluminum masts become ubiquitous, sailing a Folkboat may get dumbed down to the level of the Simpsons, so the cookie-cutter approach may work.

The Vang

This instrument is mainly used for downwind or reaching legs. Some virtuosos on other boats understand how to use it to control the opening of the leech upwind. Downwind the vang generally controls the angle of the boom end, thus regulating the flow of the air that is trapped in the main. This bag-effect is produced by a tight vang and a loose outhaul. New air hits our sail, but moves around the leech without creating that coveted air-flow across the sail's surface.
The solution here is to loosen the vang in a controlled manner to open the top of the leech to give the old air a way out, so the newly arriving air can create flow. Watching the leech and adjusting the vang , if done right, is another cheap way to pick up boats downwind. Compare that to the extremely deep profile of a spinnaker, which is pulled to windward until the top of the leech starts to collapse ever so slightly so the air can flow. Since the omission of reaching legs the sails have become flatter and start to twist sooner.
The boom generally is further towards the middle of the cockpit and the flatter jibs are now sheeted to the cabintop. We need not bother with the barberhauler on the short reach to the offset windward mark - if there is one. It is more critical to forget to ease the backstay going downwind. "Dead downwind even a bale of hay moves." Attributed to Paul Elvstrøm.
What separates us humans from a dumb piece of wood is that we have the means to create some air flow on the leeward side of the main. The trick here is to adjust (shorten) the length of the whiskerpole (with a telescope or an extra loop on the mast) so the leech of the jib effectively becomes the luff and the air flow is re-directed to the lee of the main. Telltales ca. 3 feet above the boom and close to the mast can help to determine the flow.

The Whiskerpole

Presumably a simple vessel like the Folkboat that makes due without a spinnaker - at least in its original configuration - does not hold any mystery for downhill operation. Wrong. Just watch the clumsy footwork on the foredeck displayed by anxious, inexperienced or otherwise challenged crews.
The first thing a rookie learns about foredeck work on a Folkboat is to stand INSIDE the triangle that is formed by the sheets between their leads and the clew of the jib. The second thing: never push the jib, always have it pulled by the sheet from the cockpit. Here is Uncle Fritzen's advice: the foredeck crew stands on the side the pole will point to once it is set. Before the jibe, utilize the lee of the mainsail to get the pole in position. Once the pole is set and the sheet is trimmed, the main goes over. Now the crew ends up on the windward side facing forward, with the pole across the chest.
Other un-smart behavior observed during short reaching portions (to get away from the jam at the windward mark) is crew standing in the slot between jib and main, disrupting the air flow, causing the sail to stall and the boat to slow down. Just how important is the jib downwind? If you know how to work that main while fixing something on the jib, you probably can hold your own for a short while.
Fritz says that Gold Cup winner Dieter Kipcke once changed jibs on the downwind, losing but a couple of boat lengths. Uncle Fritz also spins a yarn about his old buddy Horst Nebel who allegedly changed the main he considered too flat while going downwind. The fantastic part of this saga is that Nebel only lost three boats, which he easily picked up on the next weather leg.
One last word regarding weight trim downwind: don't assume that your crew has to go all the way forward at all cost. Where you put them depends on the weight distribution of your boat, the overall crew weight, the wind and the waves. Nothing slower than pushing the nose through the water, so check the balance and experiment.

The Conclusion

The road to achieving success on the race course can be compared with solid child rearing: not the money will make the difference but the time spent.
Of course, the more time you spend with family, the less you can spend tweaking and sailing your boat. Which is not entirely true because the Folkboat is a family boat, and you can make observations about the effects of trim when you have the missus and the kids along for the ride. But similar to rearing children, cutting corners for better results won't work.
One has to spend time on the water. And it does not have to be on a Folkboat, either. Often more is learned from a crew-job on a well-campaigned boat than from the tedium of empirical trial-and-error efforts. Get a sparring partner. Mark sheets and trim lines so you have a reference. Keep records. A good library of trim notes aids the memory and can save incredible time when you try something different. Even if a new idea does not work out immediately, persistence pays off. And there are few things sweeter than harvesting the fruits of your own labor.