Editor’s Note: From Sailing World, December 1996. Mike Mills is the 1996 505 Midwinter champion crew and a private sailing coach.
No other crew has more power and control over the balance of a boat than a crew on the wire. And in trapeze dinghies, speed is all about balance. Imagine yourself as a perfect lever: strapped in a harness, your righting moment and raw strength have more than tripled. Every tiny movement affects the boat tremendously. You’re a force! With so much power, you need to develop your mechanical skills so they are clean, smooth and precise.
Upwind on the wire, a number of simple body adjustments will keep the boat balanced. Being on your feet allows you to move and adjust your weight very quickly.
Learn to gauge your upwind fore-and-aft body placement by observing how the bow of the boat enters the water. In lighter trapezing conditions, you should move forward to dig the bow in and help the boat point higher. As the breeze builds, you should move aft to get the bow out and the boat planing. In big breeze and waves, I find it very effective to step back and forth approximately 6 to 12 inches, using my forward foot to push the bow down over waves. Experiment with moving your weight around to find out how it affects the helm and what feels good to your skipper.
Ideal foot position upwind is feet together, on your tiptoes, trapping off the balls of your feet. To gain stability in rougher seas, turn your forward foot 90 degrees, placing the length of your foot along the rail. This gives you a tripod effect. Center your weight equally over both feet. If you fall backward, have the skipper give you a shoulder check at the knees to straighten you up. If you fall forward, grab your skipper’s lifejacket to stop your forward motion.
Foot position inside the boat is equally important. In many trapeze dinghies, there’s a centerboard trunk and thwart that divide the crew’s area into four quadrants. One of the keys to being a good dinghy crew is being able to dance in your quadrants. When tacking in breeze, you will stay in the aft quadrants. When jibing and sailing in lighter air, you’ll need to step into the forward quadrants. If you’re having problems with your balance in the boat, take a time out and analyze where you’re putting your feet.
I like to use trap wires that are short enough so that, in the lightest trapping conditions, I can raise the trapeze bail until I am just sitting on the tank while hooked in. This allows me to transition from sitting on the tank to trapping off the centerboard trunk very smoothly. Why do you want to trap off the centerboard trunk rather than just hiking hard? As puffs hit, they bend the mast tip to leeward, depowering the main. Because the trapeze wire attaches higher than the shrouds, the crew’s weight counteracts the pressure from the breeze, keeping the mast straight and giving you power in marginal conditions.
As the puffs get bigger, I move from the centerboard cap to the rail with my forward foot first. Once your toes are on the rail, concentrate on finding a happy medium between adjusting your body in and out and your trap height up and down. Moving in and out is preferable, because it is quicker and smoother. Be careful, however, not to extend out or crouch in too quickly or too much. Adjustments of a few inches are usually enough in marginal conditions.
Trap height is your secondary adjustment because its harder, slower and can bounce the rig. As it gets windier, concentrate on keeping the boat completely flat, but not heeled to windward. Keep an eye on how far in the main is trimmed and where the skipper is sitting, so you know whether the boat is over- or underpowered. Keep levering down until you are completely horizontal for maximum righting moment and full power. Lower yourself until you’re almost hitting the waves.
The crew’s goal in a tack is to switch the jib and cross the boat smoothly and efficiently. In light wind, you’ll need to concentrate more on roll tacking and skipper/crew balance. In the breeze, getting out on the wire immediately is the priority.
The key to wire-to-wire tacking is to be smooth at transferring yourself on and off the wire, and tiptoeing inside the boat. The stronger your arms and hands are, the easier the transitions will be.
As the tack begins, come in with your forward hand supporting your body from the trap handle and your aft hand easing the jib. When you lift your weight off the trapeze, the bail should slip off your harness hook automatically. Land softly with both feet in the old windward/aft quadrant.
As you cross the centerboard trunk, face forward, stepping first with your new forward foot. Using your old forward hand, grab the new jibsheet right at the cleat. Duck under the boom and reach for the trap wire above the handle with your free hand.
At this point, you should have both feet in the new windward/aft quadrant. As you pivot and start to move out to the rail, cleat the jib sheet. This should get the jib most of the way in and free up your aft hand. Simultaneously, lift your body onto the wire with your forward hand and push off the centerboard trunk with your aft foot to get out onto the rail, using your aft hand to hook in.
You’ve made it. If you’ve remembered to tie the jibsheets to the trapeze handles, you can now fine tune the jib trim with both hands.
Off the Breeze
Downwind, with surfing possible and the range of boatspeed larger, your balance and quickness are put to the test. The skills are similar to upwind, but the experience is more extreme.
Place your feet at shoulder width for stability, centering your weight more over your aft foot. Don’t hesitate to walk fore and aft on the rail, much like a longboard surfer. If you can move your weight forward into the trough of the wave, the boat will follow. In big breeze and waves, I move as much as 3 feet to induce surfing.
On tight, breezy reaches, keep your weight aft and as low as possible on the wire. Trim the chute primarily with your aft hand and use your forward hand to raise and lower the trapeze.
The goal on breezy runs is going low and fast, keeping the crew on the wire and the boat planing, yet sailing as low as possible. You should trap high on the wire, adjusting your weight to heel to windward and head down in waves and puffs, and heel to leeward to head up in lulls. When you’re trapping, you have the tremendous ability to steer the boat with your weight and keep it on its feet for maximum power. Crews and skippers that work their weight and trim well together in these conditions can make huge gains.