Picture this: your team is sailing upwind in four knots of wind and progress is slow and hard to come by. Now it is time to tack shy of the layline and make the trek across the course toward the mark in the dying westerly wind. Going into the tack your team moves smoothly to the high side and rolls the boat, the headsail is slightly back-winded to help the bow turn. The boat smoothly turns through the wind and the sail fills on the new side. Both sails remained eased out as the boat goes into speed build first gear mode and then the boat is smoothly flattened as the sails are trimmed in once the boat is fully accelerated. All goes well and the team almost breathes a collective sigh of relief as the boat gets going toward the mark.
The value of practice and coordination of roll tacking can be the ultimate game changing maneuver. When well executed, a team can cross the fleet; if poorly executed, they may have to duck five boats only to find themselves in a dogfight.
Like any maneuver on the race course, tacking involves spending a varying amount of distance to get going in the other direction. In light air the loss is magnified in boat lengths while the boat gets up to speed. The purpose of the roll tack is to minimize the loss and provide the best possible performance during the tack.
The roll tack comes into its own in light air as it helps the foils reattach flow and the sails to power up. The time to stop roll tacking is when you are hiking as the boat has all the power it needs.
Part of the skill and art of sailboat racing is choosing the right time to try tacking. Ideally it’s done at full speed, in the flattest water possible and preferably in a puff of wind or in the best breeze possible all in the name of minimizing the loss. A lot of tacticians will tell you it never seems to like the right time to tack in light air, particularly in heavier boats, but following the procedure described above will help a lot.
Practice and Polish
There really is no substitute for practice when it comes to roll tacking. The challenge is even greater for bigger boat teams who have to coordinate more crew to get across from side to side in an orderly way and on time throughout the maneuver.
Like so many aspects of sailing, a team needs to find its own rhythm and timing. On my team, we always try to get out before the start as early as we can and practice roll tacking so that we are on the same page with body movement, helming and sail trim. At the start it is usually rough around the edges and in need of polishing, but after a while we start to flow and roll tacking becomes more and more automatic.
Here are some ideas to help with your own roll tack practice sessions.
Identify a Roll Tack Leader
On boats with three or more crew, it is good to appoint a roll tack (and jibe) leader, someone who can give the team a countdown of when to roll and when to flatten. This person would call out “3, 2, 1, roll. 3, 2, 1, flatten”. On bigger boats with five or more crew, the number of crew who stay to leeward and come up to the high side and flatten will vary based on the wind velocity.
On some boats the pathway for crew members to get from side to side can be tricky. Those with the harder pathway (at maximum beam for instance or around a hatchway) should be given a head start on crossing sides so they can be in synch with crew that have an easier cross.
The goal is to roll as a unit, all together in a collective effort. Solo sailors are very glad not to have to do all this. On the other hand, they only have themselves to evaluate for how good the tack was.
Pre-Roll Unloads the Sails
It’s important to note that it is not faster to do a “pre-roll” or for the crew to move to leeward to heel the boat over to initiate the tack, as all that does is unload and depower the sails.
If you are on the leeward side, head to the high side as a unit to roll the boat as the boat starts tacking and the headsail starts to luff.
Marginal Hiking Conditions
If you are on the high side already in light to moderate air where there is no hiking but weight is on the windward side, then simply roll the boat and then go and flatten it once the tack is completed.
Let Crew Observe and Evaluate
On bigger boats when we are practicing, we drop one crew out of the maneuver and have them watch the roll tack from the stern to evaluate the whole procedure and see where they fit both timing wise and spatially.
In very light air, the flatten portion of the maneuver needs to be more gentle and subtle so as not to disrupt the airflow too much. If the velocity increases a few knots, the flatten can be more aggressive to get the boat to accelerate and ignite the leeches of the sails to power up.
From my perspective as a coach, I typically advise teams to practice not over doing the flattening of the boat in very light air out of the tack. Often a team is too keen to trim the sails in before the boat is up to speed yet. On bigger boats, I try to get teams to practice moving as a unit from one side of the boat to the other and finding the best pathways for team members to effectively cross from side to side.
I will never forget coaching a Woman’s J24 team in Japan. They sailed with seven crew members, and the seventh person went through the space between the vang and the mast. Do not try this at home! Most of us are glad to just make it from one side to the other. This team went on to win the Japanese National Championships in great style.
Roll Tacking Step by Step
First, the team moves to the high side from the low side. The bow person sits in the companion way and will roll tack from there, typically they will roll down below in very light air but if the team is right at the weather mark at the time, the skipper trims the mainsail in about one inch to help the boat head up.
Next, the team rolls the boat to windward to help accentuate the apparent wind across the sails and minimize rudder drag.
The headsail is back winded some to help the bow turn through the wind.
Finally, the boat is flattened in the appropriate manner and rate. In the case of light winds of 3-4 knots, all that is needed is for the skipper to move up to the high side.
The mainsheet is eased a couple of inches once the tack is completed and the Genoa is at 85% trim. Once the boat is fully up to speed the sails are smoothly trimmed into together. My term for this is “ease and squeeze”.
On boats with knot logs, it is really helpful for the trimmer to call out the speed build so the skipper knows how long to stay bow down and in speed build mode before starting to point (if the speed is there).
In all instances, you want to be smooth and synchronized, so the next time you look over your shoulder and think “we can cross the fleet if we do a good roll tack here,” with good preparation and practice, you will!