Spring Refresher: Basic Sail Trim


There is an abundance of books and articles out there written about the single topic of sail trim.  It occupies every sailors mind at some point – regardless of whether you identify yourself as a racer, cruiser, daysailor or simply just a sailor.

I recently sat down with Koralina Pior, J World Annapolis Coach and the Chesapeake Boating Clubs’s Baltimore Fleet Manager. I wanted to see how she talks to her students about sail trim.

KB:  Koralina, sail trim is a fairly broad topic.  In your opinion, what is the most basic way to understand sail trim?

KP:  “I often asked myself “how can I ever master such a complex skill?” Every time I go sailing I learn a little more about sail trim which leads me to believe mastery is over-rated, and learning is continuous. None-the-less I have learned a plethora of tips, tricks, and acronyms, over the years, to keep it all straight.

The most common phrase related to sail trim is simply:

“When in doubt, let it out”

In my experience it’s a great place to start; however I’ve altered this long time saying to read “When in doubt, let it out- If it’s luffing, it must come in”

KB:  I love that phrase and use the same one.  It works from Opti’s to ocean cruisers.  When I teach the same concept I say “when in doubt let it out.  If you are often in doubt you are rarely in error.” But “letting it out” is a pretty gross trim concept,  how can you use it to refine trim?

KP: “It’s easier to explain and understand if we break it down into two parts:

  • Main trim: “When in doubt, let it out- If it’s luffing, it must come in” works excellent here. As we get more advanced we learn that when we go up wind keeping the boom running along the center line of the boat will give us the greatest amount of lift towards the wind.  As we head down off the wind we want to keep easing the sail to the brink of luffing as we turn. You can make sure you have the appropriate trim by easing your mainsheet and few inches and seeing if your sail luffs. If it does then pull it back in and you know you have the right trim. If it does not luff then you know it’s over trimmed and needs to be eased out some more. Generally speaking at the run/broad reach angle we want the sail just off the shrouds. This technique will prolong the life of your sail by not creating a “wear spot”.
  • Jib trim: “Outside tell-tale, let it out- Inside tell-tale, pull it in” The basic idea here is you want to trim or ease the sail to the “tattling tell-tale”.  If you are thinking “Huh?” Let me explain: If you’re sailing on the port tack (wind is coming over your port side, the sails are on the starboard side) the outside tell-tale is the one on the starboard side of the sail, closer to the outside of the boat. The inside tell-tale is the one on the port side of the sail, more inboard. The term tattling refers to the tell-tales tendency to wiggle, or sway uncontrollably.

So if your sailing along on the outside tell-tale is tattling you would want ease the sail out toward that outside tell-tale.  Thus I like the saying: “Outside tell-tale, let it out- Inside tell-tale, pull it in”

KB:  Are there any good tricks for remembering proper jib trim?

KP:  “Yes! Using the tell-tales is the easiest way to get perfect jib trim every time. The tell-tales are your “tell tale” symbols on your jib to help you refine its trim when sailing on a beam reach or above. Usually they are pieces of yarn colored red and green on either side of your jib (but not always I’ve seen blue instead of green).

So you’ve picked your direction and set your sails (using the tips above to help) and now you want to sit back and drive your boat to that trim. This is often what we do when we are sailing close-hauled or just out for fun with friends.  It’s easy and only takes small adjustment of your wheel or tiller to keep your boat cruising forward.

  • Tiller driven boats: “Tiller towards the tattling tell-tale” This means if your starboard tell-tale is wiggling around push/pull your tiller to starboard side until that tell-tale settles down and streams aft (towards the back of your boat).
  • Wheel Steered Boats: “Turn away from trouble.”  This means if you starboard tell-tale is wiggling around you want to steer to port.  Be careful though, if you steer too far you will cause your port telltale to wiggle.
KB:  These are some great tips to get us thinking about sail trim.  If someone was interested in learning more what would you tell them?

KP: “I really hope you found this helpful. At J World we fully endorse a life of learning, amongst our staff and our students. So, if you have any questions feel free to comment below. We would be happy to explain anything further. We also cover this material in 1hr, 3hr, and full day formats under the title of “Sail Trim and Balance”. Just e-mail us for more information on the full length version.”

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