How to Tack a Race Yacht


“Medium” winds will vary from yacht to yacht but would be considered Force 3 to 5 for an average 36-48 foot cruiser racer.


Apart from sail hoisting the tack is usually the first manoeuvre a yacht sailor ever learns. As sailors develop onto more advanced skills the tack is often neglected when it comes to training. In the racing environment it is crucial that tacking is efficient. The aim of every tack is for the boat to go through the wind loosing minimum boat speed and for the yacht to be sailing at full speed and best course as soon as possible on the other side. When racing I like to tack by numbers, a description is laid out below.

Sailing upwind will have the crew sat on the windward rail; most will have their legs over the side and be hiking out. Only the mainsheet trimmer/traveller man and helm will be facing into the boat. The hatch cover is pulled shut and the lazy headsail sheet is ready. Before the tach the helm/main timer will ensure the yacht is sailing at full efficiency. If you gp into the tach slow you will come out slower so take a few second to ensure the boat is sailing fast before you commence the tack

1. Tactician or skipper makes the decision to tack, he tells the helm and then informs the crew with the command “Ready About.” The bowman will give “a thumbs up,” to indicate he has heard. The rest of the crew need only reply if they are not ready. From here on the helm sets the pace being mindful of how well the crew are doing

2. The headsail trimmer comes into the cockpit checking the new winch is made, the winch handle in and the slack taken up. He crosses to the other side, removes the handle, un-cleats the sheet, takes one turn off the winch while telling the helm he is ready. Meanwhile the crew on the rail are preparing to come in but are still keeping that crucial weigh out.

3. The helm picks his moment, shouts ‘tacking’ and begins to turn the wheel, the bowman moves in and forward of the mast (or through the triangular gap between vang, boom and mast), the new headsail tailer comes in to the cockpit taking the new sheet. As the yacht starts to turn up to the wind the traveller man will be pulling the main traveller up to windward to keep drive in the sail.

4. As pressure comes of the headsail the trimmer dumps the sheet and ensures no kinks appear in it and it runs freely. As the boat flattens the crew come in and quickly cross the coach roof. The helm starts to centre the wheel to reduce its braking effect in the water. The bowman is ready to help the headsail around the front of the mast if required. As the boat reaches head to wind the mainsheet man eases the sheet 25-35cm and un-cleats the old traveller.

5. The new job tailer is pulling the headsail round and the new trimmer is starting to winch. The old trimmer having cleared the old winch has moved onto what is becoming the windward rail. The bowman is ready to skirt the foot of the headsail if required. The traveller man is taking in the new side and pulling the main back up to windward and more importantly pulling the boom to the centre line. The rest of the crew are onto the new rail.

6. The helm takes the boat 5-10 degrees past close hauled straightening the wheel as he does, the headsail trimmer has grinded the sail all but 20 cm in, the crew are by now hiking out on the new side, the traveller has been eased back down the track slightly to induce speed.

7. As boat speed builds the helm takes the boat back up hard onto the wind, the traveller is brought back up and both sails tensioned. The new trimmer can now move up to the windward side.

8. The trimmer preps the lazy winch and sheet for the next tack.



Calls the tack, choosing a moment when he has good speed and a flatter patch of water.
The helm turns the boat until it reaches head to wind, as the main looses power he needs to slow down the turn. On the new side he must not pinch until speed is up again or we will stall. However as we reach Force 5 the helm will need to pinch slightly as we come out of the tack to allow the trimmer to grind in the headsail, as soon as its nearly in he will bear of slightly for speed.


The crew need to move from one side to the other quickly, their weight is required on the new rail as the main is filling on the new side. They must not leave the old side until the boat flattens
The first rail crew across needs to ensure the old sheet has not caught on anything and free it if it does.
The rail crew may need to agree an order for crossing and then stick to it.


As we come out of a tack the sails must not be tensioned the last bit until boat speed has picked up.
The Genoa must not be left flapping or it may get caught or damaged.
Equally it must not be eased too early. The point to dump it is just as the pressure comes of and its about to back.
The old sheet must be free to run, the easiest way is to keep a half turn on the winch and run it through your hand.


The traveller is pulled up to windward as we go into the tack to keep the main filled, it is also pulled up to windward on the new side as we pass head to wind to help the main fill early.
As soon as the main has filled the traveller is eased to encourage speed as the helm bears of slightly.

On smaller yachts up to about Force 3/4 the same person will often do main trimming and traveller.


The bowman helps the headsail round (if required), skirts the foot and returns to the rail.

Good clean tacks will make a huge difference. It is a skill i always work on when coaching. It is surprising how many tacticians are reluctant to take the benefit of wind shifts as they feel they lose too much ground each time they tack.

Race Skipper
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