Sailing Small Circles

Sailing Small Circles

Small Circles

This is one of the most difficult Junior skills, and it's quite important. But why is it important? In real life, how many  small circles are you going to do? Probably none, after you pass the Junior Test. But you probably will need to do fast turns upwind or downwind, and do fast tacks and gybes, possibly to avoid disaster (like hitting something). And maybe with newbie crew. Think about approaching the dock on a big south wind and getting turned in the wrong direction (like into the sea wall). That's what this maneuver is about. You may never do another full circle in your life, but you may need one or more of the maneuver's components.

The maneuver is also a stress test of your sailing skills. You have to do a bunch of things quickly and competently without time to think - they have to be instinctive. It's also a stress test of your crew communications skills for the same reason.

A real circle?

First of all, it's not really a circle. We think of it as looking like this, here counter-clockwise around a buoy:

b2ap3_thumbnail_Small-Circles-Ideal-Circle.jpg

But you can't actually sail a circle like that and stay powered through it, as your sails stop working when you're within 45 degrees of the true wind. What you're sailing is more like this, assuming you enter downwind of the buoy and do a tack first:

b2ap3_thumbnail_Small-Circles-Path-You-Sail.jpg

How you do it

Here's the sequence:

1. You come into the circle just downwind of the buoy (here I show it on a close reach, but it doesn't have to be).
2. When you're close to the buoy, you sail as high as you can keeping the buoy just to windward. Stay powered - don't pinch.
3. You sail on this line until you can tack and clear the buoy to leeward.
4. As soon as the buoy is directly abeam (about at the the middle of your boat), you do a quick downwind turn.
5. Gybe as soon as you're clear of the buoy downwind.
6. Make a fast upwind turn to repeat the cycle.

Fast upwind and downwind turns

These are key parts of the maneuver, but often they don't get taught. Recently, I've been using this exercise to work on them before the student tries the circles:

1. Go to a broad reach.
2. Turn as fast as you can to close hauled without tacking or luffing
3. Turn as fast as you can to a broad reach without gybing
4. Repeat many times

Typically, the student will make a quick move with the rudder and not much else on the first try. On the second try, I'll grab the mainsheet falls and yank the sail in hard as the upwind turn starts. The results are impressive - the boat turns a lot faster and tighter. On the downwind turn, I'll hike out to windward, with similarly impressive results.

Now the student does a series of these, pulling the main in fast on the upwind turn, and releasing it and hiking out hard on the downwind turn.

Note that both of these are techniques from rudderless sailing that assist when you have a rudder - sheeting the main turns the boat to windward (and not releasing it quickly when you turn downwind
slows your turn). Hiking out to windward turns the boat to leeward.

My experience is that after a few sets of this exercise on both tacks, small circles is fairly easy - you're just adding a tack and a gybe.

Putting It All Together

So the modified instructions are these:

1. You come into the circle just downwind of the buoy.
2. When you're close to the buoy, you sail as high as you can keeping the buoy just to windward. Stay powered - don't pinch.
3. You sail on this line until you can tack and clear the buoy to leeward.
4. As soon as the buoy is directly abeam (about at the the middle of your boat), you do a quick downwind turn. Release the mainsheet completely, and hike out hard to windward.
5. Gybe as soon as you're clear of the buoy downwind.
6. Make a fast upwind turn to repeat the cycle. Pull in hard on the mainsheet (at the falls) and hike out as necessary to balance the boat.

Controlling the mainsheet

As you can see, you have to quickly sheet the main in and out, and the usual way (pulling it quickly through the cleat or releasing it quickly) doesn't work so well. It's fairly slow, and the main can easily get fouled in the blocks or cleat. It's easier and quicker to work with the main fully out through the circle - either blow it (release) before entering the circle or on the first downwind turn. From that point on, control it on the falls, just as you do in slow sailing. It's much quicker, and it doesn't hang up.

There's just one problem with this. When you're slow sailing (docking or crew overboard), you're never carrying a lot of speed, and so you don't have to hike out to balance the boat. Here you do in stronger winds. If you just grab the falls, all in one hand, you won't be able to get your weight out to windward. A better technique is to control the sheet by grabbing just one of the falls, as shown here for a Bahia:

b2ap3_thumbnail_Laser-Mainsheet-Rigging.jpg

The sheet goes back and forth around four blocks (to give you mechanical advantage when you pull on the end of the sheet by the cleat) and then it's tied off to a fitting on the U-bar. If you follow the line back through the first block and then grab the part of the line that comes from it, you will be able to control the mainsheet easily (but without any mechanical advantage), and you will be able to hike out. This part of the line is labeled "Next 'Fall Line' After One Leading to Knot." A given boat may be rigged a little differently than this diagram, but just find where the end of the mainsheet is, and then locate the next fall line over.

The Jib

If you were doing large circles, you'd have your crew manage the jib in the normal way - sheeting in going upwind, pulling it across on the tack and gybe, and sheeting out downwind. That way you'd get the most power from the jib all the time.

But in small circles, you don't really need the power, except on the close-hauled portion (where you also need the jib trimmed correctly to point as high as you can). And your crew will be really busy moving their weight around, so the added work of managing the jib can be both tiring and a distraction.

So the answer - just say no. When you enter the circle on a close-hauled line, trim the jib tight. From that point on, don't touch it. On the tack, the jib will back, giving you a tighter tack (which is good, but you need to be prepared for it). On the quick downwind turn, the backed jib will be less efficient than one set normally, but who cares? It will still help turn you downwind, but the real power in the turn is from your weight. When you come out of the gybe, the jib is set up optimally for the close-hauled line on the next circle.

Here's what it looks like:

b2ap3_thumbnail_Small-Circles-Path-with-Boat.jpg

Crew Communication

In some respects, it's easier to do small circles single-handed or with your crew in the Princess Seat not moving. You're in complete control of the weight balance, and if you apply the techniques described above, it will happen. But in the Junior Test (and in real life), you have to rely on your crew, and your crew may be inexperienced. You have to get them to do what you need them to do quickly, and then quickly move on to the next phase, and the phase after, etc. This is a stress test of your crew communication - you need communicate quickly and effectively, telling them neither too much nor too little, and getting them to do it exactly when you need it. On the Junior Test, you have the advantage of being able to brief them on the maneuver ahead of time, telling them what they'll need to do in each part (succinctly enough that they remember it, but with everything important). In real life, you won't have that luxury. You have to communicate quickly and well.

Go for Perfection

Practice it on your own and with crew. Get the Day Leader to set up a buoy for you close to the wind line (if you're a Novice) or farther out (if you're a Junior). Try to get your circles under a boat length (much better than than Junior requirement, but we're aiming for perfection here).

Remember and Use It

If you're doing a Crew Overboard (simulated or real), you have to do a fast tack with a fast upwind turn. You now know how to do that, so use it.

You may have to do a fast tack or fast gybe to avoid hitting something, so you now know how to make a tight turn upwind or downwind.

And remember - there's a corrollary of Murphy's Law that applies when you're at the dock heading for the sea wall after zillions of perfect dockings. By the corrollary, the only time you screw up, there will be at least 5 club members on the bench watching you. But you know how to pull it out. They should be applauding.

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Comments 5

Michael Sherrell on Thursday, 07 April 2016 06:50

John, do the instructions vary by wind speed? What wind speed are these instructions optimal for?

John, do the instructions vary by wind speed? What wind speed are these instructions optimal for?
John Bongiovanni on Thursday, 07 April 2016 17:35

I think in any wind speeds where small circles make sense (that is, approaching 10 knots and more).

In talking to people, the one thing that they sometimes debate is keeping the jib backed.

What's your experience here? What do you do differently, or what do you think works better?

I think in any wind speeds where small circles make sense (that is, approaching 10 knots and more). In talking to people, the one thing that they sometimes debate is keeping the jib backed. What's your experience here? What do you do differently, or what do you think works better?
Michael Sherrell on Thursday, 07 April 2016 20:23

No, I think this is great. Actually made me rethink my own technique, such as it is, for which, thanks!

No, I think this is great. Actually made me rethink my own technique, such as it is, for which, thanks!
John Bongiovanni on Thursday, 07 April 2016 21:03

BTW, the real break-through for me on teaching this was realizing that I could break it down. I tried the fast-upwind/fast-downwind exercise with several students, and it seemed to work well. I had also noticed that some didn't understand the upwind part of the maneuver - they tried to sail a circle, but got headed.

Lonnie pointed out something to me. When you're doing this correctly (i.e., very close to the buoy), you're not turning very fast, and so you don't have the gybe/round-up/capsize problem. This makes perfect sense. The farther you're out, the faster you're going, the more you're going to lean over on the gybe/upwind turn part. Now in real life, when you have to make a quick gybe turn, you're going fast, and so you have to hike out to avoid swimming. And centerboard up and vang loose, if you can get your crew to do it in time.

BTW, the real break-through for me on teaching this was realizing that I could break it down. I tried the fast-upwind/fast-downwind exercise with several students, and it seemed to work well. I had also noticed that some didn't understand the upwind part of the maneuver - they tried to sail a circle, but got headed. Lonnie pointed out something to me. When you're doing this correctly (i.e., very close to the buoy), you're not turning very fast, and so you don't have the gybe/round-up/capsize problem. This makes perfect sense. The farther you're out, the faster you're going, the more you're going to lean over on the gybe/upwind turn part. Now in real life, when you have to make a quick gybe turn, you're going fast, and so you have to hike out to avoid swimming. And centerboard up and vang loose, if you can get your crew to do it in time.
Nathan Ilten on Monday, 11 April 2016 17:26

Thanks for a great post, John!

By the way, small circles get done all the time in "real life"! Foul someone on the race course and you have to do a 360 degree turn (according to CSC racing rules. ISF rules call for a 720). If you've got your small circles down for your junior test, you'll take the penalty in stride.

Thanks for a great post, John! By the way, small circles get done all the time in "real life"! Foul someone on the race course and you have to do a 360 degree turn (according to CSC racing rules. ISF rules call for a 720). If you've got your small circles down for your junior test, you'll take the penalty in stride.