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Tactical weapon.

In the second of our Seamanship Series, we focus on the role of the mainsheet trimmer: the person in charge of one the biggest "engines" on any racing yacht. Chris Harm sen wrangles one of the largest and most complicated mains on the water, onboard Wild Oats XI. To give some context; Oats' North 3Di at 374 square metres, is roughly the size of seven-and-a-half Farreo mains. Here he gives us his valuable insights into what is sometimes referred to as the dark art of trimming.


"You only get to trim if the rig is pointing skywards." Modern rigs are ^H big, light, high-tech and highly adjustable, so understanding and agreeing the load ranges that I can be applied to each control is critical before you even think about hoisting a sail. Sit down with the rig designers, hydraulics experts and the grey hairs, and go over each detail of the safe and maximum rig loads for every sail and wind combination. Print them on cards, display then somewhere highly visible on deck, and don't go outside the ranges when sailing. And put guide marks on the mainsheet, runners, halyards and other controls so you know the safe settings, even when you can't see the displays. Above all else, keep an eye on loads for runners, and check the stays, including the combined load on all active forestays.


Within eyesight of a main trimmer are typically over 40 numbers on display: on the back of the mast, on the hatchway and on the mainsheet pod, and more if you decide to switch pages. So it's very easy to get too technical and distracted. Talk to the experts around you on the helm and traveller and agree what targets to really care about. Typically, boat speed is up there, so make sure someone is providing regular updates on target speeds. Apparent wind angle is a great guide when reaching, and rudder angle is also a really good sign that you're in or out of balance. Once you've simplified life a bit, get your head up and watch the sail. It's amazing how close you can get to optimum performance just by getting depth and twist looking about right without staring at the numbers.


In busy manoeuvres on a big boat, you may have up to four people working around the main alone, with separate people responsible for the mainsheet, traveller, main winch and hydraulic settings. In addition, you need to coordinate with the afterguard for runner load, and with the pit/foredeck as sails change. These manoeuvres go well when you talk through them in advance, everyone I is in position, and you focus on doing your job rather than trying to tell others how to do theirs. In straight-line sailing, you're faced with different challenges. As a main trimmer facing inwards and protected from the bad waves (a benefit), you don't get to see the wind pressure changing or the waves coming (a disadvantage), so make sure there's always a loud voice on the rail providing you with this intel.


The flow around the mainsail is shaped by the flow coming off the front sails--headsails upwind, and the bigger gear downwind. On high-performance boats the apparent wind is always forward, so the mainsail is always loaded up and rarely outside the rail. Using this power well means getting the front and back sails coordinated, and requires clear and frequent communication. A really simple way to do this is to agree with the helmsman and tactician what mode you need to sail. Upwind use "high", "VMG" or "fast" mode, and downwind use "VMG" or a compass heading. Make sure you regularly check in with the helmsman and tactician to confirm the mode, and once agreed, give regular "mode" updates to the headsail trimmer who typically can't hear the afterguard conversation, being much further up the boat and often to leeward in the noisy wind slot.


A great opportunity to repeat the "eyes up" message. Keeping the mast in column in both straight-line sailing and in manoeuvres is critical for performance and to W keep you in the race. A big rig typically shouldn't a bend more than one fore-aft length of the mast section, but equally, must never invert. If your mainsail is built well, the luff round will fit the optimum mast bend, so while people around you may be busy adjusting check-stays, tack loads, runners or other settings, the person hanging onto the mainsheet must be looking up. If the main looks too flat, it's run out of luff round and the mast is too bent. If the main is way too full, stop any adjustments immediately because you've just inverted the mast. Back off the loads, work out what went wrong and start again.


Regardless of the result, finish each race knowing you have done everything possible to succeed. Ashore, be responsible for everything that moves and doesn't move around your area. Go inside the boat and check the structures under the winches, blocks and traveller, and follow each control line from end to end, including under the floorboards to check the blocks, rams and string-pods. It may be someone else who's managing maintenance on the boat, but it's the main trimmer who's responsible if things don't work. Afloat, view each watch as a sprint. Concentrate, communicate and work as a team. Take a mid-watch break if you can to freshen up. There are likely to be many others capable of doing your job as well as you so ask them to fill in for a few minutes. Their fresh perspective often identifies a one-percenter that improves performance.


Being a mainsheet trimmer is a privilege. You're in the middle of the action, right next to the helmsman and part of a team responsible for a pretty big power plant. Prepare well and enjoy.


Chris Harmsen grew up in Tasmania, and loved sailing at the Sandy Bay Sailing Club in Hobart. His racing achievements speak for his skill, attutide and preparation:

* competed in two America's Cup Challenges as sail trimmer (1983--Challenge 12, Newport RI; 1987--Kookaburra, Perth)

* achieved two world championship titles (12m for main trimming; maxis as tactician)

* been ranked #1 world match racing team three years in a row with Peter Gilmour, mainly as main trimmer

* won 14 international event titles and four Australian titles (including 18' skiffs on Prudential, Laser Youths, Match Racing, Dragons)

* competed in a total of 18 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races, and won line honours on Tasmania in 1995 and Wild Oats seven times (2005-13), including two race records (no longer) and two handicap wins (mostly as main trimmer).


Her massive mainsail poised to be eased; Wild Oats XI reels in her rivals.
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Title Annotation:SEAMANSHIP
Author:Harmsen, Chris
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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