Pointing Higher: Q&A with Mike Ingham

The Dock Talk

By Erica Beck Spencer, Skipper of the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team with Mike Ingham, US Sailing Olympic Coach & Sailmaker with North Sails One Design

I love dock talks at regattas. I sit in the front row, my trusty notebook open, scratching down everything I can (because that is how I remember things best), and am never short on questions to ask the pros.  I’m a regatta nerd. Everything I learn at each dock talk and more goes in that notebook and on more than one occasion someone has approached me to say,  “I want your notebook!”

So, we’re changing the title of this blog to The Dock Talk and the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team hopes to share with you lessons from dock talks, insights we glean from the experts, or learnings from our own experience at regattas.

While dock talks offer a wealth of information to any sailor, they do pose a challenge for even the most seasoned. The answers to questions presented at dock talks are usually just sound bites—a short answer given to maintain the attention of the audience. Responses are not usually detailed enough to change someone’s strategy or sailing practice. To that end, I am thrilled to share something new we’re going to try. Mike Ingham, US Sailing Coach of the year in 2017 and 2018 J24 North American Champion has agreed to do a question-and-answer column with us.  We plan to feature Mike regularly, so we hope you’ll check back often. For today, let’s kick off our first Q&A.

Dock Talk Q&A with Erica Beck Spencer, Skipper of the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team and Mike Ingham, US Sailing Olympic Coach & Sailmaker with North Sails One Design.

Erica: The pros all seem to be able to point higher than me and most of my fellow J24 Corinthians. I've been told it is all about flow over the keel and you can't start pointing higher until you have enough flow. I know a zillion factors affect this pointing ability, but let's talk about the big ones. And for simplification let's say that the breeze is about 8-11 knots (everyone's on the rail but we’re not overpowered.)

Mike: Let’s focus on pointing higher than VMG (Velocity Made Good: practically put VMG= optimum height/ speed angle for making progress upwind) for tactical reasons.  The range between VMG and pointing artificially high is maybe 4 degrees.  Higher than that and the speed drops off way too drastically.  So hopefully that frames the discussion.

Erica:  OK great, so how do you go about pointing high?

Mike: First off, don’t overdo it or it will backfire.  Ease into pointing by gaining speed first.  If someone is right below you (like at a start), you still can’t stick it high too quickly because until flow gets going on your foils (keel and rudder) you will just slide sideways and although your bow will be pointing high, you will go really slow and slide sideways –the worst of both!  I see a lot of people try and point by trimming in their jib hard and although tempting, over-trimming the jib is not the way to point. When pointing considerably higher, especially in lighter winds, the pressure on jib will decrease (think the extreme of luffing) and the jib may get tighter in the leach and we may actually need to ease it.  If trying to point higher by heading up, and your jib leech telltale stalls, you need to ease.

Erica: Sounds slow. I can picture my team getting frustrated with me…

Mike: You mostly get point by simply heading up a little and paying attention to the leech of the main –you get height from over-trimming the main and thus hooking leech. I look at the top leech tale and see what % it is flowing.  If in VMG mode, I might have it stalling 50% of the time.  Then in point mode I would trim it in so it is now stalling 70-80% of the time. Over trimming the main will give you more hook.  If it comes easy with main trim, then great!  But if the hook is hard to come by, ease backstay and possibly vang. Each will straighten the mast and that makes the leech tighter.  Easing cunningham, and outhaul also add some return (hook) and thus leech tension.

Erica: What percentage of your time are you looking at the leech of the main versus the luff of the genoa?

Mike: Even though main trim is super important, I spend most of my time looking at those jib tales and just glance up and read the % stall on the main.  The important tale is the one on the biggest/ most hooked part of the roach. -if you have more than one, it’s the one that stalls first. That leech tale will alternate between flowing and stalling over a few seconds. For example, it may flow for a second, then stall for 2 seconds and translates to around 60-70% stall. I will be watching the jib tales for maybe 15 seconds then I will glance up for those 3 seconds to understand my main trim then go back to looking at the jib tales for 15 seconds and so on. In addition to that, I adjust the main trim whenever there is wind change. For example, if my target is 70% stall, and last I checked I was spot on, but then I get a lull, I will ease main and then look up and fine tune to get it back to 70%.  To circle back and relate this to pointing high, I will do this regardless of pointing, VMG, or footing, but the target stall time is what changes.

Erica:  We talked steering angle, jib, and main trim, what about the other controls?

Mike: Less import for sure, but worth a discussion:

  1. Traveler: Pull the traveler up so the boom is just above centerline.

  2. Heel: Over-flatten the boat.  You need the blades more vertical than usual to get the most lift off your blades.  It’s just a few degrees more than normal.  If you are sailing a round bottom dinghy and sailing with just 2 degrees of heel, then sail absolutely flat  A keelboat you might be sailing with 6 degrees, notch that down to 4 degrees.

  3. More on heel: Flattening the boat also has the added bonus of getting your sail area a bit to windward to help if the reason you are pointing is to get away from the boat to leeward

  4. Controls: I don’t change a lot of the controls.  If I think I will be in point mode for a while, I might fluff up the jib halyard a little and ease the ham.

Erica: Did you just say “fluff up the jib halyard and ease the ham?” Making sure I’m paying attention? ☺

Mike:  Ha, yeah “fluff up” is not a technical term, it means ease the halyard.  Easing the main cunningham “ham” loosens the luff and easing the jib halyard loosens the jib luff.

Erica:  All that discussion was for “ideal” 10kt conditions.  How does all that change when we are overpowered?

Mike: Once overpowered, it’s more about sailing really flat and pinching.  When overpowered the main is already eased so the top tale is always flowing.  You will still need to trim in your main when pointing, but instead of trimming to the main leech tale, you trim to keep the boat at the correct heel.   I rarely look up, instead I focus on the heel, puffs, lulls and waves.

In all conditions, you need a human speedo.  Even if you have some instruments, you still need someone on board to gauge your height/speed ratio.  They should know if you are too high and losing too much speed to make it worth it.  There is such a fine line and for sure you do have to feel it, but your human speedo will give you a visual comparing other boats to give you a sanity check.

Erica: Sometimes I feel I can point for a while but then the wheels fall off.  What’s going on?

Mike: I find pointing a little high (1-4 deg) is ok, but pointing really high (5+deg) is unsustainable. If I really need height for some tactical reason, I look at pointing high as cyclical.   In all conditions, I will over trim and pinch until I feel the boat start to slow then put the bow down and get speed again and so on.  It’s walking a knife’s edge and if you get it wrong by staying high too long it is a disaster!

Erica: In all conditions? Even at the start where every second counts?

Mike: Well, in short, yes, especially in a situation like the start.  But don’t confuse weather conditions with a segment of the race.  When I say “all conditions” I mean all wind conditions. There is always a VMG heading for all wind conditions and I can really get some extra height relative to that but if I go really high I can only hold it for so long before I start to slow.  Racing with waves is a different story, so I guess I did not really mean “all conditions”.

Erica: So, tell me more about height in waves.

Mike: Getting height in waves is super tricky. If you go high at the wrong time, a wave will kill all your speed.  I focus much of my attention at the upcoming waves, but I find it super helpful to have a teammate call flat spots so I know when I can point.  I often can see waves just fine and can deal with them, what I can’t see is a nice flat spot, so I often prefer my teammate calling flat spots and really bad waves, but not all the little waves.

Erica: This is brilliant Mike, thank you so much. I know I learned a lot and hope others will too.  I learn best when I have easy slogans to remind myself of key points. Some of my Mike Ingham takeaways are:

  1. To point gain speed first

  2. Point off the leech of the main

  3. A flat boat moves sails to windward

  4. Call flat spots