Sailing the Europe

Downwind Technique by Lars Johan Brodtkorb

Key elements in a downwind:

- wind; direction and strength

- waves; direction and speed as well as length between each wave crest

- trim; sail, centerboard, elastic (JC Strap)

- technique; body movement, steering, sheeting

- mental; cohesiveness between sheeting, steering, heel and body movement. Understanding of where to move and where to steer. Balance.

- tactics and strategy; where to go, with and without other competitors

- physical; muscle memory, agility and general ability to perform the needed movements.

If you nail these down you, will become a great sailor.

Some pointers for downwind sailing.

1. Surfing is top priority. 'Of course it is' you say! 'Not so fast' I say...

The goal is continuous surfing, every time the bow goes up (meaning you fell off the wave) you have something to improve! The waves usually determine the downwind potential. You want to follow the speed of the waves, going higher angles is not a problem as long as you stay on the wave surfing. The lighter wind strength the harder this becomes.

For each athlete the critical surfing conditions are different. A very light sailor will more easily catch a wave, but a heavier sailor has more mass to move around. This gives the heavier sailor a benefit when a quick moment transfer is necessary to stay on a wave (pushing to leeward with all your mass for instance). The reason for technique work is to lower the condition of surfing to the minimum. On the downwind everyone is closer starting out. Good technique trumps all.

2. Stay calm, work with the boat.

Every time the boat starts to heel you want to work with this heel to generate more force and accelerate. If fear of capsize creeps in it will most certainly work against the goal of speed. Feel the boat and let it do it's thing. The boat is more stable than you think, even heeling 45 degrees will not cause a capsize as long as you are balanced, sometimes this is the way to go, in fact! A useful tip here is to follow principle 4 below! If you get a big windward heel the correct rudder movement is to pull it towards you! Pushing the rudder away exaggerates the problem and will capsize the boat!

3. One right movement at the right time can be enough.

Looking at a fast sailor it may seem like they are not doing anything, and at other times it looks like they are doing way too much. This is almost certainly because of the great feel for the elements they are working with. A small nudge of the foot or pull of the sail can be enough to stay surfing for the next 5 seconds until a new action is required.

4. Leeward heel means heading up and sheeting in. Windward heel means bearing away and sheeting out.

The windward roll should be a smaller heel than the leeward because the windward deck will hit the wave while you are crossing, creating turbulence. It should also be initiated only once you are sure you are on the wave, to keep the wind in the sail as long as possible.

If you follow this principle you can steer the boat with your feet and heel of the boat. The rudder is only a foil, any excessive movement results in turbulence and is a deal-breaker for speed. You want to look out for turbulence when you are sailing downwind as well as upwind. Look behind the transom and try to minimize the turbulence.

5. Any pump should start with a leeward heel.

The reason for this is that it allows you to transfer the force you generate through the boat when you flatten it.

6. Directional change is inevitable for maximum speed.

Working endlessly (meaning no breaks, not that it is hard work) is necessary. Much higher force production is created by being active on the downwind. Rolling the boat certainly accelerates the boat. With free pumping it is allowed to do basically anything, whereas with R42 on you have to be cohesive with movement. As long as you follow principle 4, rule 42 is almost surely no problem. Often you want to take angles that are closer to a wide reach on the downwind since they ensure the highest chance of maintaining a high speed.

7. If you have a choice of direction while surfing, choose the 'hardest' angle.

This is extremely important for competitive racing. If it is easier to surf to the right compared to to the left you want to steer left when you can. At the end of the run the biggest difference will be because of time spent sailing the hard angle since this is where most will fail to surf continuously.

8. If you try new stuff and go slower, do not despair!

Often the reason you are not going faster is that you do actions that work against each other, working against principle 2. Once you sort out how to make the new technique work better huge gains will be had. Evolution comes from trying.

9. Focus on using proper technique (where the "right" muscles are doing the work).

An injury due to overuse or twisting body parts (ankles, wrists, knees) can be prevented by focusing on moving soundly. Knees do not belong on the floor, stay on your feet! Being able to use proper technique often comes down to putting in some effort for balance training, and building muscles.

10. Enjoy

Shirley Robertson's Tuning /sailing guide.... Probably from around 20 years ago now, but I thought it was still interesting nonetheless!

Matching the Mast, Sail and Crew Weight

Success in the Europe Class depends on a well matched crew, mast and sail. The reputable suppliers in the class can all give good advice on this but be careful when buying secondhand. A mast that is good for a 65kg sailor can suddenly change to one suitable for a 55kg sailor if the seller is desperate enough. Buying matched masts and sails from someone your own weight is a good idea.

Mast Rake

Mast Rake is one of the most important controls in a Europe.Rake is measured from the halyard shackle in the locked up position to the centre outside top corner of the transom. Measure and record your rake before and after sailing every day. There is no fixed 'magic' mast rake as the length of the leech on different sails varies significantly. As a guide you might start with the following numbers (mm):-

Sail Design Light Airs Medium Heavy Airs

Green 'Big Top' 5380mm 5400mm 5380mm

Toni Tio 5460mm 5480mm 5480mm

For other sails, try starting with the boom 15-20cm above the transom with the sail hoisted. You need to sail with the mast further back in light winds and move it forward as the breeze increases. Some people find it pays to move it back again slightly as it becomes very windy.

Once the wind is above seven knots you should have the boom down on the deck; mast rake is then your primary leech tension control. Moving the mast forward helps you point but hurts your speed. Moving back helps you go faster but at the expense of height. As you are not allowed to adjust the rake during a race it is important to set up on a rake that gives you some flexibility.

Sail Trim


In all but the lightest winds it is essential to get the boom down on the deck and keep it there. In light winds try to get the boom as far down as possible without stalling the sail. If you stall, you will have to ease the sheet to get the air flowing and then progressively pull the boom down again.

The cunningham and outhaul control the leech shape. The outhaul opens the lower leech and the cunningham opens up the top. The cunningham can be used to great effect to control power, though remember as you pull it on pointing will suffer. In light and medium conditions pull on just enough cunningham to take out the big wrinkles - small creases up the luff don't seem to hurt. When it gets really windy you may need to pull the cunningham right down to the boom. The outhaul follows a similar pattern, though you will need some tension even in light conditions in order to get the boat to point.

Both the cunningham and the outhaul are best used in conjunction with the traveller. As you pull the traveller up for more height, you will need to open the leech if the sail is not to get too closed. Conversely as you let the boom down for speed you will need to ease the outhaul and cunningham to generate more power. In medium conditions it is usual to sail with the boom 3-4cm in from the 'corner' (where the transom meets the gunwhale). In light conditions you may be able to pull it up more though in very light winds it is sometimes best to ease the boom right out for speed. Similarly in very windy conditions the traveller may be right down at the end of the track with the boom 10cm or more outside the corner.

In addition to the usual kicker, cunningham and outhaul, the Europe has one additional sail control, the inhaul. In general the inhaul is left slack or slightly tensioned in most conditions. Only when there is need for power through the waves should you pull it on, to provide a more rounded entry to the sail.

The kicker is not used at all sailing upwind though it does help through the tacks if there is some tension. Be careful not to pull too much on though or you will not be able to get under the boom when you tack.


Kicker tension is the most important control downwind. In general the outhaul, inhaul and cunningham are let right off and the shape of the sail is controlled with the sheet and the kicker. Leech and luff woollies help with setting the kicker tension. You should aim to have the ribbon on the top batten flowing 50% of the time with both the top and bottom leeward woollies on the front of the sail breaking most of the time. A woolly in the middle of the sail is useful when trimming downwind - both the windward and leeward tufts should be streaming most of the time.

Centreboard Position

Going upwind, centreboard position becomes a very important power control.

In light winds it needs to be right down and vertical in the case. Most sails require the board to be fully forward in the case in light winds but if you have a very short leech it may be necessary to move the board back (but still vertical) to keep the boat balanced. As the wind increases the board is progressively raked back. Once the board is raked fully back, the only way to reduce power is to start lifting the board. In very windy conditions the top of the board may be just above the level of the foredeck.

Running, it pays to get the board well up, though if you lift it too high the boat becomes very unstable. Keep enough board in the water to prevent the boat from rolling - and don't forget to push it down before gybing.

Happy sailing.

Shirley Robertson