Have you ever gone over the top of a giant wave, and felt the boat slam down violently as you crossed over it? It happens all the time in boats of all sizes, and is called hobby-horsing. No matter how big or small the wave is, not having the ability to prevent your boat from doing this is will slow you down significantly. The opposite of hobby-horsing is called tracking. Tracking is the act of keeping your fully in touch with the water at all times, with no bow slamming or vibrations moving through your hull. The smaller, lighter, and less stable a boat is, the more important tracking through the water is, as these boats will slow down much more quickly than large, heavy, and stable boats. By keeping your speed up, helm neutral, and using precise steering and/or trimming movements, you can increase your ability to track through the water, and put miles of boat speed on your competition.
Steering & The Boat’s Ideal Path Through a Wave:
Waves are your best friend downwind, and your worst enemy upwind. Upwind, not only does a wave serve as a roadblock, but is also a strong natural force that pushes your boat sideways. The more the wave moves toward your boat from the side, the more susceptible your boat is to a sideways slide. This makes you generally slower, and crushes your ability to point or hold your lane. However, with the proper technique, this is something you can use the waves as an asset when sailing upwind.
When trying to track effectively through the water, each wave you sail through has an entry phase and an exit phase. The goal in the entry phase is to minimalize the amount the wave can push you sideways. The goal in the exit phase is to keep the boat from hobby-horsing, and to power up again for the next wave.
As you are about to enter the face of a wave, you need to steer up, and into the face of the wave. The amount you steer depends on the size of the wave. The smaller the wave, the less you turn the boat. The larger the wave, the more you will turn the boat. This will align your bow more directly and head-on with the wave in order to punch through it, effectively reducing the amount the wave can push you sideways. Ultimately, you want to give each wave less direct surface to push sideways.
When you turn into the face of a wave, you will reduce your speed at the top of it, making you much more susceptible to hobby-horsing. To correct this, you must turn hard and quickly down the back side of the wave to keep the boat in touch with the water, and to increase your speed before the next wave. Depending on the wind and waves, you may even want to exaggerate the turn over the wave, steering slightly past a close hauled course. You should only do this for the most brief instant, and then return to a close hauled course to get ready for the next wave.
One of the first racing principles sailors are taught, is that using the rudder is slow. While this is true, hobby-horsing is much slower than using some tiller to steer through waves. An alternative to using tiller is changing sail trim during the entry and exit phases. Some sailors will trim during the entry phase to steer up, and ease during the exit phase to steer down. In all boats, you will see some combination of steering and trimming to effectively steer through waves. The exact ratios will depend on the conditions, your relative weight range for those conditions, and the type of boat you are sailing. As a general rule, steering with the sails is more effective in doublehanded boats, while steering with your tiller is more effective in singlehanded boats. Again, usually there is a mixture of both.
Neutralizing Your Helm:
Having a neutral helm will make your boat much more receptive to changes in steering or trimming. Let’s consider a boat’s ideal path through a wave. There is actually a relatively large amount of steering that is necessary to keep the boat tracking through the water, regardless of your speed and power. If your boat is heeled to leeward at the top of a wave, giving you weather helm, then you must use a good deal of rudder, or ease the sail significantly, to turn the boat down the backside of a wave. Thus, keeping a boat flat with a neutral helm, at the top of a wave, is critical to keeping the boat tracking through the water.
Maintaining Your Speed/Power:
Speed and power are essential to tracking through the water. When you encounter a wave, slowing down, or entering the face of that wave with little speed or power will make it difficult to get over the top without getting pushed sideways, causing your bow to slam down on the other side. When you move from wave to wave, the goal is to maximize your speed before the wave, use that speed to reach the top of the wave, and then quickly build it up again as you descend and move on to the next wave. This takes a lot of intense focus and practice to perfect, so go out and start practicing!