Gybing makes a lot of sailors uneasy, especially on small dinghies. I can picture it now, running downwind with a stiff breeze with my body weight centered and trying to keep the Death Roll at bay, the leeward mark fast approaching. Looking around at the nearby boats, trying to judge who will be overlapped in the zone, who will have right of way and which course to take after rounding, the last thing I need to worry about is properly gybing with the specter of a wet failure lurking close by. And, of course the Laser bonus of the main sheet catching the corner of the transom or, as once happened to me, looping a half a clove hitch around the end of the boom (I have no idea how, but the result was that the half a clove hitch, in addition to the helmsman, soon got wet). I know that hooking the sheet with your finger as you go across can be a non-looping substitute for the jerk, but somehow I prefer the jerk (does that make me one?).
So, how to tame the unruly beast? I have two specific suggestions, one of which was offered as advice from an Aussie who had several good tips, although on the day I saw him ram his almost new dinghy into a large metal buoy, I did wonder if listened to them. The other tip I figured out myself, although some experienced sailors might include it in the “Well, duh” category. And I am sure I read it in books and saw it on blogs like Sam Chapin’s February 2009 tips, but I guess I forgot it.
The first tip (which, although coming from an Aussie apparently works equally well in both the Southern and Northern hemisphere, regardless of Bernoulli’s law) is in preparing for the gybe. Basically, spend the time necessary to get the boat directly downwind and stable. Once it is stable, then gybe and immediately stabilize again. Perhaps some hotshot sailors will quibble over the time spent in doing this, but at my level the investment of a few seconds is time well spent compared to a capsize. And psychologically it really helps to feel that you are in control and stable just before the gybe, and even more so, after the gybe.
The second tip is related to the first since it is the key element in stabilizing after the gybe. The tip is to steer through the gybe – just enough to feel the sheet go slack and, then giving the little Laser jerk, crossing over and – here is the important part – immediately steering back so that you end up downwind again very quickly – the S curve as some explain it. In my case, this usually means I steer behind my back for a bit until I feel things settle down and then switch hands. In the past, I used to oversteer, concentrating so much on the boom coming across and jerking the sheet, that steering was a bit of an afterthought and by the time I did think about it, my curve was a capital C instead of an S and I was already on to a broad reach, and, if not capsized, had to scramble to get back downwind, losing momentum, time and dignity. Today, I practiced a number of gybes and in order to make my concentration even more focused, I gybed around a number of buoys and tried to steer as close to them as possible (missing all of them, I am pleased to say, and maybe I will let my Aussie friend know the benefits of missing them). This was a good exercise, forcing me to concentrate on boat control and I was feeling good at the end of the day, realizing that I could be in control of the boat, even in the midst of a gybe.