As the sailing world moves more and more towards high-performance boats with powerful sail plans, light hulls, and high performance settings, sailors of all ages are often getting into boats where they struggle in heavy air. As the wind reaches 15+ knots, it is too often that you see someone stretched way out of the boat with their head below the level of the deck, wasting all of their energy contorting their body in every which way. There are a number of reasons that people struggle in windy conditions. These often include factors such as body weight, physical strength, depowering techniques, hiking technique, or, as is most often the case, some combination of all four. Rarely is one’s inability to succeed in the breeze purely a function of weight, as is commonly thought by sailors struggling in the breeze. Improving one’s hiking technique is the easiest of the factors to correct, and will guarantee improvement in heavy air. Only after improving your hiking technique will you get the best results out of your fitness, body weight, and depowering techniques.
Imagine a person sitting in a rolling chair next to a wall with his or her feet facing the wall. Now imagine this person wants to use his or her legs to push off and move as far as possible across the floor in the rolling chair. It is obvious to everyone that if this person is very close to the wall, they will have a lot of leverage to use their legs to launch off the wall with great speed and distance. Whereas if the person were to set up at a distance where their toes barely touch the wall, they could only use their ankles and toes to push off, and would not move very far across the floor.
While the above scenario may seem silly, it is an important analogy for understanding efficient hiking technique. Think back to the person described earlier sailing in 15+ knots. They are using their lower back to swing their upper body all over the place, their head is often at or below their hips, and after about 30 seconds they are panting, out of breath, and weakly drooping on the rail as the rest of the fleet flies by. This sailor suffers from not properly adjusting the most commonly overlooked setting on a small sailboat, the hiking strap.
As the wind builds, many sailors’ first instinct is to loosen their strap. The thought is usually that, by loosening the strap, they will have the ability to get more leverage over the rail and out of the boat. While these efforts are valiant, they are ultimately misplaced. As your hiking strap gets looser, you will put more of the physical labor of hiking on small muscle groups such as your abdomen and lower back, and less on large muscle groups, namely your quadriceps (legs). As your strap gets tighter, you will have a greater ability to flex your legs between the strap and the rail, applying a greater amount of pressure to the rail and ultimately making your body seem heavier to the boat than it actually is. In other words, the more physical strength you can apply upward on the strap, the more force is exerted downward through the rail of the boat. It is important to understand that hiking is a function of both body weight and physical strength, and the more that strength comes from a large muscle group like your legs, the more efficient your hiking will be.
While a tighter strap allows you to hike harder, there are limits to how tight you should set it. As you continue to set it tighter, eventually your joints will not have the ability to handle the stress that a tight strap causes. When this happens, you won’t get the most out of your large or small muscle groups. So, while a tighter strap is better than a looser strap, you will have to play with the strap height until you find out for yourself how tight is too tight. As a rule, about 65%-70% of your exertion should come from your legs and 30%-35% should come from your core. Also, when you press your feet harder upward into the strap, it should feel like the back of your legs are pressing downward through the deck. The reason that hiking pants are such an important tool is because they allow you to feel a certain level of comfort when you are pressing the backs of your legs downward on the rail, and they will make it significantly easier for you to do so.
As a final thought about efficient hiking techniques, hiking is as much about the ability to conserve energy as it is about the ability to exert energy. When the wind is honking, no one can flex as hard as possible for an entire race. The top sailors are able to hike with most of the exertion on one leg while letting the other rest. They will switch between legs often as they start to get tired during a race. This is a valuable skill that takes a lot of practice and proper conditioning. Furthermore, people tend to do too much with their upper bodies while hiking. Depending on the boat you are sailing, you are typically either wasting energy or illegally fanning the leech when you do so. Upper body movements are important. However, quality and purposeful movements will help you, whereas just flailing around with no method will just slow you down, tire you out, or draw a flag. Keep this in mind as you practice and race in heavy air.
See you on the water,