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How to sail the darn thing

Introducing the Contender


Ready, Set, Sail: Rigging tips from Marco Versari
Reading is outdated, so the International Contender Class is helping the attention-challenged with the launch of this great video program featuring Marco Versari, a top Contender sailor, and arguably the greatest thing to come from Italy since pizza.
Marco runs through his hot boat set up, talking about everything from the transom to the chainplates, offering some great advice for every contender sailor, no matter what skill level.
The tuning video is part of a DVD that is being released by the ICA to show new sailors the basics of the boat and more advanced skills, both off and on the water. This is a must for anyone wanting to learn about the boat from the privacy of their computer or home (we wouldn't suggest bringing a laptop on the water though). To view the DVD online - see it here. You may download the whole DVD here. (Size: 3.4 GB)

Tim Hills "How to"

Thanks to Tim Hill, Chris Sutherland and Greg Barrington has all helped supply this article written by Tim. It contains Tim's thoughts about how he sailed the contender and is a wealth of information.
Tim was a fantastic technical sailor in his days in contender and this has been very helpful in getting down on paper some of the techniques of sailing the boat fast that have proven hard to describe.




The contender responds to experience — either across a short period of time with intensive training; or across many years of effort, I have not seen a sailor (yet) get in the boat and immediately reach a high standard. In my experience there are no short cuts; and the greatest improvements are directly related to time on the water.

Most difficult of all to improve is boat feel — it’s the only topic I haven’t bothered to write about because it needs to be felt — and everybody has to find their own way. Steve Grimes describes the contender as very ‘groovy’; get in the groove; no matter the conditions or wind angle; and stay there. More than most boats, the contender rewards an instinctive feel for speed.

This summary documents the things I can readily communicate on paper; boat set up, boat handling techniques, mast set up and training routines. There is no ‘right way’ to race a contender - there are as many ways to sail the boats as people sailing them.

The Australian Association asked me to describe how I sail my boat to give the fleet a benchmark; analyze, interrogate, reject or improve upon these techniques as you see fit - but most importantly - enjoy sailing these incredibly rewarding boats that are enthusiastically sailed by truly supportive international sailing community.



The contender is a big, relatively heavy, narrow boat that goes very quickly in a straight line.

Turning corners is not easy and is something I practice all the time. There are many ways to tack and gybe the boat; my routines are below — try them and see if they work for you;



In light air I sit as far forward as possible, usually somewhere opposite the boom vang. In light weather I tack behind the pedestal, facing forwards — starting from a sitting position near the boom vang:

- stand up; or squat up if it’s lumpy

- take one step towards the rear of the boat, putting your foot behind the pedestal; place your rear foot according to the wind pressure so the boat leans gently to leeward and initiates the tack

- sit down on the side tank; at the same time uncleat the mainsheet and let around 2 feet of sheet run through your hand; at the same time put the helm across;

- the boat will lean to weather as it passes through head to wind; it’s important to roll the boat and I often use my sheet hand to swing off the pedestal to exaggerate the roll; it also stops me from falling backwards into the water;

- the boom should cross your back; you might need to push your bum over the old weather side a bit because the boom is very low

- stand up; your feet will be in the new leeward side; take a big step forward back over the bridle to the front of the boat and sit down; swap hands once you’re settled.

This takes a bit of practice; but the boat should come out of the tack as fast as it goes in; get tacks right and I found light air became a whole lot more enjoyable...

In light weather, Marcus Hamilton tacks in the front of the cockpit; under the vang. He collapses and extends a collapsible tiller extension behind the mainsheet during the tack and rolls the boat off the boom vang. Keeping his weight forward means the boat doesn’t dig transom in and stop mid tack; but it’s more difficult to roll the boat and harder to get it going. I opted for tacking behind the pedestal after my first visit racing contenders in Europe; both techniques work well with practice.




Medium weather is all about keeping the power in the rig; and spending as little time as possible in the tack. In medium weather I tack facing backwards -

- I trapeze just in front of the pedestal; so from this position;

- cleat the main in the upwind position; I keep the mainsheet looped through my belt; so I drop the

sheet into my lap;

- unhook and hold onto the wire; wait until you’re on top of a wave

- push the helm across; and roll into the boat; my tiller arm touches the aft deck and my back leg

sits against the cockpit wall

- duck under the boom; I switch tiller hands as the boom passes over my head;

- then I turn and kick off the pedestal; I usually push out before I spot the handle which I grab with

my new forward hand;

- my lead hand picks up the handle; sometimes I pump the boat through the trapeze to get it

going; it’s important to get forward of the mainsheet pedestal quickly to get the bow down and the

boat climbing again...

- I use my tiller hand to hook on

- pick up the main from the trapeze belt; uncleat and off I go...

The boat shouldn’t stop; if you really get it right you should be going just as fast out as you went in.

I don’t use tacking sticks; Marcus Hamilton and Matt Hosie have followed Arthur Brett’s lead and use thin PVC tubes to make the trapeze tackle a solid rod. This allows them to use their trapeze hand to hook onto the belt while the tiller hand continues to steer; and gives them a much bigger thing to grab onto following tacks and gybes. I don’t use this piece of equipment but it works very well for them.


I tend to use the medium air technique right through the range; but I introduced a small variation when it’s really windy. Sometimes at the top of the range in big seas; the boat doesn’t have enough speed to get through the tack; I throw the vang a little just before I unhook and go into the tack. Without the vang the boat has a wider groove and will happily power off onto the new tack without trying to round up. Once on the trapeze on the new tack; the first thing I do is pull the vang back on; and then uncleat the main. It’s a little bit slower because you lose height into and out of the tack as the vang comes on and off; but it’s very safe when it’s howling with a big sea running.



I use two sorts of light air roll gybes; in front of the pedestal and behind. The boat will slow when you’re back behind the pedestal; but you can complete the gybe more quickly and roll the boat more effectively on the way in and way out.

I gybe in front of the pedestal only when it’s very light —

- before I start; I put the tiller extension to leeward of the mainsheet; so that when I’m on the new

gybe it’s not tangled; once I’ve done this I

- I start the gybe by moving my body to windward; I face across the boat, looking at the boom;

-   I initiate the roll and the boat will steer itself into the gybe; I try to balance the boat on the

windward chine;

- As the boat passes through the wind I reach up to the boom which feels like it’s pointing up into

the air as the boat rolls to windward;

- I pull the vang across and step across to the new windward side; the batten pops if you swing

on the vang a little...


I gybe behind the mainsheet when there’s a little bit of pressure in the rig; or if the gybe mark is crowded; it’s easier to maneuver the boat when you’re behind the mainsheet —

- I step from the front of the cockpit to behind the mainsheet

- I sit on the windward side and swing off the pedestal to pre-roll the boat over to the windward

chine; the boat will steer itself into the gybe;

- as the boom comes towards me I slide across the boat and move into the forward part of the



Crash gybes are risky and not useful if you capsize; but if you get them right you can make up lots of ground at the gybe mark. It has two big advantages —

- the boat planes through the gybe

- I leave the vang on and so I don’t have to stuff around getting it on and off...

So, for this, speed is everything; in fact, the faster the boat’s going the better... so, approaching the gybe mark on a fast, trapezing reach I -

- transfer the main into my tiller hand and hold it;

- I unhook with my lead hand; usually I’ll be somewhere towards the back on the boat; then I

trapeze off my arm and wait for a wave;

- when I am heading down a wave I steer into the gybe and pull the boat over to windward using

the trapeze handle; at the same time I start to step across the boat; the main runs through my

tiller hand onto the shrouds; at this point I am more or less standing upright in the boat;

- the boat sits on the windward chine and steers itself through the gybe; I bend down facing

forwards; there is no weight in the rig and the bow should be sitting up; the boat is still planing...

- the boom floats across the boat; I go for the hook with my new hand; hook onto the belt; pick up

the main and kick out onto the wire; dragging the main on as I go...

This only works when you keep the boat moving fast and there is no weight in the rig. Once the pressure comes onto the rig the boat usually capsizes on the way out of the gybe; if I have any doubt I opt for the following technique...


When it’s windy; and this really means any breeze or sea condition (or fatigue) where I don’t feel up for a crash gybe I opt for safety first; which means getting into the cockpit before the boom’s moving across the boat. The boat slows; then I throw a bit of vang; and then I go through the gybe, pull on the vang and get onto the trapeze as quickly as I can. It’s much slower; but better than capsizing when conditions are marginal.


The contender is a simple rig full of compromises. It’s easy to get lazy with it because adjustments in one area often lead to reduced performance in another. It’s important to mix adjustments in mast tune with adjustments to on the water sailing techniques. My advice is to experiment with a training partner and share information; but there are some fundamentals I return to...


As much as humanly possible — when the vang is on hard, during gybes and tacks, the boom should clip either the tiller or back tank. If you can’t fit under it; learn to breathe out as the boom goes over your head; or work out a way of becoming more flexible. Sadly in a contender it’s pretty brutal - more rake equals more speed. 


During Arthur Brett’s time in the class; rig tensions increased and the centre of the mast became rigid. I have reduced spreader lengths to allow some movement in the rig; the standard length is 42.5 cm, my spreaders are 37.5 cm. This isn’t for heavier sailors but works if you’re light and the hull will hold rig tensions through the range. I am still experimenting and may shorten them again...


The key control in the rig; lowers tension radically affects leech tension. When the lowers are on tight; leech tension will be high. It is important to assess the effect of the lowers with mainsail luff round. For example, if you want the leech to be more dynamic then let off the lowers; but make sure the rig isn’t starved of luff round in the bottom third of the sail — because this makes the bottom of the sail flatter and opens the bottom of the leech; magnifying the lowers change and perhaps stuffing up the sail shape. You may need to adjust luff round in the sail before you decide whether the lowers adjustment is appropriate or not

Lowers make a huge difference to upwind performance when the rig is set up for it. I tend to set and forget the tension; but will reassess when I arrive at a new venue. My lowers settings range from 12 right up to 25 (when measured on a loos gauge) depending on the venue conditions.

Different things work for different sails and different weights; once again; it’s important to have a training partner, share information, and experiment.


I keep the rig relatively tight — with no slack in the leeward shroud up to just over 20 knots. When the leeward shroud goes slack the mid mast starts to move around; which helps the boat respond to gusts and waves. This is great when I’m completely overpowered but makes me go too low when it’s lighter. I keep my rig tension consistent; when I adjust the lowers; I adjust the shrouds to maintain the same tension in the rig.


Boat set up on the contender is a matter of personal preferences. What works for me may not work for you — it’s essential that everything works properly. Simplicity is essential; less moving parts means less opportunities for tangles and breakages. I have set up my boat to try and get around the course with a minimum of fuss -


The most important control in the boat; I try to hold it as much as possible: which; in practice, means I probably cleat 50% of the time. It’s important to hold it so you can feel what the boat needs; what it’s doing; and how it’s responding to the wind around it.

I set up my main in the normal way — 3:1 on a block bridle with strops from the boom to the first boom fall. A couple of things are critical —

- make the bridle as short as possible; this needs to be bar tight when sailing

- make the boom strop as long as possible: this length governs leech tension when I sheet-sheet the main — too long and the boat doesn’t point in marginal trapezing conditions and I have to get on the vang too early to keep the leech up (which reduces the rig tension making the boat go too low) — too short and the main will come on to the centerline too quickly, with too much leech tension and the hard leech will drive the boat too high and it will stop


I have set up the sail controls (vang, cunningham and outhaul) to minimize time required for adjustments. I lead them to the side tanks through blocks at my feet; directly across the boat; then I splice both tails together. This gives three advantages —



-  when I want to adjust the controls they’re always in the same place

-  when I pull them on they always cleat

-  I can re-cleat the controls from both sides of the boat; this means when I let the controls off at the windward mark I don’t need to re-cleat until I reach the bottom mark; when I’m on the

opposite gybe. This is fool proof on a crowded course when you never have enough time to do

what you want..


Another important control; but a set and forget. I usually don’t bother to lift the board on reaches or downwind (unless it’s light) — and unless conditions really change during the course of a race it stays in the same position all the way around the course. The main thing is the board must have no sideways movement in the case. I have fitted an uphaul and downhaul to the board — both lead to the side tank so they can be adjusted on the trapeze.


Lex Bertrand and Arthur Brett introduced a series of training routines that have changed the way

we sail the boats. These routines are nice variations on the tedium of training; for some you need

a group of boats and power boat; other you only need yourself.

The philosophy is simple; get to know your boat better. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet for sailing well; the more you train; the better you sail. The better you sail, the better you race. It’s time on the water that makes the difference.


Contenders are easy to sail without rudders once you know how — having said this; sailing without a rudder is an easy way to look like a twit. It’s important to bail out before things get nasty (watch out for that pier, boat, pylon or buoy), swallow your pride and get out before you hit something hard.

The basics are simple: get the rudder off and pull the board halfway up; usually it easier when the vang’s off a bit -

-  get to the back of the boat and the boat will head up

-  get to the front of the boat and it will go down

-  heel it to windward and it goes up

-  heel it to leeward and it goes down

It’s important to have a little speed when you are maneuvering without the rudder; this means getting onto the trapeze — make sure the wire’s very high; so that when the boat dips to windward you don’t end up in the water.

Gybing rudderless is easy because it follows the pattern of gybing with a rudder

-  pre-roll the boat to windward to initiate the gybe

-  keep rolling it to windward through the gybe; get the yang right off; if the boat’s moving fast it will

be dead through the eye of the gybe; before it spears off to leeward running by the lee

-  the loose vang delays the main; when it comes across you’ll be well into the new gybe

-  slide onto the new side weather side; try to keep the boat from getting into death rolls...

Tacking is hard; you need speed; it’s better when you’re on the trapeze. Arthur showed a bemused crowd at a Go for Gold regatta this trick when he was World Champion. He tacked out of the harbour at Black Rock into a 25 knot northerly (which is dead onshore accompanied by a nasty shore wave); sailing up to and tacking off the pier, on the trapeze, 3 or 4 times while a crowded balcony of Olympic aspirants looked on in disbelief. So; start on the wire; it’s important to be moving fast;



- unhook; hang onto the wire with your arm, roll the boat to leeward and pull on the main: step down to the back of the boat onto the back tank; you have to get behind the boom: the boat will start to go head to wind quite quickly;

- wait for the boom to cross the centerline; move in the opposite direction; take the mainsheet under the boom; the main will now be to leeward; you should be standing up on the back of the boat; let go of the old trapeze wire; and take a couple of big steps towards the front of the boat; on the new windward side; let the main out a lot; otherwise the boat will spin back into the breeze;

- get on the wire and swing out; pull on the main to keep your body out of the water; the boat will move off onto the new tack.

The contender responds well to weight movement; sailing without the rudder teaches you to use it less; which makes the boat faster around the course. The rudder should never be loaded and maneuvering the boat should never feel forced; sailing without the rudder is a great way of learning about this.


Lex Bertrand has a murderous routine; where he trains a sailor to fetch. He’ll throw a succession of balls; tennis balls, plastic balls, balloons, sometimes a shuttle cock; into the water and demand you sail up to them, flat out, in race trim; pluck them from the water; throw them back to his stationary power boat which is bobbing up and down on the water. The sailor usually misses; which elicits a verbal tirade. The tired and bewildered sailor has to retrieve the ball (again); throw it back (again) and miss (again) and on the game goes. It goes without saying you don’t need Lex to play this game; in fact, it’s nicer to play alone.

So I take out a tennis ball; throw it into the water; sail up to it in race trim; pluck it out of the water; and throw it again. It’s great for learning to turn the boat; getting it going from standing starts; and training your mind to rise above the detail of boat trim; speed and all that miniscule stuff; and find a way of concentrating on the bigger picture while your body does the sailing.


Lex and his power boat were especially useful when we had a group; he used to throw in the ball and score pick ups. If you have 5 or more it gets very congested as the boats usually come at the ball from all directions; and then you have to think about the rules, call them, pick up the ball and throw it back (or miss). This routine is excellent for sharpening boat handling skills; but you must have good sailors otherwise it can get very expensive.


A handy variation when we got used to balls was a balloon — it’s very hard to pick up off the water.



Blindfolds are awful. There are no two ways about this; but very good for developing boat feel.

Have a good look around before you put one on to make sure you don’t hit anything when you

can’t see what’s in front of you...


Blindfolds teach a new dependence on hearing, balance and boat feel, In a race; it frees your eyes to look around the course for any other scrap of information to get ahead of your opposition while your other senses sail the boat.


It’s important to try the blindfold upwind, downwind and reaching. In fact, upwind is relatively easy and a good place to start; downwind is tough, and reaching extremely difficult. It’s important to try; and a great way to improve.



I hate short course because a contender is designed to lope away in a straight line — but the key to training is to do the things you dislike so you get better at them. Apart from the usual triangular short courses; there are 2 variations worth mentioning —



- 4 buoys set up in a square around 5 boatlengths apart; a number of boats enter the square, up to 5 — the idea is to force the other boats out of the square; the winner is the last one left inside...

- boat in the center with a start/finish/gate line set between the boat and a buoy directly to leeward. 2 buoys set 50 meters from the start line perpendicular to the line. 2 boats compete by starting in opposite directions; each heading to the opposite buoy; both buoys left to port. Both boats then pass through the gate; around their respective buoy; and then to the start/finish/gate line. Elimination heats with 2 boats progressing to a final. You quickly identify fast reaching techniques.



Two boats are a well known way to develop speed — I don’t want to dwell on this except to say it’s very important to do 3 things —


-     find a training partner

-     experiment

-     share everything


Train in all conditions — light, medium, heavy, rain hail, shine — and upwind, reaching and downwind.





The contender is a boat that rewards time on the water. It’s a challenge that nobody masters overnight; and is filled with techniques that can only be learnt. Remember no matter how frustrated or embarrassed you might feel about your sailing; rest assured that the best sailors have been through something similar when they learned to sail their boats — and will usually be happy to share it with you — which brings on the most important point — nurture your fleet; share information and improve as a group.


Winning is important; a good group shares it around. When one boat becomes dominant it’s important for the others to catch up — because smashing the opposition becomes a lonely past time; there’s very little in it for the victor; and nothing in it for the vanquished.


We have made great efforts during the last 5 years to preserve a sense of competitive sportsmanship in our fleet; we are past the glory days of Arthur’s two world championships that were conducted on a semi-professional footing; and work together in a more modest group; but the outcomes speak for themselves —


Our fleet trains together, develops equipment and ideas together; competes internationally and

retains a shared enthusiasm for racing that makes the fleet: first and foremost; a strong community. We work at it - we do our level best to beat each other; but most importantly, we support and encourage each other as we try to improve. This is the key; we are better pushing each other, sharing our knowledge, renewing our enthusiasm and encouraging each other; than we ever would be alone. It is only through this collective effort that we continue to enjoy and respect racing each other.