How to Roll Tack: A Comprehensive Guide

Sailboat Roll Tack

What are Roll Tacks?

As a professional dinghy racer, Roll Tacks are something I have been practicing for years on the 420. I aim to pass on this knowledge to help the sport of sailboat racing grow to be more competitive. Roll Tacks are a form of Tack that is used to accelerate the boat as it crosses through Irons or the No-Go-Zone. They are commonly used on dinghy sailboats mostly because it is really hard to perform a roll tack on a keelboat although it is possible. If you know this, skip to the next paragraph. They are commonly used in competitive upwind racing scenarios, which is why it is such a crucial tool in any successful sailor’s toolbox. 

It is vital to note here that you need to be extra cautious when performing a Roll Tack. You will be rocking the boat aggressively, and I can promise you will be off balance. The amount of bashed shins, twisted knees, and sailors overboard when roll tacking is astonishingly high. Also, because you will (hopefully) be coming out of this tack with lots of additional speed, you will need to keep an extra close eye out for incoming boats if you will be exiting the tack on a port tack. You may surprise yourself with how fast you will be so it is best to leave extra room for other boats, especially as a beginner. 

If you don’t believe me, just read rule 42.3 “A boat’s crew may move their bodies to exaggerate the rolling that facilitates steering the boat through a tack or a gybe, provided that, just after the tack or gybe is completed, the boat’s speed is not greater than it would have been in the absence of the tack or gybe.” This implies that Roll Tacks are strong enough to propel your boat through a tack faster than it otherwise would have, and the effect is strong enough to warrant a rule to make sure it is not abused in a race. 

3 Stages of a Roll Tack

When it comes time to learn something, I personally always learn best by breaking a seemingly complicated task down into smaller sections. In terms of a Roll Tack, I find it is best to break it down into stages of Initiation, the Roll and Turn, and then the Flatten. All stages are equally important, so make sure to study them individually and focus on certain steps before you get frustrated. This is a very delicate and complicated procedure that takes a lot of time to understand. 

The Initiation

The Initiation of your roll tack takes place from your initial safety check-up until you start to turn the tiller to turn the boat. When you are initiating a roll tack, you want to start by first initiating your safety check. Make sure there are no boats that you may hit, ask your crew if they are ready, and then you may initiate the tack. Then, make sure both the jib and mainsheet are all of the way pulled in, and you may gently ease the tiller towards the sail to initiate your tack.

The Roll, Turn, and Roll Tack

In this stage, you heel the boat to the side of the boat that would be considered windward prior to the tack, and leeward after the tack. You begin the roll as soon as the bow faces directly into irons. Ideally, the Mainsheet and Tiller should remain in the same position as it is the balancing of the boat that should complete the turn.

The Skipper and the Crew must lean hard to roll the boat and it must be done at the same time in order to have proper boat balancing. Typically, the roll takes place just before boat A on the diagram.

Points of Sail Diagram

The Flatten

The Flattening of the boat is the most important and coincidentally difficult step of a roll tack. Return the tiller to its original position to keep the boat on its fastest upwind bearing, and adjust your sails accordingly.

This should be done just before the boat is flattened. 

Once the sails are adequately trimmed, both the crew and the skipper hike to the new windward side of the boat and try their best to keep the boat as flat as possible. The idea is that as the boat flattens, the rocking of the boat rocks the mast which creates a rocking motion of the sails, and as the sails are being trimmed in just before the boat is flattened, they now have a proper shape to them so that your sailboat is powered up faster than it otherwise would have been. 

The boat should be flattened immediately after it assumes the position of boat B.

Take Your Time

Once again, learning how to roll tack takes lots of time, and do not feel bad if you cannot figure it out on your first day. For many sailors, it takes years to have a perfect roll tack. I find 420s are best to learn roll tacks on because they have a relatively large cockpit for how narrow (easy to roll) the boats are. They are also a very common racing boat, so if you are learning to roll tack for racing purposes, then the 420 is perfect. The Laser is also a fantastic option because it is another racing sailboat, but it has a much smaller cockpit and it is designed to be a one-man sailboat so it may be a bit more difficult to learn on. With that being said, you are well on your way to becoming a professional sailboat racer! Leave any questions you may have in the comments.

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