Talking Tuning with North's Nigel Young

Questions you wanted to ask about tuning your Melges 24 but never dared to ask…..Nigel Young heads up the North Sails business in Ireland and has been racing Melges 24’s since the earliest days of the class. Over the years he has been a part of some of the most successful teams on the international circuit such as Richard Thompson’s all conquering Black Seal who helped helmsman Jamie Lea to double World Ranking victories and Quentin Strauss’s team aboard Gill, who made regular podium appearances at major regattas including a second place at the 2005 Europeans in Torquay. For the last two years he has been sailing as an integral member of Stuart Simpson’s Team Barbarians crew finishing 6th at the 2007 Worlds in Santa Cruz and second at last year’s US National Championship.

With all this experience and as one of the key people involved in North Sails development work for the Melges 24 class, who better than Nigel quiz on the intricacies of tuning the Melges 24? That’s what we did and here is what he told us…

IM24CA: First of all Nigel. Tell us what makes tuning the Melges 24 rig so different to any other one design keelboat?

NY: The Melges 24 rig is quite unique as despite being a Carbon rig it’s actually quite a soft mast and it really reacts well to tuning. I think the biggest challenge for a new team is to establish the base setting when they first start sailing the boat. The M-24 likes a very soft set up in light airs and the quickest way to slow the boat is to have the rig too tight under say 12 knots of true wind. We refer a lot to mast sag in the M-24 class and we will talk a little more about that below. The North Sails tuning guide is about to have a major over haul based on the latest practice by our high end race teams to win the 2008 Worlds and the 2009 Key West regatta, so look out for this new document very soon which will include both pro and club settings.

IM24CA: You have been in the Melges 24 class since the early days. How much have the rig settings changed over the years? How has this changed the way the boats behave and how we sail them?

NY: I think the biggest set-up change was when Kevlar was allowed in the sails. Before this time the rigs tended to be softer than they are today, these days once the wind is over 16-18 knots the rig tension very quickly gets wound onto max. The stability of the Kevlar sails allows for tighter rigs, resulting in a more active rig in the stronger winds. Also I think the range of adjustment has increased over the years and now the range from top to bottom is approx 25-30 turns from base setting. Another big change is the rake adjustment being used by the pro teams which although effective is not so simple to do for the regular club sailors.

IM24CA: Many people believe that tuning the Melges 24 rig is a black art. You seem to take a very systematic approach which enables you to reproduce fast settings at each regatta. Talk us through your system?

NY: As many of you know I have been involved in the class since the beginning and have sailed the Melges 24 every year since! I have a very simple set up for the boats that I have raced with which is really very close to the tuning guide. Rather than a jump in settings of six turns at a time, I prefer a more subtle approach going in steps of three turns at a time. This combined with a fixed mast rake and very small Jib lead adjustments has stood me in good stead for the last eight seasons. If you sail the boats full time then mast rake adjustment should be considered but bear in mind that this adds a whole new dimension to the rig tuning and is actually quite complicated for a club team to handle. I think at first the simple approach is best and then when you feel you are ready make the move to the pro-setup then take that step. I have enjoyed some great results using the simple set up and I would encourage you not to rush into the rake adjustment system until you really need to.

IM24CA: For someone wanting to set up a Melges 24 for the first time, what are the five (or more) key things they need to do?

NY: Setting the mast rake and establishing the base setting is the first step. I have used a system for the last eight seasons or more to ensure mast rake is equal on the different boats I sail. Firstly I attach a tape measure to the main halyard and hoist it to the top of the mast. I then measure down to the top of the metal gooseneck fitting on the mast. This measurement should be 8835mm. It is worth spending some time ensuring you have this exactly right. Once you are 100% happy go to the back of the boat measuring to the bottom of the hull below the rudder fittings. This measurement should be 11140mm. The slight twist to this is that the rig tension needs to be on 12 on the new PT-2 rig gauge when taking these measurements! So if you check the rake and say it’s too little and you then release the forestay below deck to increase the rake you need to follow that by tightening the shrouds to get to 12 on the PT-2 gauge BEFORE re-measuring the rake. Conversely if you have too much rake and were to reverse the process you will need to release the main shrouds after tensioning the forestay otherwise the rig tension will be too tight and the rake will not be correct.

Once you are happy with the rake and the main shrouds read 12 on the PT-2 gauge it’s time to wind up the rig fifteen full turns from the base setting of 12 on the PT-2. Once this is done wind up the lowers by equal turns keeping the rig straight until they read 13 on the PT-2 gauge. Once you are happy you have all of the above correct take fourteen turns off the lowers and you have the base setting! This will most likely need some fine tuning maybe one or two turns to get the sag absolutely spot on but this is a very good place to start.

From there I use the grid below to move from base to the top settings:

BASE 12 0 0 0 11140
PLUS 1 3 1 11140
PLUS 2 6 3 11140
PLUS 3 9 7 11140
PLUS 4 12 12 11140
PLUS 5 24 15 13 15 11140
PLUS 6 18 18 11140
PLUS 7 21   21 11140
PLUS 8 24 24 11140

It’s hard to put a wind speed on the change points as it depends so much on the sea state, crew weight, ability etc……..But my regular helm Jamie Lea’s take is that to keep the boat on it’s feet if the mainsail starts to invert before he feels in control then we move up another setting. So as a rough indicator lets say:

Base setting for as long as possible so as not to de-power to early.

+1 setting from say 9-11 knots.

+3 setting 14-16 knots

+5 setting 18-20 knots

+8 setting 24 knots plus.

It’s a very subjective thing but think like this: If the boat feels gutless drop rig tension, if you are over powered and out of control increase tension.

IM24CA: We often see people on the water looking up their mast ‘checking the sag’. What is sag? How do you work out how much you have? Where do you sight from? Where do you look?

NY: The term mast sag refers to the tendency for Melges 24 mast to drop to leeward at the spreader level when doing upwind. Put simply, more sag equals more power and less sag equals less power. Consequently we set up to produce it across the Base, +1 and +2 settings. Beyond here as you work your way up the chart the rig straightens at the spreader level and finally the top of the rig drops to leeward.

To measure mast sag I sight from the gooseneck up the rig at to the spreaders. To help make the process less subjective, I put a coloured dot on the inside spreader pin on the underside of the spreader. Then, when the boat is going upwind with the rest of the crew hiking to keep her flat, I sight from the gooseneck to the top of the rig and see where that dot sits relative to that sight line. It’s still quite subjective but once you get into the routine you will start to get a feel for the settings. On base setting I look for 20mm leeward sag at the spreaders and this progressively disappears to nothing when you get to +3. As a reference point, in fifteen knot in flat water I would set up for a straight mast with zero sag.

IM24CA: We all know how important it is in the Melges 24 fleet to be able to hold your lane off the start line. If you are using new sails, getting good starts, your crew are hiking as hard as possible but you regularly end up dropping into the boats to leeward the chances are that the tuning is wrong. What would you recommend?

This is a good question, assuming the mainsail traveller is being set between the foot rests, not dropped to leeward I think the most likely cause of pointing issues is to have the jib sheet lead too far aft I know this might sound strange but if you open the jib leach too much then the pointing really suffers. When you increase rig tension and backstay as you work up through the tuning chart the mast bend increases and the clew position of the jib drops lower. This is the same effect as moving the jib car aft. So if you move the car back too far then it’s very easy to under-sheet the leach of the jib which results poor pointing ability. The foot of the Melges 24 jib should never be straight as the jib lead needs to be forward enough to close the leach and increase power in the foot. So if you are not pointing and a bit slow, try jib lead forward.

IM24CA: So we have followed the tuning guide to the letter and are now out on the way to the racecourse in around twenty knots of breeze producing some biggish chop. If you have set the boat up perfectly for these conditions describe what would expect to see when looking at the shape of the main?

NY: You really need to ask my helmsman this one as I normally have a face full of water in these conditions and never get to look at the mainsail. But if I had eyes in the back of my head, I would expect the mainsail to be very flat low down with lots of twist. You should be using the maximum backstay you can without over bending the mast which would turn the sail inside out by. The tell tails will fly full time in these conditions, the most important thing is for the helmsman to be really active in order to keep the boat as flat as possible.

IM24CA: You now turn your attention to the jib. You pop into the boat and look up from the leeward side to check the sail shape. What shape are you looking for?

NY: Assuming breeze is solid, I would be looking for a smooth jib luff with no wrinkles. The jib foot should be a little flatter than normal, but still with no crease on the foot. The jib car would most likely still be in the standard car position or possibly one hole aft if the waves are really big. The jib leach should be sitting between 50 - 75mm outside the tuning mark on the spreaders. As jib trimmer I would be making sure that I trim on in the lulls so that pointing ability is not reduced. The leach tell tail should be flying 100% of the time.

IM24CA: Describe how a Melges 24 rig changes shape as you move from your base setting up to your maximum heavy air tensions.

NY: In a big breeze the Melges 24 rig has quite a large amount of forestay sag so in the lighter breezes we set the rig up super soft to help re-create that sag so as not to make the jib too flat. On base setting there will be almost no fore and aft bend in the mast creating max power in the mainsail. We use little or no backstay and some rig sag to help power up the rig overall. As we increase the rig tension we are attempting to control forestay sag and hold the mast straighter with the lowers to reduce mast bend and keep the mainsail in shape. This extra lowers tension helps reduce overall mast bend and increase forestay tension.

IM24CA: Thanks Nigel for your openness and guidance in this interview. What is your advice for people looking for more help with tuning the Melges 24?

NY: The Melges 24 is a very simple boat so to get the best out of it you really need to be on top of the rig set up. Talk to your sail maker and don’t be afraid to ask what you might think are stupid questions. In general the Melges 24 class is full of very friendly and helpful sailors. Ask and in most cases they will tell you the answers! For sure you can call me with any question on the Melges 24 and I will be delighted to try to answer it for you. E-mail Nigel Young