Sailing Tips

The weather at Northampton in 2010 was one of extremes. Saturday saw survival conditions, Sunday light and shifty. Very few competitors seemed to be masters of both. On the Saturday evening, there was a discussion around the dinner table concerning surviving in a blow. The ideas below come from that discussion. The light wind sailing tips are mostly mine, with additional advice from the person who sailed past me in the last race down the run…given as she sailed past!

Light Winds (Force 0-2)

Reaching in light winds you need to keep the boat going at maximum speed in order to keep up with whatever wind there is, for as long as possible.

Boat trim: Half centreboard or slightly more. You can always turn your boat on its side and measure what is half centreboard and mark it with a waterproof pen, so that when you round the windward mark you know exactly how far to bring the board up. You should be sitting well forward, even in front of the thwart, but don’t sit on the fore deck as this digs the bow in too far. All you want to do is lift the transom, which creates a better flow of water off the hull. You should also heel the boat to leeward approx. 5-10 degrees, although when the wind increases, bring the boat flat again. This will create drive in the sail and therefore forward momentum.

Sail trim: As you round the windward mark, ease the outhaul 2-3 inches, a nice wide hand span from the boom is sufficient. Anymore and the sail will be too baggy and it will stall. Ease the cunningham (downhaul), although you should not really have any on upwind anyway. Lastly but probably most important of all is the vang (kicking strap), this should be eased until the tell tail off the top batten is flowing nicely; you can then increase tension on the vang as the wind increases. If you let it off too much and a gust hits you, then all drive will be lost as the sail will just twist off, especially as we have very flexible masts. Too much vang and the sail will be permanently stalled, the tell tails will be limp as the leach of the sail is too tight and the wind cannot flow over the sail thus creating no power and no speed.

Medium Winds (Force 2-3)

In medium winds the main priority is to keep the boat flat and the sail pulling i.e. creating maximum power. As the wind is probably at its most gusty, you will need maximum concentration in order to play the main, keep the boat flat and keep the boat balanced fore and aft correctly.

Boat trim: The centreboard should be approx. half way up or slightly more, depending on how comfortable you are with the wind i.e. is it gusty or are you rolling! Where you sit is also very important in the medium conditions as you must keep the boat at maximum speed. One little trick is to keep an eye on the flow of water off of the transom. If you are sitting too far back, the transom will dig in and bubbles will flow off the back, keep sitting forward until they disappear. Once you have a nice flow of water (it will create a triangle shape off the transom), then you are sitting in the optimum position. You will also be able to start to plane as the wind picks up. If you can do this before the others then you will be sailing faster than them.

Sail trim: To keep the boat going fast you have to have the sail generating the maximum amount of power it can produce, although in these conditions that can be very difficult as the wind will be very inconsistent in strength. One minute you can be sitting with the leach very open due to the winds being on the lighter side and then you may need to close the leech because you have been hit by a gust and planing is a possibility. So in these conditions, as you round the windward mark, ease the outhaul so that the foot of the sail is approx. one open hand span from the boom, also let the cunningham right off as you don’t want to pre-bend the mast as you want the vang to control the bend.

Talking of the vang, this should be let off and pulled on as the wind either increases or decreases. If you have too much on and the wind dies then the leach will be too tight and the wind flow over the sail will be stalled; too little and when a gust hits, the leach will open and the wind flow will be split out of the sail and no drive will be created. It is therefore best that you play this as much as you would play the mainsheet.

Strong Winds (Force 4+)

Reaching in strong winds means speed and stability, get it right and you can be off and away, leaving your competitors in your wake. However, get it wrong and you’re swimming, which is not fast. To sail fast in these conditions you must keep the boat flat. If you don’t then the boom can dig in and you will capsize or the sail will just drag you sideways as you are overpowered.

Boat trim: Here you will want the centreboard to be half way up or enough to allow the boat to slip sideways, this means that as you are hit by a gust you will slide sideways and not be pushed over. You will also be wanting to sit back in the boat to help create planing, the fastest part of sailing. To begin with, sit just behind the thwart, as a gust hits you sit further back and pull in a little main, as you do this you will produce drive in the sail, the stronger the gust, the further you sit back. However as the wind increases and you become more overpowered, ease the main and bear off with the gust, this will ensure that you keep your speed , but it also means that you won’t get blown over.

Sail trim: Some people like to sail with a very baggy sail, little cunningham and lots of vang, this creates lots of power and means you can go really fast. However, when you get hit by a big gust, it hurts ( it also means you have to hike harder). Once you have rounded the windward mark you must decide whether you can survive the wind. If you feel you can, then you want to loosen the foot and release the cunningham. This will create a baggy sail which then creates power. After this you can play with the vang as this controls the amount of twist in the sail. If you are a heavy weight you could have the vang on tight and have a tight leach which means that you will not be spilling any wind out of the top of your sail. If you are a light weight, you will probably keep the cunningham and the foot of the sail tight and release the vang until the top of the sail is twisting off sufficiently to spill the wind. As you get more and more overpowered, pull on more cunningham and release more vang, you can also start to release the mainsheet, this will allow more wind to be spilled from the bulk of the main. As long as your boat is flat and you have some power, you will still be going forwards and fast.

If you are on a broad reach, you will probably start to do the opposite with the vang and pull more on. This stops the top batten from going beyond the boom, if this happens the top of the sail will take over and drive will be created in the top half, spinning the boat and you will capsize to windward, probably with the aid of a death roll shortly before.

Another way of stopping this, is to not let the main out too far, that way you will be reducing the angle at which the wind hits the main and reducing the power in the sail. Check to see how far your boom goes forward before you set sail and tie an extra knot in the mainsheet to stop it from going to far forward. Whatever you do, don’t push your centreboard completely down, the boat will try to trip over it and again you will capsize to windward.

Remember to keep an eye on the wind, if a gust approaches and you are already overpowered or just tired, release the main early and then little power will be generated by the sail and you shouldn’t capsize.

As with any leg the fastest people often respond quickest and most appropriately to the variations in the wind speed and direction that occur. Also sailors often do not realise how crucial the balance of the boat is i.e. your position in the boat, lessons can be taken from windsurfers in marginal planing conditions. In anything but light winds the boat must be kept as flat as possible.

If conditions are gusty and /or you are not confident about adjusting your sail controls half way down a leg, then use the best compromise position for your sail settings. It is probably best to keep the vang and outhaul slightly tighter, if it is gusty and you plan to only set them once. However make sure you know where the wing mark is before you round the windward mark. Stickers marking outhaul and cunningham positions become very handy for some people.

Slot gaskets wear out quickly and a torn or bent one will slow you down immensely. No water at all should come up through the centreboard case unless you are really flying i.e. the boat two thirds out of the water.

In gusty conditions anticipate the gust and start to move back; also be forceful but controlled with the boat, you must retain control of the boat rather than the other way round. You must sheet out, sit out, move aft and bear away in one smooth controlled movement. The boat should maintain it’s attitude while steadily increasing speed so that submarine adventures can be a thing of the past.

Surviving the blow

Upwind: is very simple, really! Pull Cunningham (downhaul), outhaul and kicking strap on as hard as you can to flatten the sail as much as possible. If it is so windy that you are still being blown flat, release the kicker a fair amount (trial and error) until the wind is blowing out of the top of the sail and the top batten is backing. You won’t go upwind at all well, but might make it back to the shore in one piece. Lift the centreboard 1/4 to 1/3 the way up, as this allows the centre of Lateral resistance to move aft, and allows the boat to drift sideways more, rather than tipping over. Don’t Cleat the Mainsheet! Try and keep the boat fairly flat, by spilling lots of wind out of the sail when necessary, rather than allowing the boat to be pinned over by the wind. Pushing the boat into the wind in the gusts can also allow the sail to back, but you have to be very careful not to end up stalled head to wind, and remember to bear away when the gust passes, back onto a close hauled course. In the next issue, we shall go into more detail on upwind technique, based on the experience of Simon Hopkins, who was 2nd at this year’s Nationals.

The windward mark: Several views here! One was to take the boat by surprise – in other words, instead of a gentle, cautious curve from close hauled to broad reaching or running, do it suddenly! Practice, though, as it can cause a swim to windward…

Keep the Cunningham (though one view is to let this off to reduce twist) and outhaul on – there is plenty of power in the sail still – more than enough! Some people didn’t let off the kicker; others let out enough to help keep the bow out (about 6” of rope in a 16:1 system) while others let out yet more. No one let out as much as in lighter conditions, and only way to find out what works for you is to try it!

Offwind: On the reaches, sit as far back as you can in the boat. Bear off in the gusts, luff back up in the lulls, and hope that there aren’t so many gusts you miss the mark!

Running in these conditions was the most difficult point of sailing. Some of us reached down the run, either gybing or wearing round (more of that later) before heading for the mark. Others ran straight downwind. Keep the boom at less than 900 to the centreline, keep the boat a tiny bit (really, a very, very tiny bit!) heeled to windward (by sitting on the inner edge of the cockpit or on the stern deck) rather than kneeling in the bottom, which seemed to cause most of the non gybing swims! When running, luff up and sheet in in the gusts, and bear away and sheet out in the lulls.

Gybing (or capsize righting practice, as it is otherwise known!): First thing you need for a gybe – confidence! The boat should gybe when YOU want it to… If the boat is moving fast, there is less pressure on the sail, and it comes across more easily, so don’t try and gybe when the boat is slowing down. Waiting for a lull is probably sensible. Have the centreboard about 2/3 down – enough to stand on when it all goes wrong! Any more and the boat can trip over the board. It is easier to gybe when there is room to turn the boat off a dead run if things start to get wobbly. Bad idea to gybe with the mark on one side and a boat on the other, if you can possibly help it, as it will nearly always end badly! Don’t forget to straighten the tiller as the sail is passing over your head, to stop the boat spinning to the new windward side. And don’t commit your weight too early to either side – you’ll just magnify the deathrolls… Then practise, practise, practise! If you feel that the chances of a swim are greater than the possible gains to be made by being brave, it is possible to tack the boat round instead. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Firstly, you’ll need room, and if you are taking room at the mark from boats outside, you have to gybe if they intend to and you can’t get out of the way in time.

Make sure you go far enough from the mark that when you luff up (pull the sail in as you do this!) and tack, you will have room to bear away (let the sail out again!) without burying the bows and/or passing the mark on the wrong side. It is nearly as easy to capsize doing this as gybing – but not quite!

Rupert Whelan and the nationals fleet 2010

The Light Stuff

This is so different to the heavy stuff that is as much a different sport as Tennis is to Badminton, say.

Upwind: Don’t pull anything on tight! Cunningham should be pulled on enough to take a little of the folded look out of the front edge, maybe, but for goodness sake don’t try and give the sail a smooth luff – very slow…

Some people like a fairly tight foot in the light on the theory that the wind can more easily flow round a flatter shape. I’m not one of them. I have a nice baggy foot, just a little tighter than for reaching. Kicker is just there for decoration, really, and to stop the boom skying in a puff. The mainsheet shouldn’t be pulled in beyond the point where it starts to pull downwards – if you imagine you are trying to let the sail breathe, and leech tension is strangling it, you should get the idea. When a puff comes, you can pull it in a little to create drive, but don’t forget to gently let it go when with puff dies again. So, where to sit in the boat? Some will say as far forward as possible (especially the lightest in the fleet), and they may be right, especially in a Thwartless Wonder!

Personally, I tend to sit on my thwart, and it seems to work, especially if tacking frequently. However, if sat that far aft, it is vital to heel the boat well to leeward, just bringing her upright in the puffs (same time as mainsheet comes in – see it all fits together) and then letting her heel again in the lulls. I tend to sail heeled into rather stronger wind strengths than many others (remember, we are talking drifters here) as I find it helps with spotting the all important lifts.

Tacking in light winds is an art form. Remember the rules, though; the boat cannot come out of a tack faster than it went in, due to your actions. In light winds, though, your tack can start a little way before you push the tiller over. Gently allow the heeled boat to luff up into the wind. The boat will start to slow, but gains ground to windward. There are many excellent pieces on roll tacking in Yachts and Yachting and books. Read them, and then spend as much time practicing as you can. The real question is: when to tack? Because you are bored? Because you are sailing from one side of the water to the other? No. Tack on the windshifts. It is very rare that I’ll bear away on a header, unless there is some one in the way, or I really, really need to cross the course for other reasons (at Northampton, because the mark was over there, and we had to get there somehow). So, if the sail backs, tack. Simple as that!
The windward mark

The windward is much more simple than in a blow! Bring the boat flat or, if enough wind, heeled a little to windward, and bear away. Easy – no nose dives or capsizes – I like light wind sailing! Do it smoothly, though, or the boat will stop. Make sure your blocks run fairly freely, or you end up stopping while trying to shove the boom out. I free the Cunningham and outhaul completely (my outhaul is set up to stop at the right place without re-cleating) and there should be enough kicker on to stop the boom flying in the air in a puff. Not much at all, really. Centreboard up, where to does not seem especially critical, really, though others may disagree!

Offwind: Reaching and running, sit as far forward as you can. The Lightning has a big, fat transom, and you want it out of the water. Reaching, keep the boat upright if there is enough breeze to keep the sail filled, otherwise heel to leeward to allow gravity to help, and to reduce wetted surface. Running, get the boom out past 90o and heel the boat to windward, allowing the boom to fall forward, rather than back into the boat. This e lee (the flow over the sail is going from leech to the mast, and the wind indicator is telling you to gybe) is very quick, too. If sat like this in a Giles boat, you may find it feels odd and somewhat tippy, as you have to sit on the sharp edge where deck turns to tank. In a Claridge boat, the scalloped deck edge makes things feel a whole lot more stable. Gybing: Roll gybes every time. Plenty written about them in other publications, just keep the boat moving through the gybe, and make sure the top batten pops. Well, I hope some of this helps – I shall be going out and practising it all myself, now, as it is easier to write about than it is to do!

Rupert Whelan and the nationals fleet 2010

You must be logged in to post a comment.