Michael Blackburn offers advice on sailing in very light airs.

Light winds require a subtle and accurate sailing technique. Rather than muscling a hull through rough water, the challenge becomes delicately sailing a rig through slowly moving air.

Australians are not as good in light winds as their European counterparts. That’s partly the fault of our beautiful country which is windier than most. If it’s light, Aussie race committees can often just wait a short while and there will be 8+ knots in a summer afternoon.

Unfortunately, if we rarely race or train in light stuff, we’ll never come close to understanding the nuances of boat handling at the start and the delicate trim needed upwind and downwind to excel against the Europeans.

So we need to re-calibrate our ideas of what is too light to race or train. And we need race committees who are unafraid of starting races in 4-5 knots like they do in major European events.

Rant over, I’ll get onto some tips.

Can You Feel It?

I’m not going to go over sail and rig set up this time, instead it’s about feel and attitude.

It’s vital to maximise your ability to sense what little wind there is. Some good sets of tell tails on the sails and shrouds and a wind indicator are a good start. Then you need to check two key areas of your boat that give you feedback about what the hull and rig want to do – the rudder/tiller and the sheets.

We need very low friction in the gudgeons and any other points of contact (like the traveller crossing the tiller in a Laser), to sense when the boat is ready to head up. Sailing too low upwind when the wind is light is a killer as the sails will stall very easily.

Make sure the pintles align well with the gudgeons and there is minimal slop between them and in the joint between rudder and tiller. You want to be ‘at one’ with the flow of water over the rudder.

For low-friction sheeting, you need new blocks plus the thinnest sheet you can comfortably use. Laser champ Tom Slingsby uses a low friction 5.5mm mainsheet which he progressed to after years of developing strength in his hands.

It’s also nice to wear as little as you can in the boat so you are a) light and b) can feel more. But please don’t go as far at Matais DelSolar (CHI) at the last Olympics – shaved head and Speedos!

Naturally, having a light hull and foils will help too.

Upwind in Light Winds

Obviously, the more wind and the clearer air you have the better. So take time in the pre-start ( less than 2 min to go) to stand up and scan the water carefully and look for areas that have even half a knot more breeze.

It’s important to be aware that wind shadows are larger in light winds. While you might be able to live for ages in a position one and a half boat lengths directly abeam and to windward of another boat in 8 kts plus, in 5 kts it’s on the edge of dirty air.

If you are only a boat length abeam and to windward then you will cop a little dirty air from the leeward boat that will slow you enough to cop a bit more and result in you being fully lee-bowed a minute or two later.

So pay close attention to your positioning with nearby boats. To ‘attack’, position yourself to leeward of nearby boats, preferably slightly bow forward. If you are even in speed with the windward boat you should be able to edge forward, but you will have to be patient.

To defend, avoid having a boat close to leeward – unless they have another boat closer to leeward of them! Clearly, starting a light wind race with a nice gap to leeward is critical.

When you are the boat to windward it’s important to keep not just your hull but also your rig away from a leeward boat. There’s no gain in being one-and-a-half lengths to windward if you’re heeled so much that your rig is just one length away.

With the boat flat you’ll also gain from having more centreboard deep in the water. If you struggle to feel the boat with it dead flat, experiment with just a little heel.

Going upwind, a good starting point is to get both the windward and leeward tell tails flowing all the time. Also experiment with sailing just a little higher so that the windward tell tail breaks half the time or more.

If you see the leeward tell tail break, immediately ease sheet or traveller so that air flow re-attaches to the leeward side of the sail. Then, gradually turn the hull up while you slowly bring the sheet on again.

Because the boat is moving slowly it’s quicker to ‘turn’ the sail than the boat, so always re-establish air flow over the sails and then gently steer up a tad.

Sit forward a bit more than normal, but not so much that steering or sheeting become awkward as you need to be relaxed in the boat.

Downwind in Light Winds

Downwind you must be equally subtle as upwind.

Avoid any significant pumping of the sail(s). It’s ok to do small trims of the sail as the fickle breeze will happily re-establish contact with the sail. But if you do a bigger pump you’ll affect the wind for metres around you, delaying its push back on your rig and slowing you down. Any change in trim will take longer for its affects to become obvious – maybe 30 seconds – So you need to be patient and wait a little while before deciding whether your adjustment was for the best.

Largely, good technique downwind in light winds and flat water involves just sitting still and letting the air hit the sails and push you along. Use feel through the mainsheet and rudder and the sound of the boat through the water to make minor adjustments to sheeting angle.

Take a deep breath occasionally and relax!

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