How to Make the Most of the Least, Part I
How to Make the Most of the Least, Part I
Light air can be maddening, but Tony Rey has the advice to make the most of it. "Boatspeed" from our June 2008 issue.
To access the SW forums thread where Tony Rey will be answering your light-air sailing questions, click here.
Dinghies and scows, catamarans and cruisers, Optimists and canting-keel maxis. Of all the different boats we race, one thing holds true: racing them downwind in light air can really suck. It's always tedious, it's usually hot, and the going is slow. Rodney always seems to be crossing your bow in his powerboat with the hammer down. Who is with me? I thought so.
But, it's summertime in North America, and those light, long downwind legs are unavoidable. In this frustration that everyone shares lies the opportunity to gain distance and pass boats. So let's look at some basic light-air downwind concepts that will help the next time you are facing a race day in the light stuff. We will focus on strategy and boatspeed in this story. Tactics and boathandling will come next month.
Sail in the pressure
It doesn't matter what kind of boat you race, your absolute No. 1 priority should be to sail in the maximum windspeed on the course. When the wind is light, it's even more important. Here's why. If you are sailing on a 12-knot day, a puff of 1.5 knots more wind represents 12 percent more breeze. But when you're slapping along in 6 knots of wind, that same increase of 1.5 knots equals a 25-percent bump in the windspeed. In light air, there's a lot of potential boatspeed in these puffs, so go after the pressure.
Also, because you are sailing away from the wind on a downwind leg, you spend a lot more time traveling in a single puff or band of pressure than you would upwind. When we race America's Cup boats in less than 12 knots, we always hoist a good sailor up the rig to look around. The view of the puffs on the water from 100 feet up is quite clear and the perspective is well worth carrying the weight aloft, even upwind. Going up the rig may not be an option on your boat, but standing up is. So, on a regular basis, get as much elevation as you realistically can and look around for the best pressure.
The best time to sniff out the puffs is before you start the run. One of my favorite advances in sailboat racing is the offset leg. This 20-second reach gives me time to look around, think about what worked on the last beat, and decide where I want to be for the run. If I already have a plan in mind for the run, the offset leg allows me time to confirm or change the plan, if necessary. Did one side pay on the upwind leg due to more pressure? If so, I set myself up for that same side on the downwind leg.
In a regatta like Acura Key West Race Week, where there are multiple classes racing on the same course, I like to monitor what's happening in the other classes. What side seems to be paying for them?
Once you spot the pressure, the trick is making sure you sail through it. This can be harder than it sounds; the puff is usually in motion and, obviously, so are you. On a light-air run, most boats will be sailing with an apparent wind angle between 75 and 90 degrees. This means the next line of pressure may actually be in front of you, not behind as it is in heavier air. Look at where your masthead wind indicator is pointing. This is a great guide to where you look for the next lines of pressure. On a Farr 40 in light air, I usually stand to leeward and just in front of the helmsman. From there, I look forward through the windward shrouds to see future pressure opportunities.
As the breeze builds toward double digits, and you are sailing a wider apparent wind angle, your sightline for the pressure will move aft. But it is important to remember where your apparent wind is coming from, and make sure there is a good supply of the strongest puffs on their way.
Sail the long jibe
Before you round the windward mark, determine which tack was the long one upwind. The opposite downwind jibe will be the long one downwind, and it will be favored because it will point you closer to the leeward mark. If, for example, you spent most of your time on starboard tack upwind, then you will likely be spending most of your time on port jibe on the next leg-so consider a jibe to port soon after rounding the mark. Of course, this is dependent on traffic and clear air, but we'll cover that next month.
You can also watch the other classes on your course. Did the leaders of their respective fleets come from the left or the right? Typically, if there is a strong bias on the run, the puffs will also be coming from that side.
If you're unsure, the default call should always be to sail for the pressure. As the breeze increases, the priority may swing more toward the angle than the pressure. On a very light run, pressure is king.