Speed to Windward in Heavy Weather
Speed to Windward in Heavy Weather
Stuart Walker schools us on the essentials of getting upwind fast in heavy-air. "From the Experts" from our July/August 2008 issue
After a weekend of heavy-air sailing, I felt prompted to record some of the lessons learned. The best we could do in this particular regatta was second overall, which may actually be better than a sharp stick in the eye because it does result in a more careful post-race analysis and the admission that it takes a while to remember some of the fine points. After a few hundred yards, I became fully aware that in heavy air (in dinghies and racing keelboats, at least) speed through the water is what counts most.
Nothing else works right if the boat is slow-slow because the sail trim is wrong, slow after a tack, slow after hitting a wave, slow because of too much heeling, slow because of poor steering. Slow is the enemy. And slow is common. In heavy air, most boats are going slower than they could, slower than they would in moderate air.
Speed is far more important than tactics. One is best advised to keep away from other boats and look for clear air on long tacks that permit the development of optimal speed. Keeping away from other boats begins at the start. Don't worry about the ideal place on the line; start in clear air going in the direction you intend to go. And because the fleet tends to start en masse in the middle of the line, it is sometimes easy to find a big hole at the favored end.
In heavy air, upwind speed requires competent steering. In no other situation is the helmsman so important; he must not allow himself to be distracted by anything else. Speed is dependent on keeping the airfoils at a constant position in the air stream and the hydrofoils at a constant position in the water stream. Consequently, every nuance of variation in wind strength or wave size requires an immediate luff or bear away so as to keep the boat high on the wind, at a constant angle of heel, and at full speed.
I remember watching Jesper Bank leading the fleet up the final weather leg in a 20-knot offshore breeze. His mast was fixed in the air flow, steady as a rock, at about 10 degrees of heel as he moved steadily farther ahead of the fleet. In the early days when I was worrying about keeping my International 14 from heeling too much to leeward, Hartley Watlington told me, "Never let the boat heel to windward," i.e., "keep the angle of heel constant." It took me years to understand that "keep the horizon level" was Buddy Melges speak for "keep the angle that the jibstay makes with the horizon constant." The underlying message is that the helmsman must keep the angle of heel constant, that he should be so glued to steering-up in every slight gust and down in every let-up, parrying every wave-that the boat never slows.
One must adjust every trim control to this end. If the boat slows, its leeway increases, it is more susceptible to heeling in the gusts, and it requires distracting adjustments to get it going again. Speed helps to keep the boat upright by bringing the apparent wind forward. It reduces the disparity between the apparent wind and the true wind and therefore modulates gust and lull variations. It makes the boat more responsive to rudder variations and therefore easier to steer and more easily controlled in gust/lull changes and waves.
Crew weight is a great asset. More crew weight also makes the boat steadier, less responsive to changes in wind velocity and waves and easier to keep at the optimal angle of heel. But what really matters is that at a given wind strength a heavy crew can keep their sails fuller, generating more aerodynamic force at the same angle of heel and therefore going faster, than can a light weight crew.
Because slowing occurs with every tack (even good tacks) and in heavy air bad ones are common, one should avoid tacking. Don't hit the corners, but stay on one tack until you have a really good reason to switch. We learned not to tack on an opponent's leebow (unless he is on the layline), because shortly after the start when we did so, one of the Canadians drove over us before we could get up to speed. Thereafter, whenever possible, we preserved speed by ducking, and made sure we could release the mainsheet before we did so. Avoid the port layline as it requires a tack at the mark when you least want to slow down.