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
During and immediately after a tack, the jib sheet should be eased and the main traveler dropped to leeward. After completing the tack, head low and build up speed as you gradually sheet the jib in, bring the main traveler toward the centerline and head higher. Don't bring the main traveler all the way up until you are at full speed and at the appropriate angle of heel. Most of your competitors are losing with every tack, so one can make significant gains by merely reducing the amount of slowing that you incur with yours.
Pointing is not a goal. Aiming high is slow and slow means excessive leeway (not as much lift from the underwater foils) so that you lose "gauge." The faster you go the higher you go-almost regardless of how high you are heading.
That crew weight pays means keeping the sails as full as possible at the optimal angle of heel is valuable, not as flat as possible, but as full as possible and as close to the centerline as possible while avoiding excessive heeling. In other words, do not flatten the sails too much. In most boats it is best to keep the mainsheet in hard and play the traveler as the latter is so much easier to control. Use as much backstay/jibstay as is necessary to flatten the main and as much tack downhaul as is necessary to flatten the jib in order to keep the boat on its feet and feel fast, but no more.
Over flattening the main in heavy air is one of the most common mistakes for at least three reasons: 1. Excessive backstay: "It's blowing, so pull it in as much as you can." (I can remember saying that). In boats with a flexible mast it's easy to get too much rig bend. 2. Excessive lower shroud tension. We want to get a little lateral mast tip fall off so as to reduce the heeling moment in gusts. A little is OK, but not so much as there is no power left in the upper sail. 3. Excessive rake. If there is too much rake, the mainsheet will become two-blocked and you will be unable to get the main leech as tight as need be. The solution (in boats with adjustable jibstays) is to tighten the jibstay which tightens the main leech directly by reducing the rake. With any of these three mistakes, the mainsail will have insufficient forward thrust, the boat will be slow and its leeway will increase.
I tried to make the sails fuller with every letup by easing the backstay and the jib tack (and vice versa). After the boat was under control and moving, I kept trying to ease the backstay, to bring the traveler up and to ease the jib tack downhaul. I knew that if I could keep the boat upright, feathering along close to the wind at a fixed angle of heel with the main a little fuller (its leech a little tighter) and the boom a little more on the centerline, she'd be a little faster and that we would go even higher.
Sail flattening has to be done in the context of aiming the boat high and reducing the heeling force, which brings us back to steering and keeping the boat doing three things simultaneously: going fast, keeping the angle of heel and the direction headed (the apparent wind angle) as constant as possible and heading as high as possible. We did our best to show the heavyweights that we could beat 'em at their own game. We were unsuccessful, but we thought we attained an honorable second.
I remember watching (from a power boat) a Soling championship at Punta Gorda, Fla., with Buddy Melges. The wind suddenly increased from 10 to 20 knots. The gusts were controlling the boats rather than the helmsmen and many of them were being blown over and sliding to leeward. Buddy attempted to remind them that heading high, a condition which-though difficult to achieve-is surprisingly easy to maintain, was essential to heavy air performance. He shouted to the leader, Chief Abbott, as loudly as he could, "Stick it up into the wind!"