We once had a fifth man on board who was relatively inexperienced. He didn’t have much to contribute to either speed or tactics, so in the spirit of giving him something to do, we assigned him the role of “wind spotter.” He blew us away with his ability to see and communicate the wind on the course. By the end, he was the main tactical contributor, making the tactical decisions all but obvious from the picture he painted. He completely immersed himself in the role. Perhaps with no pre-conceived expectations he did not realize that wind spotters are rarely that dedicated.
Some people seem to have the ability to “see” the wind. But, of course, wind can’t be seen, so instead they have a knack seeing indicators affected by the wind. For sure there are some techniques worth discussion.
Good vision: Some people just see better than others, chose them as your wind spotter! Sun glasses: Quality glasses with the right prescription if necessary.
Understanding texture: More wind usually creates small ripples on the water which show up as dark patches on the water. Seeing this texture is the main role of the wind spotter.
Filtering out external visual input: Just because an area of water looks dark does not mean there is a puff. A cloud above, a mountain in the background, or the reflection of the sun can give us false visual input, so taking this into account is important. For example, if the sun is shining off the water, it looks lighter there, but it may well not be. If it then it gets a little duller in the sun’s reflection, that might be signs of a puff. One technique is to try and just look for the ripples themselves and compare one area to another. Darkness is a good start, but discerning that from true texture is a much better indicator.
Higher up is better vision: Try seeing a puff from just inches above the water – you can’t. So standing on the gooseneck before the start and standing up on the deck occasionally during a race really helps especially in seeing wind in the distance.
Technique: I like polarized glasses so it filters out some of the reflection that looks like lighter wind. I like tilting my head so I see the water with and without the polarization to get a different view. I also like to look away from a spot I am not sure of then back. By scanning side to side I can better see texture differences. Just staring in the distance isn’t good enough.
Other indicators: We look for anything that might help us, such as other boats on or near the course, flags, cruising boats in the distance. Change in cloud patters will surely bring something different in the wind, so looking at the water below the side the clouds are changing at is a great place to focus attention.
Lulls: It’s just as important to find wind where there’s less wind. There are signs, such as one side being shinier, or boats “standing up” (sailing flatter with crewmembers sitting in). But be careful not be fooled by the reflection of the sun, or cold spots on the water. Some local shiny spots are sometimes areas of cooler water that in turn have a thin layer of cooler air which the wind has trouble penetrating.
The wind spotter is not the puff caller. Instead the wind spotter is looking for a trend for the tactician to take advantage of tactically by being the first to see it. There are three zones that the team should be looking for wind.
Zone 1, immediate: The puff caller is looking just a few boatlenghts out and counting down “puff in 3, 2, 1,puff on.” The puff caller is helping the boat go fast by giving the team a few moments to adjust sail trim, body weight, and steering in the immediate time frame. They are not the wind-spotters responsibility because they are about speed, not tactics.
Zone 2, short-term trends: The wind spotter is calling 10 boatlengths or more out. These are puffs and lulls that are far enough away that they could be used tactically.
Zone 3, far: Scanning the edges of the course. Comparing wind on each layline and beyond for bigger trends.
Seeing the wind is of no use if it’s communicated well. “There is more wind on the starboard layline than the port” is good information. “Because there is darker texture on the water and the boats to the right seem more powered up” is even better because it give confidence and credence to the initial statement. “The left seems shinier and the boats are standing up” seals the deal; the tactician has no choice but to head to the right.
Dedication rounds out the best wind spotter. It is one of those thankless jobs that even the most dedicated teammate fizzle out on. To relentlessly look for wind and communicate it for an entire regatta is not easy, but done right, it sure is effective.