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Mastering Light Air Sailing

Light air racing is no one’s favorite, but when you wake up to a glassy morning the day of a big race, you can make the most of it with these pro tips.

July 28, 2016
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light air

Light air means weight placement is key, both upwind and downwind. Paul Todd/Outside Images

It was a pretty breezy spring, with the exception of our very own Annapolis NOOD regatta. Now that we are in the peak of summer, conditions are light and squirrely. Light air races test patience and resolve; it’s easy to lose you cool and become frustrated. I used to dread light air, but then I made the Chesapeake Bay my home, and I had no choice but to attempt to get better at it. In no particular order, here a few thoughts to keep in mind as you attempt to master light air races.

Starts:

The first lesson is a reminder to stay close to the line – this is critical in light air.

Being late is the most common mistake. Make sure you’re racing well before the 5-minute gun.

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Keep the boat moving at top speed with optimized trim and weight placement through-out the starting sequence. Make sure you’re aware of the current; its effect on boat speed is magnified at low speed. Are you getting carried over or held back? Stay up current.

In very light conditions, the safest pattern is to run back and forth from close reach to close reach. This is the fastest point-of-sail in light air, and the one that will make it easiest to keep the boat moving. By repeating this pattern, you’ll help your speed/time/distance calculation, and get a feel for when you need to turn back and go for it.

When cruising around the starting line, try to avoid getting caught in a clump of boats. You want to stay out of crowds and be on your own. There’s even less breeze in a pack, and you can’t break ahead with another boat anywhere near you if you’re trying to reach and build speed at the last minute.

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You’ll want to avoid the classic tactic of starting conservatively in the middle (or in the boat or pin third). The surest way to clear air – and the ability to put the bow down and accelerate – is to start at the pin. Another option is to start at the boat and tack immediately. Base your decision on which side of the course you want to go to.

Light air starts require more commitment than normal. You just can’t be conservative.

Tactics

You really need to be ready to hit an edge. In normal races, wind shifts, pressure (velocity), and current are weighted relatively evenly. In light air races, however, pressure and current dictate strategy.

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Sail to the side you think is windier and has a better current (though a small increase in wind velocity outweighs anything else). Don’t worry as much about the small wind shifts. The most difficult legs are the ones where the current says to go one way, but the velocity says to go the other way. Say you need to go left to get out of the current, but there seems to be more pressure to the right. Hedge your bets to the right of the fleet as you head left, shepherding them to the current-favored side while staying closer to better pressure.

Upwind

When sailing upwind in moderate conditions, headsail trim doesn’t change much once the base trim has been established. The helm person steers to the sail and angle of heel, and it’s pretty much in his or her hands.

In light, puffy, shifty conditions, the headsail trimmer and the driver have to work together. Changes in velocity and direction will demand big changes – too big for just the driver to correct. In a puff, the apparent wind will move aft and the headsail will need to be eased. The driver will need to head up so you don’t correct your course too quickly and overshoot.

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Err on the side of speed. As the boat comes up to meet the new wind angle, the head-sail can be trimmed back.

In a lull, the opposite will be true. The apparent wind will shift forward. Trim the headsail in (even if over-trimmed momentarily) so it doesn’t luff, and slowly turn the boat down. Don’t turn down suddenly or hard; just let the boat coast and bear off gently. As the boat slows, the apparent wind will go aft, and the sail can be eased back out. Above all, don’t get greedy! Always go for speed first instead of height.

Heel: Heel creates weather helm and helps with feel

Keep the weight forward and leeward. Most sailors have relatively small cockpits that tend to attract lots of bodies. Get them out of the cockpit and forward by the shrouds. It also works, and is often more comfortable, to go below.

In the puffs, slide a body or two up to maintain a consistent angle of heel. Remember, movement kills speed, so everyone needs to freeze. If movement is necessary, move like a cat.

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