McKee's Key West Minute: The Art of the Surf

Key West's steep waves demand full-time attention and sharp awareness of knowing when to plane and when to soak.

Key West Race Week
Planing in Key West, in either a Flying Tiger or a J/70 is balance of surfing and getting to the mark. Each mode has it's moment.Photoboat/Quantum Key West Race Week

What a perfect day of sailing today! The conditions were absolutely magnificent, 13 to 18 knots, emerald green warm water, nice rolling waves. On the Division 2 course, we had three excellent races and were back at the dock at 3 p.m. The forecast is similar tomorrow, so everyone is excited for another beautiful day.

My biggest take away from today is the importance of finding the right mode to sail the boat downwind. We could keep the bow up and go fast, or we could try to surf the waves low, but as is often the case, the fastest mode was a combination of both. If the puff was on, it was best to keep the boat a little higher and faster and try to plane (assuming you are on a planning boat!).

Focus on maintaining that perfect heel angle of about 5 degrees through smooth steering, keep the weigh out and pretty far back, and trim the sails carefully. Then, when a good wave appears, you have the speed to ride it down, maybe initiated with a pump from both sails.

When it was a little lighter, we could not really plane all the time, so it was better to find a semi-planing mode. This meant the crew weight a little further forward, the rig powered up with backstay ease and a little vang on, and we accept a little lower boatspeed. If we see more wind to windward we could heat up to get to it sooner, but most of the time were were just trying to efficiently get down the run. We can still sometimes catch waves, but not as many because our speed is lower.

The most challenging time comes as the wave we are surfing starts to go past. There is a strong temptation to try to milk the surf as long as possible, keeping the bow down and riding the wave. The problem is that you end up getting too slow. Then you have to spend more VMG heating back to get to a speed where you can catch waves again. So it is much better to start to head up before the end of the wave, while you still have good speed. You miss the last part of the surf, but this is more than compensated for by the higher average speed and the improved ability to catch the next wave.

On a non-sailing topic, today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It is the day when we celebrate the values represented by Dr. King, who showed the world the meaning of courage and conviction in the face of overwhelming odds. King advocated for the rights of blacks and other minorities, but he did it in a way that was both forceful and non-violent. He helped to teach us that every human has the same capacity for goodness, and that discrimination in all of its forms has no place in this great country of ours. He fought it with dignity, with passion, and with an intelligence that got everyone’s attention. He is one of my heros, and in this time of uncertainty, I remember what he stood for.