Big-Breeze Survival Tips

The author offers some advice on surviving and enjoying heavy air.

The most important thing you can do when sailing in survival conditions is to plan. Contemplate worse case scenarios and know how to deal with them: how to get home, how to recover crew, etc. Planning will build your confidence and help you decide when to call it quits.

  • Avoid breaking things. Survey all shackles for cracks and wear, tape all the split rings and batten pockets, bring spare battens, and inspect halyards. Minimize mainsail flogging, and the number of times you jibe. If you have battens in your jib remember that they’re extremely vulnerable. Hoist the blade while sailing dead downwind with the backstay off and keep it trimmed at all times until the pre-start. Easing the backstay slowly will reduce your chances of breaking your main halyard. Avoid filling the kite when the boat is moving slow, and once it’s filled, never let it collapse.
  • Know how and when to maneuver. If there’s a swivel rachet/cam cleat for the mainsheet, make sure the ratchet block height is set correctly. If it’s too low relative to the cleat, it’ll be impossible to uncleat. If you plan on flying a spinnaker during the race, do a practice set. Assign someone the task of releasing the vang if the boat starts to roll excessively to leeward. Downwind, keep the crew weight aft in order to keep the bow knuckle out of the water. Ease the spinnaker guy a few feet if the boat starts to roll to windward. Assign someone the task of releasing the spinnaker halyard if the boat rolls over and gets pinned, and never release the guy¿no matter how severe the crash. As long as the spinnaker is attached at the pole end it will either luff when the sheet is eased or the pole height will keep enough air under the kite to prevent it from inflating underwater when the halyard is released. Use the increased control and lower apparent wind gained when surfing to sail by the lee or jibe.
  • Keep the boat balanced. When you flog the main, the load on the sail plan shifts forward as the jib tries to pull the bow to leeward. To counteract this force, ease the jib so you can just fill the main. If you have too much jib ease or too much main trim the boat will tend to round up, requiring too much weather helm. It’s usually not the spinnaker that causes the boat to wipe out during a jibe, it’s the impact of the mainsail that torques the boat out of control, so ignore the kite and concentrate on the turns¿get the bow under the mainsail before it fills on the new jibe.
  • Don’t stop playing the game. When it’s extremely windy, it’s easy to overstand because it’s hard to see the marks, so stay on the racecourse. Pay attention to wind shifts, but choose your tacks wisely. You can set and sail with a spinnaker in far more wind than you can jibe with one. If conditions are really out of control, it’s better to set and sail to the layline, then douse, jibe, and jib reach the rest of the way to the leeward mark.
  • Most race committees will cancel racing before it gets too windy; so if they do get a race off, enjoy the unique opportunity and the wild ride.