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Vince Brun’s Light and Lumpy Primer

The Etchells world champ tells our Editor At Large about going fast in one of the hardest conditions.

November 29, 2001
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San Diego is famous for its light air and big swells– tough boatspeed conditions– and current Etchells world champion Vince Brun is one of the local authorities on keeping a boat rolling in these conditions. Sailing World Editor at Large Peter Isler asked him for some tips recently in an interview at the North Sails loft in San Diego.

Peter Isler: Big waves and light air– where do we begin?

Vince Brun: The first thing is the rig. You want a powerful rig so that you can quickly ease the sails and still have some support in the leech. You want to have minimum backstay, outhaul, and cunningham. Set everything to make the main more full and powerful–do the same to the jib-leads forward, forestay sagging– ot too much so that it’s bouncing all over the place. The jib telltales are critical; you have to pay attention and make sure the air is flowing across the jib.

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PI: Do you try to keep your leech telltales on the main and jib flying all the time?

VB: I begin with the sail eased, and I trim until it stalls, then I ease off again.

PI: How about the leading-edge telltales?

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VB: That’s the only reference that I’ll use for trimming in these conditions. I’ll have the skipper sail the boat for whatever angle keeps the leading-edge telltales flying all the time. You want to sail a little on the fat side and never have the weather telltales lifting. Another thing you can do is ease the backstay to force the forestay to sag and keep the mainsail full.

You also want to concentrate the crew weight as tightly as possible. On keelboats and big boats, putting the crew down below on top of the keel in these conditions can make a big difference. On a smaller boat, concentrate everything together in the center of the boat.

PI: How about steering?

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VB: In these conditions, steering is the hardest. Sail with the telltales streaming; never try to point. To point is deadly. Pointing also makes it hard to build speed, so you must drive the boat fast–Dennis Conner style–which means maintaining high speed all the time.

PI: When there’s a breeze, you can steer around the waves. Does it work in light-air/big-wave conditions?

VB: Yes, if the swell is in a different direction from the wind. But when it’s just waves coming on the bow from the direction of the wind, I try to press most of the time. I hear a lot about putting the bow down when you see a wave coming and coming back up after the wave is through, but I find that hard to do. John Kostecki once told me: ” Don’t tell me when a wave is coming. Tell me when the flat spots are coming.” That makes more sense because its easier to see flat spots than figuring out how big the wave is, and how much impact it’s going to have. The guy with his bow pressed down will have the advantage in the end.

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PI: How about swells?

VB: Say you have a light wind coming from 230 degrees and the swell is coming from 270 degrees. You’re sailing sideways to the swell. When you’re in the trough of the swell you’ll get a false lift; the telltales will be stalling and your crew will be asking you to come up. When you get to the crest of the swell, the boat moves sideways to leeward and the apparent wind shifts forward. The sails luff and the crew complains because you’re sailing too high. In a radical swell in San Diego we’ll actually ease the jib at the bottom of the swell, get the lift, and ride the wave up at the correct angle to get acceleration. It takes discipline to be able to feel that you’re not too low at the bottom of the swell and not pinching at the top.

PI: What’s the common mistake that out-of-towners make in these San Diego conditions?

VB: Oversteering. It’s as if you’re tacking at the bottom and the top of every swell. The rudder movement that you create by trying to follow the wind develops so much drag. It’s better to hold a straighter course.

PI: Beginning racers are taught that you need more sail twist in rough water. Why does this extra twist work in waves?

VB: Before the 1984 Olympic trials, Bill Buchan asked Paul Cayard to be his tuning partner. They spent a month in Long Beach tuning every day. On the first day, Buchan had the trim really tight; the sails looked beautiful. Cayard had the top of the sails really twisted off, and every time he went over a wave, the top of the sails would luff. Every time Buchan went over a wave, no luffing.

Cayard’s sails were luffing because, as his boat went down the wave, the apparent wind would go forward and the sail would be temporarily under trimmed. But when the boat came up the wave, the apparent would go aft and the sail would be trimmed properly. As a result, Cayard had a lot more power and acceleration when he needed it the most. When the bow was going up and through the wave his sail was perfectly trimmed. Buchan trimmed for maximum all-around speed but had no acceleration when he needed it most- his sail was over trimmed and stalled when the boat headed up the wave. Using car terms, Buchan was set up in a high gear, Cayard was in low. By the end of the month, Buchan had changed his style and added twist.

PI: What about downwind trim?

VB: Sail hotter angles–it’s easier to steer the boat. The guy that sails low all the time will find it harder to get back up to speed after a lull. In light air you can’t really surf, and you don’t have enough wind to really put the bow down.

Also, keep the spinnaker away from the boat. That will help the whole sail plan. Don’t square the pole to achieve that. Instead, use a normal pole-forward, light-air trim. Fly the spinnaker as far away from the boat as possible.

When going downwind with the waves I like to separate the crew and skipper, spread the weight around, and stabilize the boat. Excess movement can also be detrimental, so as soon as possible, settle the crew down after a rounding. In light air, they’ve got more time to prepare for the next maneuver so there’s no need to bounce around the boat.

PI: Any trim tips?

PB: In light air, trimmers tend to take the sheet off the winch or click off the ratchet on the block. Don’t. When the wave hits, it creates a little impact on the sail–a little bit of a pump. You’ll lose that impact unless you have the ratchet on or the sheet on the winch. Your hand will give a little bit and absorb the shock. You want the impact to go 100 percent on the sheet and 100 percent transferred to your boat. It’s also critical to have your spinnaker trimmed a little bit on the soft side so you can see the curl. In chop, because the apparent wind changes so much, it’s very important to have the sail right on the edge all the time.

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