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Power Up When Sailing in Chop

Bill Gladstone explains the techniques of sailing fast in choppy waters. From Sailing World, September 2001.

October 19, 2020
chop strategy
To motor through chop, you must have speed, which means keeping your sails powered up and footing through the worst of it. Paul Todd/Outside Images/NOOD Regattas

There’s nothing more frustrating than sailing in light air and heavy chop; each wave sapping your precious boatspeed. Sailing well in these conditions requires determination, concentration, and the right technique. Combining all three can turn a painful day of sailing into a victory celebration.

To accelerate in normal sailing conditions, such as coming off the starting line or coming out of a tack, trim for extra twist and depth, and sail lower angles. When sailing in chop, acceleration mode is the only mode. Speed breeds speed. The faster you’re going, the more power you’ll have to fight the chop, reduce pitching, and build speed. Sail lower upwind than usual to keep the boat fully powered. Drive to keep the jib telltales flowing. You’ll want to press down to the point where the outside telltales start to dance, but don’t stall.

Power Up Your Sails

There are three sources of power in each sail: angle of attack, depth, and twist. When sailing in chop you want to extract all the power that you can from each source.

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Set the mast straight to keep the mainsail deep, and ease the outhaul to open the foot. Soften the luff by easing the cunningham and halyard. For the jib, sag the forestay as much as possible without having it flop around, and move the jib leads forward to the point where the inside tell-tales break evenly along the entire luff. Trimming the sheet harder takes twist out of your sails, adds power, and helps you point, but over trimming can stall flow and slow you down; so, sail with more twist than normal to prevent stalling. Extra twist also provides extra airflow across the sails as the boat pitches back on the face of a wave and the bow lifts. This gives you maximum flow and power when you need it most—when you’re going uphill. The trimmer should trim as the boat pitches forward and the apparent wind moves forward, and ease as the boat pitches back, and the apparent wind moves aft, maintaining leech telltale flow through the full range of motion.

Inducing a little heel can help your performance in chop and create weather helm, which will help you keep the boat on the wind even as the chop tries to push the bow down. On flat-bottomed boats heel can also soften the landing when pitching. Another way to minimize pitching is to concentrate weight low. Send a crew below to sit on the keel. Limit movement to one person at a time, and move smoothly, like cats, not a thundering herd.

For any given day, there is a threshold speed at which your boat will be able to power through the chop and not lose speed. Be careful to keep your speed above that threshold as you reduce twist and try to point. Keep your sails deep—flat sails don’t make you point—and sheet a little harder, reducing twist. Maintain your threshold speed, and if you feel you are losing power, foot off.

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Once you’re up to speed, you want to keep the boat rolling. If you see a particularly nasty set coming, foot for extra power before you hit them. By sailing low and fast you’ll have extra power to crush the big ones, or steer through them.Just as it’s critical to keep clear air, you can make life miserable for your rivals by putting them in your bad air. Don’t tack just to cover, but if tactical circumstances suggest it’s time to tack anyhow, take the opportunity to cover a rival. When tacking to cover in chop allow extra time and distance to accelerate out of the tack. Tack just as you cross your rival to make sure there is no avenue of escape. Lee-bowing an opponent is risky, a poor tack or bad set of waves could leave you parked, and ultimately rolled, by your rival.

Keep the Flow Going Downwind

As frustrating as sailing in chop can be upwind, it can be worse downwind. Just like going upwind, the first step to downwind performance is to build speed. Head up to a hot reaching angle with the apparent wind on the beam, or higher. This will get the boat moving and establish flow across the sails.Two things to search for while reaching around: more wind or a wind shift. Fresher breeze—just a knot or two—or a 10-degree shift can make all the difference in your ability to keep your speed while sailing a lower, more direct course.

To build speed, you need to keep the apparent wind forward. Once you’ve got the boat moving downwind, let the apparent wind guide you. Sail as low as you can while keeping the apparent wind blowing in from the side of the boat. If the apparent wind moves aft, then you’re sailing too low. The spinnaker trimmer should provide feedback. If the load on the spinnaker sheet lightens, the trimmer needs to pass that information to the driver, “No lower, I’m losing pressure, heat it up.”

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Push down when you can and carry your speed at a lower angle while keeping the apparent wind abeam. But be careful; if you push down too low or hit a particularly nasty bit of chop, you’ll park the boat. When you lose your boatspeed, you lose your apparent windspeed and angle. You’ll need to head up to accelerate once again. At times it’s better just to keep it hot. Don’t try to push down, just keep your speed, crush the waves, and sail the extra distance.

As with tacking, jibes are a challenge. Look back, and try to time the jibe so you’ll come out in a relatively smooth patch of water. Also, be careful not to jibe into bad air. During the jibe, turn aggressively to get the boat to a hot exit angle, and trim aggressively to match. The spinnaker sheet will have to be eased to get the clew to the headstay—you may even have to grab the sheet and run it forward. In normal jibes the sheet is eased and guy trimmed together, but in big chop it’s important to first run the sheet out, and then trim the old guy/new sheet in.

An Exception to the Rule

In extreme conditions, when you’re unable to control pitching and establish flow downwind, you can make gains by sailing lower than normal. When the boat is slow no matter which way it’s headed, then the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This only applies in the worst conditions. Normally, you’ll make big gains by reaching up and establishing flow, but in these extremes your effective sail area is dramatically reduced and your target boatspeed drops as well, meaning a low, slow angle will be as effective as a high, slow angle.

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The worse the conditions, the more important it is to sail well. Everyone can enjoy a 15-knot day, but the only way to make a day of sailing in slop a good day is to get it over with more quickly than your competition. To succeed, focus on speed, and once you get moving, don’t let anything slow you down.

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