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How To See Wind on the Water When Sailing

Where there is wind, there is speed, so the goal of the wind spotter is to look for clues on the water and above

June 8, 2021
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Three sailboats racing across the water.
When spotting the wind and calling tactics, visualize where you have to put your boat to get into the puff or wind line. Paul Todd / Outside Images

Accurately calling puffs and shifts really separates good sailors from the best. Andrew Campbell is among the latter. A while back, I sailed with him in the Lipton Cup on a shifty San Diego day. The onboard conversation revealed his uncanny ability to understand what the wind was doing. He’d say, “Nice right shift coming in 15 seconds,” and then, “Four, three, two, one—here’s the righty!” As that puff hit, we eased sails, the boat accelerated, and as we headed up to closehauled, we trimmed in sails. It was as if we were on rails. Fast-forward a bit, and he’d say: “Next puff is a header, five seconds out. Looks like a big one…three, two, one—here’s the header.” He was spot-on every time.

Seeing wind and anticipating its direction, like Campbell does, are two different skills. Seeing the wind involves finding the best wind on the course and positioning your boat in it. It’s the skill you need for good tactics. Anticipating a shift’s direction is a higher-level skill, one requiring detecting the puff’s angle as it approaches your boat.

Seeing the Wind

Two basics: First, stand up. You’ll often see top sailors such as Bill Hardesty, Michael Menninger and Tom Slingsby standing just before the race, positioning themselves as high as they can, either on the deck or boom, and looking upwind. They’re trying to see everything as if from a drone’s perspective because it’s much easier to see breeze from higher up. Coupled with constantly asking the crew where the most wind is, they plan to start and position their boat in the most favorable wind. Second, wear polarized sunglasses. They really help reduce glare and allow you to better see the breeze on the water as well as its edges. Simple stuff, but they’re both key to taking the next steps in reading the wind.

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Finding the Best Wind

Finding puffs is especially important in light air because a small increase in breeze is a large percentage of the overall wind increase. Say you’re sailing in 4 knots and get a 2-knot puff. That’s a 50 percent increase. But if you’re sailing in 10 knots and you get a 2-knot puff, it’s only a 20 percent increase. To read the water, start by looking at the color contrasts—the darker it is, the windier it is. That’s pretty easy to see in flat-water venues. But be careful that sun glare or cloud shadows on the water don’t mislead you. In light air and sunny conditions, the sun glare can look a little bit like wind but might not be. Look for sparkles on the water, kind of a shimmering, diamond look. That’s wind. If you are concerned that lighting is affecting your view of the wind, try reaching down the starting line to see if the glare travels with you. If so, you know it’s just the sun.

Seeing puffs is trickier when it’s choppy or wavy because you’re seeing only the tops of the waves. There’s a lot less surface area compared with smooth water. It’s like being in the mountains. You can see other mountaintops but not much in the valleys. In chop and waves, you have to rely on what little you can see along with the heel angle of other boats on the course and previous knowledge from tuning and racing that day.

One trick to figuring out where there’s more wind on days when it’s hard to see is to look at the course as you would a whiteboard. If the same side of the course pays upwind and downwind, you can conclude that side has more wind. If opposite sides of the course pay upwind and downwind—course left versus course right—it’s likely a difference in current.

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Anticipating Puff Direction

When spotting the wind and calling tactics, visualize where you have to put your boat to get into the meat of the puff or wind line and how to stay in it as long as possible. For starters, you need to recognize if the puff is moving or stationary. Some wind lines just sit there—they look like columns on the water. When that happens, sail into it for a while before tacking. The question then becomes, where do you need to tack to maximize your time in the puff? I like to picture the wind line from a drone perspective and pick the course that maximizes my time in the wind line, with the goal of sailing toward the mark as much as possible.

If the puff is moving, determine its direction of travel. I always think of a big arrow superimposed on the puff aiming in the direction it’s moving, and that arrow tells me the puff’s actual wind direction. Then, there’s a simple rule of thumb for shifts: If the puff is headed at my bow, coming straight at me, it’s going to be a header; if it’s coming over my windward shoulder, coming down to me, it’s going to be a lift. In a shifty breeze, where a puff is moving toward your bow, you might want to tack when it hits because you’ll be getting headed, and your new path will keep you in the breeze as it flows over you. Conversely, if the puff is coming over your shoulder, you’ll get lifted, so don’t tack. Before entering a puff, ask yourself, As we enter it, is this going to be a quick tack or slow? If it’s a fast-­moving puff and you get headed, you’ll probably tack, especially if the other tack is the long tack to the mark. If it’s a slow mover, you might have to sail into it a ways.

Consider a few examples: You’re sailing on port tack, toward the right side of the course, and a puff is coming at you, from the right and directly at your bow. You know that when the puff hits, it’s likely going to be a header. But there are rare instances where a puff will not be the shift you think it will be. Say you were already thinking of tacking because you were getting toward the right corner. The other tack is becoming long, so when the moving header puff hits, roll straight into a tack. If you’re a tactician, knowing that is great because if you’re thinking about tacking anyway and that header puff is coming, you can roll into a tack right when the jib bubbles and save a few degrees of steering. For example, let’s say you tack through 90 degrees and get a 20-degree header. If you just turn right when the jib bubbles, it means you’re now tacking through 70 degrees. You’re making less of a turn, and it’s a faster tack. Plus, you don’t spend any time on the headed tack sailing away from the mark; you just roll into the lifted tack on the other board, and off you go—a huge gain.

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Now let’s say you’re sailing on port tack again, to the right, and over your left shoulder, on the windward side, a puff is rolling down toward you. That will be a lift. If a lift is coming, the goal is to generate speed out of it. Right as it hits, head up a little in anticipation, and ease the main and jib slightly to pick up speed. If you get a 10-degree lift, all of a sudden you’re tight reaching for a moment and the boat really takes off. Then bring the sails back in as you come up to the new closehauled course, ideally going above target speed. In this tactical example, you know you will continue sailing straight for a little longer, hoping to get a header before you get too deep into the right corner.

Clouds can also help you anticipate differences in wind strength and potential shifts. In tropical venues such as Miami, you’ll often see cumulus clouds. These puffy, white clouds are usually sucking wind toward them—inflow—and grow in size throughout the day. Because of this, there’s typically less wind under those clouds and on their edges compared with areas of the course in the sun. So, if the left side of the beat is covered with cumulus clouds and the right side is open and sunny, it’s usually best to head for the sunny skies, where there’ll be more wind. I experienced this in an Etchells regatta in Miami. Our team started at the boat and headed right into the open sunny skies. Most of the 50-boat fleet went left, so my risk meter was going off, but I stuck to the basic “sail in more wind” tenant of tactics, and it paid off. Our team, along with a handful of others who went right, was 50 meters ahead of the fleet at the top mark.

What about when there are dark rain clouds? These clouds have rain pouring out—­outflow—and are pushing wind in all directions as they dump rain and wind. They’re often moving pretty quickly, and if one is approaching the course, you can usually make big gains by sailing toward it to meet the increase of wind. Just like a moving puff, the wind direction is typically flowing in the direction the cloud is moving, in front of its leading edge. When you intercept the wind, the basic tactical rules apply: Tack if it’s a big header, which is often the case as you approach it head-on. If it’s a big lift, keep sailing. When the storm cloud has passed over, the wind will usually lighten and shift back, so stay away from the backside of those clouds if possible.

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In addition to getting clues about the wind from the water and sky, you can learn from other boats. In your prestart tuning, note how fast other boats are moving, how much they’re heeled over, and their angle. This helps you identify locations of more wind or a more favorable shift. For example, if they’re near a shoreline and they’re getting a geographic shift, you’ll see that their angle near that shore is often bow-up compared with boats away from the shoreline. Continue those observations while racing because you can use the knowledge gained during your second lap and in the next race.

Downwind

Sailing downwind requires a slightly different type of anticipation because you’re moving with the wind, staying in puffs longer, and the approaching wind is usually behind you. Constantly look aft to locate the most wind, and position your boat so that a new breeze catches and overtakes you. Again, you need to see the size and shape of the puff and the direction it’s traveling. Using this information, you either go straight and let it come to you, or maybe slightly change course up or down a little to meet it sooner. Sometimes you need to jibe to intercept the best breeze. Simply put, the play is to let the puff come to you or jibe at the right time to meet it. With faster, planing boats, and especially catamarans, looking aft isn’t necessarily the answer because you’re going so fast. On a fast boat, look slightly ahead and to windward, similar to upwind sailing. When you meet the puff, you might be going fast enough that you can sail the whole run in it much more so than you would on a slower keelboat. Always work to maximize your time in those puffs. And if you must jibe to get to a puff, time the jibe to intersect the puff at a point that will allow you to spend the most time in it.

Sometimes, in a boat like a Melges 24, you get a nice puff, and 30 to 40 seconds later, you need to jibe to sail back through the puff to maximize your time in it. That’s where the art form of downwind tactics comes in. The tactician who can position their boat in a way to maximize their time in a given puff is sailing the most direct route to the next mark. On puffy and shifty days, focus on looking for the large puffs rather than the smaller, short-lived bursts. It’s easy to get tricked into setting up for a short-lived puff only to lose long term to those who intercepted the big puff somewhere else on the run.

The final consideration when looking for wind and anticipating its direction—upwind as well as downwind—is to think about lanes and boats around you. If you find the best puff on the course but then get tacked on, especially while sailing the tack that’s taking you most directly toward the mark, you’ll miss out on all of the potential gains. The best tacticians position their boat in the best breeze while also trying to sail in big, fat lanes. If you can position your boat in the most wind, keep a nice lane, and sail toward the mark, you’ve got the tactical trifecta.

Tip

Every morning, I wash my sunglasses with warm, soapy water, then rinse them and dry them off with a microfiber cloth. I do that every day, 100 percent of the time, to help me best see the wind. If it’s a breezy and wet day, a secondary benefit of this trick is you can rinse them with fresh water on the boat to quickly clean them again without having to touch the lenses. Water droplets tend to shed right off.

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