How to Race in Light Winds


In the UK race teams are often tormented by light winds but what separates the winners from the losers? We look at yacht racing in very light winds.

First and foremost you have to keep air moving across the sails. There are a number of tricks that skippers use. Firstly a little heel to leeward ensures that gravity holds the sails where they should be and gives them a vague chance of being in the right place when any breeze does attempt to blow across them. Upright rigs will flap. Windward heeled rigs will invert. The backstay should be loose and absolutely no cunningham used at all. Absolutely any power that finds it way into your mainsail needs to be harnessed.

As well as placing crew weight to leeward get them to sit forward to lift the stern out of the water and reduce wetted surface area. Some skippers ask crew to sit below (forward and to leeward). Be vigilant that no one sits in the slot between the sails or disturbs airflow leaving the headsails. If you have a choice of headsails fly the lighter one.

Once the boat has a small amount of forward motion (momentum) it is imperative that you do not lose this. If you are changing course use very small rudder movements and ensure the trimmers know what the helm is about to do so any ease of the sheets happens in unison with the bear away, if the yacht is slowing come up and sheet in gently to gain some more apparent wind.

Given the choice, overtaking to windward is likely to have more success as you keep your apparent wind and don’t become shadowed, especially so in a one-design fleet. You will inevitably find the groove a little further off the wind (footed off) than normal, pointing too high will bring you to a dead stop.

It is imperative that the crew remain motionless, there is no more effective method of bringing a yacht to a stop in very light winds than well meaning poorly managed crew moving around the yachts like a herd of elephants. If you need to move, think “ballerina”! If a crew member does need to move about then select someone small and nimble and ensure they complete all jobs at once rather than getting up and down every few minutes. It may sound boring for crew to sit motionless doing nothing, but it will be far more boring to sit at the back of the fleet as more disciplined crews magically pull away from you, which they will do if your crew move around the yacht continually.

Your light wind strategy should revolve around apparent wind. Clearly going upwind and down tide helps as just the tidal movement over the seabed creates some apparent. Be prepared to kedge (anchor) if the tide turns against you. If other crews have not yet realised that kedging is appropriate then prepare your anchor and lines discreetly rather than loudly advertising your knowledge to other boats. I remember in the 2003 Fastnet watching the SOG slowly reduce to 00 knots (going West) before the COG suddenly flicked to 090 degrees and the SOG increased to 0.1. This was the point we anchored in 55m of water using every bit of rope on board and some very secure knots. As dusk arrived and the sun fell we overtook other race yachts as they drifted backward and we sat on the hook. Within an hour the tide was over 1 knot and we had taken about a mile on numerous yachts. Those who continued to not anchor disappeared over the Eastern horizon, forgotten. When a little SW breeze came in a few hours later not only were we closer to it but we were several miles ahead of several faster yachts.

Sticking with the apparent wind strategy, trying to sail dead downwind will result in the least success as any movement will immediately kill of any apparent wind. Heading up and getting the boat moving may seem odd at first but ultimately moving in vaguely the right direction is better than not moving and having no steerage at all.

Avoiding wash from powerboats and getting some extra heel on when you have to sail through wash will help. As soon as wash hits you, the sails flap and the little bit of flow you have is ruined.  Keeping crew weight as low as possible will help slightly here, especially in smaller keelboats.

Concentration is essential and experienced crews will allow the helm, tactician, look out and trimmers to continue their job without distraction. Whether kedged or drifting the tactician needs to always be questioning where will the wind come in (sea breeze by day perhaps, land breeze further offshore later perhaps). The yachts that are able to react to a gentle breeze first will pull well away from those who have resigned themselves to drifting.


Race Skipper

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