For most sailors, when the wind gets really light, it’s time for the motor. If you are racing however, that’s not an option. Light air sailing is the most overlooked and under practiced sailing skill. Especially for those sailors that live in generally windy areas. Having grown up and raced in a light wind area, these skills were learned and practiced by necessity. Here are a few racing tricks that could improve your light air performance.
Light is right. You can’t go wrong by keeping the boat as light as possible. Most race boats are already as light as possible. But with today s weather forecasting tools it is possible to take this to another level. If the forecast is for light air for the day’s races, then we can optimize even more.
Firstly, we can lighten the boat even more. The biggest saving here is with the sails. Generally we would have a few head sails for different wind strengths eg J1 – J4. We can now take 2-3 of these head sails off the boat according to how light the forecast. Now the spinnakers. Most boats may have up to 5 spinnakers on board for races to suit different angles and wind speeds. Depending on the courses to be sailed, many can be taken off the boat. Crew and their belongings and other paraphernalia can also be limited. For example, in really light air in a St Barths regatta, we raced our 37′ boat with 1 mainsail, J1, A1, A2 and Code0 only and left 3 head sails and 3 spinnakers off the boat. Also, gave 3 crew a holiday, and no ice or cooler, just water. But that might be carrying it a bit far…
Next, the rigging set up can be adjusted. We can ease off the rig tension in order to power up, mostly by getting more fore stay sag to increase the power in the head sail. And by having as straight a mast as possible for maximum mainsail power. The bottom was also cleaned just before the race again and the folding prop banded with rubber bands to make sure it remained closed. I’ve seen them drop open in slow or drifting conditions. Spare halyards could also be run out with mouse lines to reduce weight aloft and pitching moment.
There is also the option to get specialized light-air sails. However, that’s a discussion to have with your sailmaker so won’t go into it here.
Once the race started, we had 3 crew on deck and the other 4 “hiking” down below. In really light wind the sails are adjusted all the time to ease up on rudder movements. Lots of communication between helm, main trimmer and jib trimmer. The remaining crew were hiking to leeward down below and in the middle of the boat, close to the mast. This helps to keep the center of gravity low, less drag from the stern in the water and less wind resistance across the deck.
Roll tacking is another good skill to learn. Using the crew weight to help tack and accelerate a keel boat is really helpful! It takes communication and practice but really works. We actually had it down where the crew could do it from down below in the lightest winds. Once the wind increases to above 5 knots or so, we can have the crew on deck.
When I was younger and fitter we even experimented with no crew on board!. We left the bow man (the lightest crew) on board and the rest of us jumped off and swam behind the boat. The speed increased but the fitness of the sailors now swimmers, faded before accurate conclusions could be reached.
To get the most out of the boat requires a lot of sail trim. In light air it is easier and faster for trimmers to react to wind shifts and puffs. The helmsman should be using the rudder as little as possible to steer the boat. Big turns of the rudder cause drag and slows the boat down. Trimming and easing should be as smooth as possible. Ratchet blocks should be turned off and minimum turns used on winches to reduce friction. Also, sometimes it’s smoother to use the winch handle to trim in the sail rather than jerk it when trying to do it manually.
Another good trick is to have light sheets, especially for the spinnaker. On symmetrical spinnaker boats you can even take the spinnaker guys off and use only the sheets. If the wind is really light you can use light cord 3-4mm as a sheet. On bigger boats a polypropylene ski rope works really well. Without the weight of the heavy sheets to hold it down, the spinnaker floats up and flies better with the lighter sheets. I’ve seen fishing nylon used as a light sheet. Although, the crew have to be sharp and ready to re attach the regular sheets if the wind picks up.
Trimming the mainsail in light wind normally needs more twist. On some boats without spring-loaded or rigid vangs, the weight of the boom pulls down on the Leech and tightens it. Using a topping lift or spare halyard to lift the boom is a good option. Batten tensions should be adjusted or even have a light air set of battens for the mainsail. Same goes for non overlapping jibs with battens. You can even go so far as to leave out some or all of the battens in really light conditions.
These are just some of the tried and tested techniques picked up over lots of light air races. Some come with risk, as if the wind picks up more than forecast, you would be at a disadvantage. Each boat and crew are different so everyone has to decide how far to take the optimization. Most times these fluctuations in wind pressure happen during races so that there is no option to set up the boat completely for light air. In these situations you have to work with what you have. Just knowing the best place to put your weight or having light sheets available could make a huge difference. Both in how you change gears and in your finishing position.
So next time you are out sailing and the breeze is light, experiment with your sail trim and crew weight placement. Learning how to sail in light air can be a very rewarding experience.