My boat doesn’t “go” in light airs

It’s a comment I hear quite often and while most competitive sailing events will not start a race under a certain wind strength, during club racing or long offshore races, boats are quite often sailing in less than five knots of true wind. Leaving some owners wondering how to get their boats around a racecourse.

JPK 9.6 in slightly more wind than today’s

Last Sunday was a case in point when I raced a JPK 960 at Weymouth sailing club. The wind was incredibly light. The race officer set a short windward-leeward course and owners mentioned that their boat “doesn’t go in light airs”. Well we proved that it does (and is actually quite fast) by leading to the windward mark, then the leeward mark and just being pipped to line honours by a couple of faster boats. On corrected time we won by just under a minute!

Would you like to know how we did it?

In this article I will give you a full explanation of our approach to the days tricky conditions.

First thing for the crew to understand is that any movement around the boat in conditions like this have to be gentle to avoid shaking the wind out of the sails or creating any waves. My sailing mentor, Derek Abbott, taught me in my early sailing days that stealthy, cat like, movements are the order of the day when the wind is light. Easily said but the reality of big boat sailing is that it is often difficult to move around smoothly. Also, sitting on your haunches ready to leap into action can mean that your body is not stable and again, any movement from this imbalance will be transferred through the hull and into the rig. To minimise this I encouraged all the members of the crew to sit on their bottoms as much as they can. In short, get comfortable and sit as still as possible, we are in this for the long haul.

Where the crew weight is positioned is also very important. When I first sailed the JPK in similar conditions (slightly more wind) the crew initially congregated in their usual positions in the cockpit. Two crew members to work the cockpit, one on the mainsheet and the helm sitting behind the mainsheet traveller. I encouraged them all to move forward, out of the cockpit and onto the deck. I moved forward and helmed from in front of the traveller which meant I could play the mainsheet myself. The difference in trim was dramatic and instant with the transom coming up level to the water line where before it had been a good twenty millimetres below. The wake was clean, gurgling diminished and speed increased.

During this race the sea was flat so I was happy enough to have the crew weight on deck but if there had been any left over chop I would be encouraging one or two crew members to go below and sit as low as possible to lower the centre of gravity and reduce the pitching moment.

Keeping the rig still is important as it gives the air a chance to move over the rig from leading edge of the genoa to the trailing edge of the mainsail (Fundamental number 1 if you have ever been to one of my brother’s lectures).

Next we need to think about how the sails should be set to extract as much energy as possible from the moving air. As mentioned earlier it is hugely important to keep the air moving across the sails and making by making the sails as flat as possible we can help what little wind there. I use the telltales to check that this is happening and I pay particular attention to the leech tell tales on the mainsail.

Although the mainsail was set fairly flat but I did leave the outhaul eased a couple of inches and we set the jib cars a little forward with the inhaulers eased. That seems contradictory to my previous advice but this is why I thought it important: In winds less than 4 knots it’s a big mistake to try to sail upwind close hauled so I tend to sail low, perhaps 10 degrees low at times. This means we can sail with slightly fuller sails to generate a bit more power, with sheets eased and trim the sails to the wind. This “Fan sheeting” technique means that when the wind shifts ( and it does in light airs…. a lot !) we simply adjust the sail trim to suit. Specifically, when the wind heads we sheet the sails in slightly. Conversely, when the wind lifts we ease the sheets again and let the boat accelerate. When we get to steady wind state I gently steer the boat to the new wind direction and trim the sail to suit. This technique has two big advantages.

  • It encourages accurate trimming which extracts as much energy from the wind as possible and keeps the boat moving
  • It minimises rudder movement which in turn reduces the braking effect of the rudder, well rudders, the JPK 960 has two!

At the start of the race we were slightly further towards the pin line than I would have liked but I had arrived a bit early and there was another competitor keen to get below me and try to push me over the line. To facilitate the Fan sheeting technique I wanted to have clear water to leeward so I opted to bear away along the line to get below the other boat. This did mean we had boats above us and closer to the favoured end than we were but we had room to bear away and accelerate. Many of the boats higher up the line had not read my advice and were sailing too close to the wind with the inevitable consequence of stalling the rig, over steering and falling back. With our little bit of hull speed the keel was generating a little bit of lift and we actually made a better course to windward (Velocity Made Good or VMG) than the boats around us.

Another advantage of sailing fast and low (fast being a relative term obvs) is that when the wind heads, any boats to windward fall in behind your transom. This is exactly what happen when we reached the first header of the day. We tacked onto port with the majority of the fleet safely below us.

Roll tacking a JPK 9.6 is a tricky operation as it does have a large bulb on the keel which makes it a “stiff” boat and very resistant to rolling. We gave it our best shot though and after the tack was complete we concentrated on reducing drag by moving the crew weight as far forward and to leeward as possible. Always try to lift as much of the rear section of the hull out of the water as possible. In this manner we progressed well to the weather mark and we rounded the windward mark with a slim lead.

Here the second key part of our strategy came into play. We had decided to use the symmetrical spinnaker rather than the asymmetric. Although the symmetric spinnaker is smaller, the ability to move the pole gives a similar advantage to the fan sheeting technique upwind thus reducing the need to steer the boat too much. Plus we could sail a shorter route along the Rhumb line. Those boats opting to use their asymmetric spinnakers set off at an angle and were generating some apparent wind which looked good for them whilst our gamble of sailing the shorter distance looked a bit sad. There was a slight current running from right to left across the course which meant that we could head up to proceed along the rhum line “crab wise”. At some points we were almost beam reaching with the pole forward, at other times the spinnaker was blowing back into the boat as the apparent wind caused by the current made us effectively “head to wind”. That bit of current would also have the effect of reducing the apparent wind the asymmetrical boats would experience after they gybed onto port.

At this point we were looking good again and it looked like our gamble was beginning to pay off. Looking behind us we could see a line of wind approaching from out to sea. At this point we concentrated hard on getting to the leeward mark as quickly as possible hoping that we could round up before the wind line arrive thereby being the first boat to get to it. On the final approach the leeward mark the wind died completely and our spinnaker turned inside out. We made the decision to drop the spinnaker, hoist the headsail and let the current take us to the buoy.

We were now well-positioned for the mark rounding. Approaching the leeward mark on starboard tack and on the inside of the course is always helpful from a rules perspective and I was content to continue even if it looked like we might be caught by boats behind us driven by the approaching wind line. There was certainly no way they could get inside us.

The next crucial moment was the leeward mark rounding and we discussed it as a crew to make sure everyone knew exactly what we were trying to achieve. One feature of the JPK’s two rudder system is that the boat has a very wide turning circle so the crux of the rounding would be to get the boat to heel as much as possible to encourage it to steer. It wasn’t pretty, I missed judge the rounding and we left quite a gap between us and the mark. Fortunately we were clear ahead and our next issue was going to be how to get to the wind line as quickly as possible. We continued on port until the wind line approached and as it did the wind veered and headed us. Clear to put in as good a roll tack as we could to sail towards the finish line. As the wind filled across the course area, a couple of faster boats that had been behind us had been able to tack slightly earlier than we had. With the veering of the wind we had in effect over stood the finish line and we were sailing with sheets eased towards the committee boat end. One of the larger boats simply had more hull speed and sailed through us and another boat who had tacked at the leeward mark was able to just pip us at the pin end. . There was not much we could do about that sadly but we finished fairly confident that we had done enough for a reasonable result. Once the handicaps had been calculated we had won by just under a minute. Great result in a boat that “doesn’t go in light airs”.

The take away points for light airs are:

  • Keep the rig as still as possible
  • Flat (ish) sails
  • Fan sheeting to extract as much power from the wind and keep the boat moving
  • Reduce hull drag by moving crew weight forward and to leeward
  • Move the rudder(s) as little as possible

2 Responses to My boat doesn’t “go” in light airs

  1. Kathy November 27, 2019 at 6:05 pm #

    Exactly the same strategy was employed on Arcsine , which enable us to move 6.5 tons to line honours and 2nd place on handicap. I echo all the points you made. Even with a small jib.
    Very clear explanation Richard

    • Richard Bowers December 5, 2019 at 4:02 pm #

      Thanks Kathy,

      Arcsine certainly got some speed up on that last leg to the finish!!!

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