Light Wind Racing

Light Air Racing

Light Air Racing: Successfully Enduring Drifters
By Dave Ellis


Like it or not, we sail in an area that is known for light air Sailing events. How do we race our PRHF boats in the drifters we are likely to have?

If there is smooth water with that very light air, forget the old adage about full sails for light air. Instead, upwind, make the mainsail rather flat, similar to heavy wind. The outhaul should be pulled almost tight. If you have a means to bend the mast with the backstay, do it. Pull the Cunningham, or pull the halyard tension, just enough to almost remove the wrinkles at the luff. You want the draft fairly far aft. The first part of the mainsail is messed up by the mast anyhow.

Two sailboats in light winds racingIdeally the boom should be raised up just enough to allow the top batten to be parallel to the boom. The weight of the boom pulls down and closes off the top of the sail. Some boats have a vang that can push up as well as down; others tighten the topping lift to lift the boom a bit. You will have to let it off and re-tighten after each tack. Check the top full-length batten, if any, after each tack or jibe.As for the genny, if you have pre-bent your mast with the backstay, you will have a tight forestay. While this is not ideal, it seems to work best with those boats with a relatively larger mainsail than jib. It is unlikely that boats with a larger headsail than main would have an adjustable backstay anyhow.

In either case, the foresail can be a little fuller than the main. Pull the halyard only enough to almost remove the wrinkles, but no more. In really light stuff and smooth water try moving the jib fairlead back, yes back, an inch or two. It seems that there may not be any wind at all at the bottom of the sail so you want that area flat for no drag. But aloft you want the sail to twist off to match the mainsail.

Don’t forget to move the jib fairleads forward of average when the wind picks up to 2 knots or so. Then you want the jib full and not cranked in very far. Unless you move the fairleads forward, the top of the sail will be luffing.

Get the crew weight to the lee side of the boat. If the sails can fill from gravity, whatever wind there is can do its work instead of first filling the sail. Most boats are designed for a wind speed of between 8 and 12 knots. Below that and they tend to have a lee helm, especially with the biggest foresail in the inventory up in the front of the boat. Heeling induces a bit of weather helm to balance that tendency.

You will not be able to point very high. The sails may look okay, but if the keel is not going through the water, you will have more leeway than if you cracked off a few degrees.

Most boats have less wetted surface, hence drag, if crew weight is also put forward, depressing the skinny bow and getting the aft sections out of the water.

Especially if there are waves during drifters that move the top of the mast fore and aft, forget the adage about keeping crew weight together. Instead, spread the weight apart, keeping the forward and lee side weight in mind. At those slow wind speeds, the moving of the rig and sails is more damaging than the boat’s bumping the swells. You can’t go unless the sails push you. Spreading the weight inhibits the boat from bobbing fore and aft.

On reaches, go ahead and give your sails some shape by straightening the mast, letting off the Cunningham or halyard, letting the jib halyard off a touch. It is especially important to lift the boom on reaches. The genny takes care of itself, especially if you can lead it out to the edge of the deck. If you are using a spinnaker, drop the pole down to match where the luff wants it to be. It will be lower than any normal breeze. Pull it back up in puffs and down in the really light stuff. Otherwise the sail won’t fly. If you are using the ‘chute, douse the foresail in light air.

two boats racing in light winds

Don’t forget to trim the main. It is still a big sail, even with the spinnaker up. On a spinnaker reach you will have to pull the boom in farther than you think. With a spinnaker that only goes up the mast part way, twist the mainsail out markedly above the head of the ‘chute. You will have to do this with the vang or topping lift trick. Again, don’t forget the topping lift and top batten when you jibe.

More important than any of this go-fast stuff is going where the wind is blowing. A 2-knot puff will increase your speed and momentum over a drifting boat enough to give a huge lead. Keep your eyes open for wind coming down the course.

If you are drifting upwind and get a header, chances are it would be best NOT to tack. It is likely either a place with no wind at all, or a puff ahead and you are in the outfall of it. Keep going. Unless you need to meet a puff, tack as seldom as possible.

Generally, stay out of the middle of a racecourse and out of the middle of a lake. There is usually better breeze at the edges.

Now, you get to pick which edge.