Sailing in windy conditions can pose a big challenge for skippers and crew, especially if they’re not prepared.
Offshore racers especially need to be prepared for high winds and their associated sea states. However, even in-shore races can encounter challenging wind conditions, and often with the added complication of lots of obstacles to contend with.
What constitutes a ‘windy’ day? Well, that’s open for a bit of interpretation. Many people would say 20- 25 knots is windy, while others can quite comfortably handle 35+. It all comes down to your experience, they type of sailing you’re planning to do and how your yacht is set-up.
Whatever your definition, here are a few tips we’ve pulled together from our members on how they manage windy conditions:
Preparing for Windy Days
Adequate preparation will make sure you and your crew are ready for the conditions you will face.
Pascale White, owner of online sailing school PrepSail suggests the first thing that skippers and crew should do before leaving the marina is to “check the wind conditions and weather forecast to find out about the wind strength, wind direction and imminent weather changes.”
Preparation also includes ensuring the yacht and its crew are prepared for windy conditions. The yacht and its gear need to be in good condition and it should have appropriate sails for the wind strength, including the ability to reef the main sail if necessary.
Crew should be confident in how to manage the forecast wind strength, have the correct wet weather and safety gear and know how to use all safety features such as reefing the main sail and tethering onto jack stays.
As Andrew Dally, owner of DK46 Khaleesi says “it’s all about the preparation you have done before you get in strong winds.”
Appropriate Sail Choice
The right sail choice is critical in heavy winds.
This is not only so you have control of the yacht at all times, but also to protect your sails. A windy day is often a sail maker’s dream, as ripped sails pile up to be fixed at the end of a race.
Neil Rechlin, navigator on Nine Dragons suggests “if in doubt, drop a sail size, or even loose the spinnaker – the yacht that makes the least mistakes tends to win (or at least get on the podium).”
Pascale White recommends shortening sails early to avoid getting into trouble in windy conditions. “If you are on the water and there is an increase in wind conditions, don’t wait too long before changing sails or reefing the main. Good timing will make it easy on the crew, whilst a late action will be difficult to handle.”
“Having a wipe out nearly always costs you more time than sailing conservatively,” says Neil Rechlin of Nine Dragons.
Sailing conservatively can mean several things, such as reducing sail area, taking a little more time to do manoeuvres and minimising manoeuvres such as gybes and spinnaker peels where possible.
Keeping extra distance at the start and while rounding marks is a good way to stay safe and avoid a collision, suggests yacht owner and experienced racing sailor Bryan Moore. “At the start, keep extra distance from other boats and the committee vessel (CV). In windy conditions at Sydney Harbour Regatta this year a CV was t-boned and another competitor picked up the pin around its keel. Both events could have been very dangerous to crews.”
Bryan also suggests to “reef early, before the race for inshore and well before the front arrives for offshore, and use sensible heady’s to match.”
Trim for Heavy Air
Trim techniques and objectives in heavy air differ from how you would trim in lighter winds.
Pascale White explains some of the techniques here:
When there is too much wind, the objective is to depower the boat to keep control while maintaining good speed. De-powering techniques include:
- Reduce power by flattening sails: Bend the mast, tighten the outhaul, reduce the forestay sag and move the jib cars aft.
- Reduce the angle of attack: Head up slightly and lower the traveller.
- Reduce power by adding twist: Ease the sheets a few inches.
Depending on the wind velocity, the objectives of trimming a sail will vary. Both sails need to be balanced to keep the boat moving forward and to moderate the heeling angle.
- The jib halyard tension affects the draft position, the jib sheet controls the sail’s angle to the boat centreline, the jib car affects the twist of the sail and the tension of the forestay affects the shape of the jib.
- The mainsail trim involves a few adjustments, including adjusting the twist using the mainsheet and vang tension, adjusting the sail depth using the mast bend and the outhaul, adjusting the draft position using the main halyard, and finally adjusting the helm balance using the traveller position.
The traveller can be used to power or depower the boat. In heavy wind, move the traveller to leeward. The traveller should be constantly in motion upwind, used in concert with the helm as the boat sails through gusts.
For wind gusts, be prepared to ease the traveller at any time!
Bryan Moore highlights the importance of ensuring crew understand how to trim for windy conditions.
“Discuss trim points, traveller cars and speed stripes for the conditions. Tape up bowlines on sheets at the clew – they tend to shake loose and you end up with a sheet-less heady. Ensure everyone knows where the boom-vang is and when to release it. The main sheet hand should have the traveller in his or her hand the whole time. Crew should also all have good gloves to avoid hand injuries.”
Properly adjusted crew weight is important at all times, and this is no different on windy days.
Sailing upwind, you will likely want as much crew weight on the rail as possible, at the widest part of the yacht near the shrouds, where the weight will provide the most righting moment.
Sailing downwind in heavy air, crew weight generally needs to move back to counter the effect of the spinnaker (assuming you’ve chosen to fly one!). This is especially important for asymmetrical yachts.
Communication when sailing in Windy Conditions
Good communication is another area that’s always important, but windy days bring added challenges as things often happen fast, and the roar of the wind as well as wet weather gear makes it even harder to hear than normal.
Try to minimise verbal communication, and only say things that absolutely need to be said. Look at your crew or skipper when speaking with them, and where possible discuss manoeuvres before starting them so everyone is clear about what needs to be done.
Hand signals can also help, as long as everyone knows what they mean!
Experienced inshore and offshore sailor Jonny Allat also points out the importance of calling wind gusts and shifts on windy days.
“It’s important for someone to be calling wind from the rail so the main trimmer (as well as spinnaker trimmer if downwind) and helm can hear. If this is done well, the trimmers are ready to ease sheets and the helm can head up (upwind) or bear away (downwind) into each gust as it arrives. This will de-power the boat thereby keeping it under control, preventing a round up, maintaining course and maximising boat speed.”
Plan Manoeuvres on the Pointy End
The pointy end also has its share of challenges on windy days, and often provides a wet and wild ride for the crew on bow and mast.
Experienced bow-woman Liz Borberg highlights the importance of planning and being confident on the front.
“This is always true, but especially in heavy airs, the performance gain a confident and calm bow can give to a boat from being aware of what your next mark, manoeuvre or sail change is (or likely is) can be huge. Be ahead of the game. Talk with your mast and pit to ensure your process and timings are clear, make sure the back of the boat pass useful data, observations and timings forward. Keep an eye on wind shifts, be aware of next leg’s TWA (true wind angle) so you can predict possible sail changes and appropriate halyard/tack use, leaving tactical options open for the back of the boat. To avoid a purely reactive situation, think through “what might go wrong” and be ready with the fix before it happens.”
Sailmaker and experienced bowman Pete Jenkins also recognises the importance on planning bow manoeuvres and being ready for a rogue wave or possible wipe-out.
“For spinnaker races in heavy air, I almost always favour a windward plug in if possible. I also never take a jib or spinnaker onto the bow unless it’s highly likely it will be hoisted, to avoid losing the sail in a wipe-out or over the side in a big swell.”
“I make sure to have a person in the middle ready with the headsail bag, so I can bag the jib when the chute goes up, as you’re a lot more likely to wipe out and lose it over the side in windy conditions.”
“If it’s really heavy and a big seaway, I will tell the back to hoist after rounding the mark so the boat’s flat. This minimises the chance of losing the spinnaker while pre-bracing early or pre-tacking early with an asymmetric sail.”
“Lastly, if possible, try leave the jib up if it’s a short downwind in a harbour race in big air and have any extra floaters around you available to help control the spinnaker in a heavy air hoist or drop.”
Crew safety becomes even more important in windy conditions, when the chance of something going wrong are increased and retrieving someone from a man overboard (MOB) becomes harder.
Crew safety can be improved by requiring everyone to wear a properly fitted PFD with a crotch strap and installing jack stays so crew can clip-on while moving around the yacht.
Before doing a manoeuvre, make sure everyone knows what’s happening so they aren’t taken by surprise.
Everyone on-board should also be aware of where to find and how to use basic safety equipment, and understand basic safety procedures. Holding a safety training day to ensure crew are prepared for such circumstances is a great idea!
After the race is not a great time to start damaging your yacht!
When you return to your mooring or marina after a windy day, make sure everything is properly moored to avoid damage after you’ve left for the day.
If windy conditions are forecast and you’re in doubt about the state of your mooring lines, it’s a good idea to check on your yacht and shore everything up.
As Andrew Dally says, the “safest thing in windy conditions is to use strong mooring lines that are in good condition in a berth that protects you from the wind.”
Windy days can be a lot of fun, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into and how to manage the conditions.
The best way to prepare for windy days is to practice. Go sailing on incrementally windier days so that you and your crew can learn to handle the conditions without taking on more than you can safely handle.
Do you have a windy sailing tips or story you’d like to share? You can email us at email@example.com.