Learn to love light air

by David Dellenbaugh

A few years ago, in Ohio, I sailed a Thistle Nationals that was particularly light and flukey. I was able to sail hard and stay focused for most of the regatta. In the last race, however, we rounded the final  windward mark first and headed onto the run. It was torture in slow motion. All the little puffs seemed to come from behind. We went from first to tenth, back to second, and ended up somewhere in between.

"I hate light air," I said to my middle crew at one particularly frustrating moment.

"Dave, everyone hates light air," he replied, trying to keep me going.

"OK, then, I love light air," I answered sarcastically.

"That's much better."

One of the biggest keys to light-air success is your state of mind. Most people either love or hate light air, and there isn't too much in between. If you love it, you're in good shape because your enthusiasm and confidence will keep you fast and smart.

If you belong to the I-hate-light-air club, however, you have a problem. Your attitude may be the biggest reason why you don't fare better in light air.

What can you do? Start trying to find things you like about light air - the peace and quiet, the calm, dry condition, the chance to talk with your crew, the opportunity for a "character-building" experience.

Better yet, work hard on your light-air speed and strategy. Once you gain even a slight advantage in these conditions, you'll start to like light air. You'll see light air as an exciting challenge with its own unique set of "tricks" for beating your competition around the buoys.

dell1.JPG (13939 bytes) To go fast in light air, work on proper sail trim.  For example, be careful not to over-trim your jib.  Use headstay sag to make the sail fuller, and don't overdo luff tension.  Position your lead a little farther forward in light air than in breeze.  Let the leech twist slightly more open in light air.  Here you can see the upper batten (with black stripe) is not quite parallel to the centerline, and the leech is trimmed to the outboard spreader mark.

Here are some ideas for how to improve your light-air performance:

Sail fast angles. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in light air is to sail your boat too slowly. "Too slowly?" you ask. "Everyone goes too slowly in light air!" In any wind velocity, you can choose to sail any relative speed by changing your heading. For example, you can go fast by footing or slow by pinching.

In light air, it's more important than ever to go fast. The reason if that once you start to slow down, it's very easy to stop. All it takes is a little wave or a windshift. And once you've stopped, it takes a long time for the boat to speed up again.

Therefore, the safest approach is to err on the fast side. Try to foot more than you pinch. Your extra speed will make it easier to sail toward puffs, sail through waves, sail in disturbed air, and tack.

Try to stay in the areas of most wind. In light air, changes in wind velocity are relatively more important than changes in wind direction. The winning boats usually come out ahead because they find better velocity rather than a good shift. That's why you should sail for puffs instead of headers.

When you're going upwind in heavy air, you should look primarily for shifts in wind direction. That's because your boat is already over powered, and puffs won't help you much. In light air, however, you are always underpowered. Finding more wind velocity will not only increase your speed - it also allows you to point higher. In fact, a puff can help your heading more than a lift.

Fortunately, it's fairly easy to see wind velocity if you keep a good lookout around the course for signs of better wind. Stand up in your boat before the start, look and the ripples on the water around the course, and pick the better side. It's important to keep looking around during the race because you can often get to a puff quicker (or stay in a puff longer) by tacking or footing. Remember that bad air from another boat is like lull and should be avoided because it will hurt you more on light-air days than on windy days.

dell3.JPG (3300 bytes)

"Press on it" for speed in light air.  When there's not much wind, it's deadly to let your boat get going too slowly.   Without speed, you reduce your apparent wind, you lose the ability to maneuver or sail towards puffs and you decelerate quickly when you hit waves or a windshift.   Avoid "pinching" by pressing on your jib or genoa (i.e. bearing off)   until the mid-luff telltales are flying as shown above.  That is, you want the windward telltales to fly horizontally.  In moderate air, this mode is used for acceleration (e.g. when you're coming out of a tack) But in light air, you are always accelerating, so you should use this mode most of the time.

Be sensitive to changes in wind velocity. In light air, a puff can easily double the wind velocity in which you are sailing, and a lull can cut your wind pressure in

half. To reach your best performance, you have to "change gears" with every change in velocity. In other words, you must adjust the trim of your boat and sails continuously in response to (and in anticipation of) changes in conditions. This is especially important in light air when you need every ounce of speed.

Keep you weight low, forward, and to leeward. The position of your crew weight is very important, particularly when there's not much wind (see photo on next page).

Low: Keep your crew weight as low in the boat as possible (and bunched together), especially if there are any waves. On top boats, it's not uncommon to sail with "dogs in the house" (i.e. with crew sitting on the floorboards or down below) in light, sloppy helm.

Forward: In light air, you don't have to worry about plowing with the bow, so move your crew (and helmsperson) forward. This often reduces wetted surface. and it puts the bow's curved section deeper in the water, which helps increase windward helm.

Leeward: Moving your crew weight to leeward is a natural reaction to light air. It helps increase weather helm and, in some boats, reduces wetted surface.

Move slowly, not quickly. You don't want a crew of elephants when the wind is light. So make sure everyone shifts into their "light air" mentality. Plan your movements carefully and avoid unnecessary disruption. When you must move, be gentle and smooth, as if you are walking on eggs; otherwise you'll kill you momentum.

A light-air tack, for example, is a relatively slow event. Don't just run over to the other side, like you would in heavy air, because that could shake all the wind out of the sails.Be smooth and deliberate.

Minimize tacking and other maneuvers that require turning. If each tack costs you a boatlength when the winds is blowing 15 knots, you could lose as much as two or three when the wind is five (especially in big waves). That's because it takes much longer to get back up to full speed (unless you have a good roll tack). Therefore, in light air you must plan ahead to eliminate unnecessary tacks.

Another reason that turns are slow in light air is because of wind and water turbulence. Any time you turn the rudder, you create eddies that produce drag. In light air, this drag has a relatively greater effect on boatspeed. So try to keep your rudder quiet. Use your sails and weight to steer as much as possible.

Stay out of the middle. This is one of the few times you'll ever hear me recommend staying away from the middle. But have you ever tried to play the middle on a light, shifty day? Chances are good that half the boats on the left side beat you to the weather mark, and half the boats that went right were ahead of you as well. It probably didn't make much sense at the time.

When the wind is light, the sides of the course usually seem to have more pressure. It may be that a light breeze doesn't have enough power to blow through the fleet, so it lifts up over the boats, particularly in the middle of the fleet where there's usually the biggest crowd. In any case, a conservative, tack-on-the-shifts-up-the-middle philosophy seldom pays in lighter air, especially if you aren't one of the first boats.

dell2.JPG (25611 bytes)Watch out for wind sheer and gradient. When the wind you feel at the water surface is light, there's a good chance the wind at the top of your mast has a different velocity (gradient) and/or direction (sheer). The effects of this will be: 1) Your sails will need to be trimmed differently on each tack (e.g. more twist on one tack than the other); 2) Your instruments (if you have them) will show inconsistencies from tack to tack; and 3) You can use the wind aloft to predict future changes in the wind down low. These effects will be more pronounced on bigger boats than on smaller boats.

Power up your sails. You usually want fuller, more draft-forward sails for light air because you are willing to give up some pointing ability for speed and acceleration.This is especially true when you have more waves than wind (which is often the case due to motor boat chop).

To power up your sail plan,set up your rig to induce headstay sag. Ease your backstay, cunningham, outhaul, and jib luff tension. Pull your traveler to windward so the boom is roughly centered upwind. Mor your jib leads forward slightly (so you can ease the sheet a bit without over-twisting the leech). And use prebend in your mast (to get the right mainsail shape without pulling too hard on the backstay, which would over flatten the jib).

Practice in light air. If you want to get better at racing in light air, you have to practice in it. Go out sailing when you know it will be light. When the wind goes below 5 knots, don't sail home; keep focused and keep your boat moving.

Remember that your mental attitude may be the most critical ingredient for success, so try you best to love light air. •