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This Article Last Updated: Oct 14th, 2010 - 15:13:49 

Combatting Windy Conditions with a Light Crew
By Eric Doyle, 1999 World Champion
Apr 16, 2003, 14:35

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One of the more frequently asked questions I receive is, "My crew and I are a little on the light side-- how do I set up the boat when it is windy?"

Now, I am going to outline some changes you can make to your boat to help when the breeze is up, but when all is said and done, we all know that heavier teams are faster. When you go to that big event, like Bacardi Cup or the World Championship, the best skippers are going to have big crews and the best light guys can do is hope that there are some long reaches. This seems to be the only place where the weight can be a liability. The lighter boats plane off and surf a little quicker and lots of distance can be made up. However, many times this advantage cannot be realized because of the traffic which confuses the waves too much--something which the lead (often heavier) boats don't have to contend with.

Let's start with why heavier is faster. We all know that flat is fast upwind. When the wind comes up, the heavier boats stay flat longer. This speed advantage is compounded when the waves get bigger. Heavier boats can set up with fuller sails, and therefore have more power to drive through the waves. In flat water situations, the speed difference between the boats is often not as apparent. This is because pointing really high is critical and less power is needed since there are no waves. If it is flat and shifty, the heavier boats can utilize their speed advantage by driving off toward the next shift faster, thereby leveraging out more and gaining more once the wind shifts. In the chop though, plain old power is king.

I think we all know the obvious places to start once we get overpowered. Outhaul out to the band (you must have enough purchase to trim this from the rail while racing upwind) and cunningham on hard. Now, say the boat still has too much helm and you are struggling. If the conditions are choppy, my next suggestion would be to move the mast step forward one hole. This is easily done, even on the water, if you sail with two pins in front of the mast butt. The first pin should either be a fast pin or have an easily removable nut on it. To remove the bolt while on the water, go downwind, lay the mast forward, and have the crew remove the front pin. When you trim in for upwind sailing, the mast should pop forward and lay against the second forward pin. The bolt you removed can now be placed behind the mast butt. It is a good idea to practice this at least once before attempting on race day. A piece of Teflon in the butt casting will also help the mast
slide easier.

I have found moving the butt to be faster in wind conditions as low as 12 knots. If the chop is steep, you must be able to carry more power in the main and put the bow down to drive through the waves. If the boat has too much helm, the boat will be all jammed up in point mode and putting the bow down will be impossible. Another symptom of this is when the boat pounds or chops a lot going upwind. The bow should be lively and dance over the waves and the helm should be light with just a touch of helm. In waves, the boat needs to have a wide sailing groove and should not go from overpowered to underpowered and back again with every wave. Moving the butt forward helps free up the helm and lets you carry more power down low to sail through the waves.

Another trick which helps in the breeze is tightening the shrouds. I like to tighten the uppers at least one full number on the Staymaster when it blows 15 or more. This is from my light air setting and helps to flat ten the main, tighten the forestay a little and keep the rig more upright in the boat. If the weather report calls for a windy series, tightening the intermediates also really helps. Most tuning guides recommend 2 15/16 inches for the intermediates. I have had much success tightening 1/8 or even 1/4 of an inch from this standard setting. This works especially well when the wind is over 18 knots. The goal in this condition is to keep the main as quiet as possible. Any time the sail flogs, the increased drag really slows the boat down. The head of the main must be perfectly flat, almost invisible to the wind. The upper backstay should be on firm and the lower should be just tight enough to keep the bottom half of the main fairly quiet, but not developing too much helm. The firm backstays will also keep the forestay from sagging too much. The mainsheet tension is also critical when it is windy. I have found the if you have to ease the sheet too much to relieve the helm, then the main is too full. You have to find a way to flatten the main enough to let you sheet on hard. Easing the sheet allows the mast to stand up more and makes the main fuller; not fast in the breeze.

The lower shrouds get a little tricky in the windier conditions. I might tighten them up a turn if I think the main is too full in the middle, but when it gets really windy (20+ kts) the main and the shrouds stretch a lot and the rig starts to fall over sideways more and more. This makes the main too flat and the sail will break up all the time down low. The lowers actually need to be eased at this point. This will open up the front of the sail and help to quiet it down. Many sailors have also had success dropping the rake back an inch or so when the breeze comes up. This helps tighten the shrouds and opens up the leech of the main, both of which help reduce helm. I have not had a lot of success with this method of depowering as I feel that the boat doesn't point quite as well. I prefer to move the mast butt and only move the rake as a last resort.

I hope these tips help. Each particular change helps a little and when a combination or all of them are tried together, the results can be quite dramatic. Remember, set the sails and the boat up not just for the wind, but the water conditions as well. Straighter exits and a wider groove for waves, tighter leeches and flatter sails for higher pointing conditions. Good luck and see you on the race course!!

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