Going Fast in a Breeze

Mike Ingham and crew sailing upwind in a white Thistle and hiking hard in big breeze

By Mike Ingham #3969 (This article originally appeared in the 2020 June/July issue of the Bagpipe.)

Breeze on! We sailed in overpowered conditions for the entire Thistle Midwinters East in St. Petersburg, FL. It was a lot of fun!

Going fast was about hiking hard, steering for waves, playing the main to keep the boat flat, and good on board communication.

Here are my top 10 points on sailing in a breeze:

1. Sail flat.

a. Flat defined: I define this as a few degrees of heel (not necessarily totally 0º flat.)
b. Helm check: You should have no noticeable helm, and to check this you should let go of the tiller and see how fast you head up. You will likely find that at 0ºyou go straight, and with a few degrees you head up slowly. If you head up at all quickly, you are too heeled!

2. Hike hard.

a. Hard hike defined: 100% hike is unsustainable. 80% or something like that is a sustainable hike for long races on multiple race days.
b. Pain: 80% still hurts! There is no way around it, hiking hard is work.
c. Your 80%: Everyone’s 80% is different, all you can do is what you can do. Find your 80% and stick with it.
d. Hike steady: Don’t hike harder in a puff and softer in a lull (assuming the lull is still overpowered as most were at MWE). Sustain that 80%.
e. DO hike harder in critical situations. Occasionally I would say something like,“100% hike until we cross this pack.”
f. DO hike less when not critical. “50% hike, there is a gap ahead and behind, let’s save our energy to the finish.”

3. Vang is a big depower tool.

a. Vang flattens the sail: It bends the mast down low by ‘ramming’ the boom forward into the mast. You will notice more overbend wrinkles when vang is on, less when it is off. More wrinkles means your sail is flatter, less means it is fuller.
b. Ease in lulls: If you do need power in a lull, ease the vang and sheet in. Still at 80% hike until you are clearly underpowered.
c. Pull on vang in breeze: If you need to depower more, tighten your vang. There is a limit; our boom bends a lot with vang on full. Our limit is just before we feel we will break the boom.

4. Main and steering:

a. Keep the boat flat: To state the obvious, easing the main and steering up keeps the boat flat in a puff, and vise-versa in a lull.
b. It takes both: It is always a combo of the main and steering, I know of no condition where I do one without the other, the percentage of each changes depending on the wave condition.

5. Main and steering in waves and wind:

a. Foot: In waves, pinching up can be super slow because the boat is slowed by waves.
b. Aggressive steering: I steer all over the place looking for the best path through waves. I find low spots and avoid steep waves, or in smoother waves to steer up the face and down the back.
c. Steer to waves, trim to heel: To do this, I have to prioritize steering where I need to for the wave while trimming the main to keep the boat flat.

6. Main and steering in flat water:

a. OK to pinch: In flat water, I can steer wherever I want with no worry that I will slam into a wave.
b. Pinch to depower: In flat water when I am overpowered, I prioritize trying to steer to the wind (up in a puff, down in a lull.)
c. Mainsheet to fine tune: I will still need small main changes to keep the boat flat where I can’t keep up with it steering.

7. It’s rarely all waves or all flat.

a. Most of the time, there is some combo of steering for wind and steering for waves.
b. In the flattest water, 100% of my steering is to the wind because there are no waves.
c. In the roughest water, I probably steer to the waves 80%, and steer to the wind 20%.
d. I would say a typical Thistle heavy wind race at MWE was 50% / 50%. The bigger waves I would have to steer through, but flat spots would allow me to steer up in a puff.

8. I ALWAYS play the main.

a. Waves: In waves, I am steering a lot through waves, so I need to play the main constantly and aggressively. I go through a large (at times an arm-length) range.
b. Flat: In flat water, even though I want to steer mostly to keep the boat flat, I find I need to constantly adjust the mainsheet to keep the heel just right. These are small (a few clicks here and there) but frequent adjustments.

9. Jib:

a. When we are overpowered, we set the jib to the main backwind bubble.
b. That means when the main is eased a lot, we have to let the jib out too.
c. For sure if our main flogs, the jib is to blame (until it blows about 30, then there is nothing left to do but flog both sails!)
d. A gentle bubble of about 1 foot behind the mast is about right. More and you need to ease. Less and you need to trim.

10. Stay ahead of the curve by calling wind and waves.

a. “Puff in 3, 2, 1 puff on,” allows me to start easing at “2,” and that prevents an initial heel in the puff. Very effective.
b. “Big wave”, or even better something descriptive like, “Square wave,” or, “A lot of waves,” is super useful.
c. “Flat spot,” is great info on a bumpy day. If there are lots of waves, it seems silly to call them all, I need to just assume there are waves until told
otherwise.

That should cover it. Sailing flat by being proactive on depowering (vang…), then sailing the right combo of steering and main sheet is the way to go fast in big breeze. Oh yes, almost forgot – hike hard.