Heavy Air Skippering

Skippering in Heavy Air.

Jonathan McKee

Sailing in heavy air is an exercise in mastering the elements - conquering the winds and the waves. Forget about the other boats. If you can sail around the course by yourself competently, you will do fine in the race. Keep your goals modest. The trick is to maintain focus all the way around the course. Usually, you flip or get into trouble when you are spaced for a second and stop focusing on sailing the boat. A few rules of thumb- firstly, minimize your maneuvers. Plan a beat that requires 2-3 tacks. Watch for starboard tackers and decide well in advance to tack or duck (usually duck). Minimize tacks, find wide lanes and just sail. The key is to get from where you are to the next mark in an efficient manner. Avoid the big mistakes. See things coming, plan each maneuver, and give you and the crew time to get ready.

Communication with the crew is essential. You must use clear words and take decisive actions to exude confidence. Be encouraging and upbeat without being condescending - a few crew doggie biscuits can translate into sustained hiking and other good things. Remember the crew may not be aware that you have things totally under control. Be soothing but give them cause to have confidence in you. I've noticed that most crews are not too keen on swimming during sailboat racing - avoid this at all cost.

This may sound contradictory, but don't granny around the course. You are more likely to crash if you are trying to be too conservative because your focus won't be as sharp. I find it is safer to be aggressive/assertive/alert. Not necessarily against the other boats, but against (with) the elements. Meet the challenge of the breeze head on. Don't space out.

Preparation: As with most endeavors, the race is often won or lost before the start. Make sure your boat won't break. Check things and replace suspect parts. Get out to the start with enough time to sail upwind and downwind - at least 15 mins. - to get comfortable with the conditions. People think that they will get tired if they go out early. I think you need at least some time to stretch out your hiking muscles and get dialed into the conditions.

Upwind: The most critical control is the jib sheet. 18 knots, it is eased about 1 inch and out one hole on the track. In 25 knots, it is eased 2-3 inches and out 2-3 holes. In a big lull, pull it in and in a big puff, the jib needs to be eased. (this puts a premium on jib cleats working well under load).

Mainsail controls are pretty simple: some tension on the vang but not a lot, lots of cunningham, moderately tight outhaul. You will be playing either the sheet or the traveler. I play the traveler up to about 25 kts and then take the sheet to make it easier to tack. If the main goes inside out or you come un-rotated because you have had to ease the main so much, the jib should be looser (or you are steering poorly). Limit how much you ease the main, to keep the mast from un-rotating. Find the sweet spot and concentrate on steering, except in the biggest puffs or lulls. Forget about the tell tales on the jib and just steer to stay flat. You don't do much with the main except ease a bit in the big puffs and get it in a place where you can be flat. Hike hard and steer as precisely as you can. The windier it is, the more important it is to go fast. When it is lighter, pointing becomes important. Go fast in the breeze and get your pointing that way.

Tacking: Give the crew plenty of time to get ready. I give a pre-warning like "tacking in 15 seconds". In less than 25, tack like normal. Don't let the traveler go too far to leeward out of the tack or the mast comes un-rotated - your worst nightmare. This means you need to come through the tack, grab the traveler line, and get your butt over the side so you don't have to drop the traveler. When tacking the sheet only in very strong winds your mechanics are a bit easier, but again don't ease too much. Plan to tack in plenty of clear water whenever possible. Don't tack to leeward or just to windward of someone because it takes longer to get up to speed and you need space to do that.

Downwind is easier than most people think. Keep the mainsheet in your hand at all times. Except in a very few cases, sail towards the mark. Most importantly, keep the boat flat. Any sudden heel will cause you to fall off a plane. The most efficient method of keeping flat is a combination of steering, weight trim, and mainsheet. This is where a little finesse will serve you well. Bear away moderately to dissipate excess pressure at the beginning of a puff, coming up again slowly as it starts to ease to regain pressure. At the same time you are pulling away, give a little extra hike and a little ease on the sheet. Not too much of any one of these, or you will over-react and heel to weather, which is very slow on a reach. Do the same in reverse at the end of the puff; come up a little, trim a little, and sit in gently if required. There is much to be gained by maintaining a plane a little longer, so focus on finesse at this later part of the cycle.

Fore-aft weight is also important, but I try to make the crew mostly responsible for this. It is basically a function of hull speed; the more speed, the more aft (tighter reach and more wind). We are both in the back straps on a reach in 25 kts. Just remember to slide forward as the puff eases or the stern will sink. Try to focus on being smooth rather than quick with all your motions/sheet movements. Sometimes a well timed pump to get down a wave can help, but far more often it's better to be more subtle. Don't worry too much about other boats. If you keep going fast and toward the mark, others around you are bound to falter. You can pass another boat surprisingly close if you are sailing better.

Running is also fairly straightforward. Again, the most important thing is keeping a constant angle of heel. It doesn't seem to matter too much if you are dead flat or a little heeled to windward, but rocking is slow. If you are nervous about flipping to windward, put the mast in middle rotation, and don't ease the vang too far. Speed on the run is mostly about steering; head up as you heel to windward and bear away as you heel to leeward. Think about keeping the boat directly underneath the rig. Don't let the shrouds forward if it's really nuking. Centerboard can also be halfway down to aid control. Have the crew look behind for big puffs. Sail towards the mark. Don't worry too much about bad air. When you jibe, grab all the mainsheet parts and firmly throw the boom across, without moving the weight too radically. Arrive alive at the leeward mark, with a plan for the next beat.

Heavy air is the ultimate manifestation of sailing skill. It is a test of wits against the elements, much more so than the other boats. One of the best things about Tasars is that you can sail in a lot of wind. Once you master the basic techniques, you're only limited by your nerve and your ability to focus. As you move beyond fear and trepidation, it starts to become the most rewarding part of sailing, the days you never forget. Enjoy.