Safely Sail in Windy Conditions – by Lee Huddleston


By Lee Huddleston

Of course, one way to be safer when the wind is blowing hard is to not go out.  Before you go out, check the weather.  There are numerous aps available for your phone and computer.  Even if the weather is beautiful where you are just before you go out on the Lake, remember the admonition about Barren River Lake, “the only thing consistent is change.”

Even with a good forecast, look before you leap.  The wind in the Yacht Club Cove may be quite pleasant.  While at the same time just outside the Cove it may be blowing “like stink.”   If you look out on the Lake and see a herd of stampeding white horses, they aren’t horses.  They are whitecaps.  And whitecaps form on our Lake when the wind reaches about 12 knots.  That may not seem like a lot of wind, but it is enough to challenge most of our sailors, especially in dinghies.  At the very least, be prepared for a very rapid knock-down the second your bow gets past the protection of the point.

Another way to deal with strong wind is to hoist smaller sails, if you have them.  Of course, that may not be an option for you.  If not, perhaps you can reef your sails.  If so, reef them before you go out.  When you get out on the Lake and find that you can handle the wind without the reefs, you can always shake out the reefs.  It is much easier and safer to shake out reefs than it is to try to reef when you are already struggling to manage your boat.  There is another traditional admonition, “When you first think that it might be a good idea to reef, go ahead and reef.”  Trust your instincts.

On a windy day, a good crew can literally be worth their weights in gold.  But not if you coddle then and let then just go along for the ride.  You have a right to wear them out moving them all around on the boat.  After all, they are movable ballast.  It is a rule that Captain Bligh came up with.  In fairness, you might want to apprise them of this before they sign on.  There is nothing like a mutiny in the middle of a race to throw you off your stride.  On a dinghy normally have them sit as far forward as possible, such as right up against the shrouds, which are convenient since they can hold on to them as they hike way out.  You should slide right up against the crew, which is why you bought and installed that tiller extension.  On cruisers, if they are not performing their tasks such as adjusting a jib sheet at that instant, move them forward along the rail.  Sitting in the cockpit is not a good idea unless they are going to have to go back to work in a few seconds.  Technically, I understand that they can hang their feet over the rail but should not put their upper body outside the lifelines, if there are any (but, really, who is going to call you on that?)

Well, let’s assume that you are out sailing on the Lake when the wind is strong, either because the wind changed or because you are racing and having a blast.  You are able to handle the steady wind, but the periodic bursts are knocking your over and making you round up due to weather helm.  By the way, if you would like to see a prime example of that embarrassing event, watch the video on our Web page with my brother, Philip, and Margaret, my sister-in-law, one more time.  There is a shot where three cruisers appear to be about even with each other while they sail toward the camera.  Suddenly the cruiser in the middle, my own sweet Orion, rounds up, loses control, backwinds the genoa, and spins 360 degrees.  You see, the advice I have been trying to share with you in these articles was earn honestly over many years of sailing and making mistakes.  My role in life, I am afraid, is to be a bad example, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t do such and such.”

Meanwhile, back at being knocked over and rounded up in puffs.  There is a simple thing you can do to help solve this problem if you have a centerboard, keel-centerboard, or swing keel.  Raise or pull in the centerboard (or whatever you have) just a little bit.  The first few inches that you pull or crank in will not significantly reduce the lateral resistance provided by the board.  What it will do is move the majority of the board aft.  Your mainsail and the aft part of your genoa are acting like the tail on a wind vane. When the wind hits them, the vane, your boat, points up toward the source of the wind.  By moving the board aft, you are putting more sail in front of the pivot point and taking some sail from aft of the pivot.  In other words, you are reducing the power of the wind vane effect to a point that you can handle it.

If your boat is not rounding up on you but is still heeling more than you want in puffs, raise the board a little more.  Often sailors think of centerboards is binary terms, either up or down.  You should think in terms of analogue, an infinite number of positions.  If you keep heeling excessively in puffs, you probably are “tripping over your board.”  When the puff hits, it is trying to push your boat sideways across the Lake.  The board, with its lateral resistance, is trying to keep that from happening.  If you raise the board a little more (a little at a time and not all the way up if you want to sail to windward), when the puff hits, the boat will trade a little leeway for staying more upright.  In other words, instead of tipping, the boat will slide a little.  Even when racing, it is sometimes more valuable to stay flatter at the cost of some leeway.

When your boat is hit by a puff and tries to head up, there is a tendency to pull the tiller toward you (with your back to windward, as it should be, especially in strong wind) and just hold on trying to get the bow to go back to leeward.  Often that does not work when the bow has already started swinging to windward.  What is happening is your rudder is stalling.  It is no longer functioning as a rudder.  Water is passing around the rudder, sometimes around both front and back.  Water is not flowing along the sides of the rudder, which is essential to make it function.  It is similar to tires skidding.  Once they start skidding, they are virtually worthless.  With tires, you break the skid by momentarily releasing the brake and then reapplying the brake repeatedly.  With rudders, I call it rowing.  I quickly push the tiller forward to stop the stalling and then bring it back as though I were rowing a boat.  I do this repeatedly until I can get the bow back under control.  I think that the rowing not only breaks the “skid,” I think it actually does row the bow back to leeward.  In the Philip and Margaret film, I had to just sit there like a fool and watch helplessly.  That was before I figured out how to row the rudder.  Since learning it, I have made countless other mistakes but not that one again.  Where are the cameras now?

Maybe you can avoid such an embarrassment.  Be safe and have fun sailing as much as possible.



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