Downwind Sailing

Downwind Sailing

Many top sailors complain about either their downwind speed or state that they don’t know how to sail downwind. In reality this is usually based on an emotion and mental challenges rather than what an observer may see, but there can be a hint of truth in such statement as they might be slow in certain conditions. In this article we look at the real deal with both top sailors and amateurs falling into the same errors quite often.

When discussing downwind sailing, we must differentiate between single handed boats without spinnakers, symmetric spinnaker displacement boats, and skiffs with asymmetric kites. There are a lot of similarities in all cases in terms of mindset and even technique, but obviously a lot of differences too. We will point out these differences

The secret to going fast is to never go slow 

This statement is a key to having good downwind legs and making up places. We all know the feeling of hitting the backside of a wave and slowing down. Watch how many boats go past you in a tight fleet when this happens. The real challenge here isn’t the slowing down, but the amount of time it takes to hit max speed and get going again. Here are some other issues which always, but always must be attended to in the best possible manner in order to avoid those costly slow moments.

First, LOOK. Observation of wind holes is an obvious flaw – missing pressure coming down to you, or in fast boats missing pressure that you can reach is a main cause of losing places. Technically you must maintain flow over your sails – as discussed in a previous blog, flow ensures the engine (our sails) working at full efficiency. It is rarely possible to have all telltales flying fully, but if they are dropping, for sure you’ll be slow. In fast boats this is extremely important since as the boat uses apparent wind you must ensure the wind exits the sail while creating a minimal amount of drag on the leech using a flat sail for most conditions. Power becomes insignificant as the speed of the boat is driven by the flow in boats sailing faster than the wind, whereas in slow boats that sail slower than the wind-speed power becomes a key issue, “bagging out” the sail (reduced out-haul and neg down-haul, with kicker “blown”) becomes a source of speed when airflow is maintained over the sail – when tell tales begin to fly and the wind indicator doesn’t point along the boat, speed becomes attainable!

Surfing is another art to learn.  You can only surf when you use gravity – in other words when the bow is lower than the stern, pointing down the wave or “downhill”.  Stay surfing on each wave for as long as possible, but not long enough to slow down as the wave overtakes us or we overtake the wave – in other words when the boat starts to flatten out, or more disastrously the bow begins to go uphill, or is higher than the stern.  There are some skiffs, windsurfing and a few dinghies in some conditions will move faster than the waves and we will discuss the methods of skipping waves shortly.

There are different methods of catching a good wave, but the basics are we will need to accelerate our boat to get to a speed as close as possible to the speed of the wave to allow us to surf it.

Keep your bow lower than your stern – this sets the boat up to go downhill so gravity adds to your accelerating forces: boat trim on the water is very important to boat speed as the longer the water line the faster the boat will move (except for planing), when we catch a good wave the water are no longer horizontal so the front of the wave is lower than the back of the wave, to maintain proper trim we might need to lean forward and drop our bow downwards which means gravity will be pulling your boat down the wave and allow you to surf it for longer time.

Search for the better wave track. A wave track is the places where waves are easiest to surf, usually going down the same lane r side of the course to the bottom mark: as the wave surface changes the area of the wave that will allow us better surfing might change, our job is to alter our course and follow the good track, the course is better altered with as minimal rudder movement as possible to prevent any loss of speed, using the heel of the boat to give bow steering to make the course alteration. Successful downwind sailors will often repeat this change of direction more than once per wave in Lasers and other non-spin boats.

To achieve the best outcome all the above should be applied simultaneously, so flow is maintained, power is at maximum in slower boats, and drag at a minimum in fast boats, with good boat trim maintained whilst keeping the bow lower than the stern.

Some classes and some conditions allows the boat to move faster than the waves, while moving faster than the waves may cause a great difficulty keeping the bow lower than the stern as well as hitting the next wave (similar to going upwind) which in turn will slow the boat down, in planing conditions this will cause in a big loss of speed and destroy the planing mode.

The way around it is to skip or jump waves: there are different methods to jumping waves depending on the class and the conditions, but they all share some common factors:

  • Adopting dynamic sailing that will allow you to keep the best water line for your boat and prevent your bow from hitting the next wave, as well as provide a bit of ooching (which will be only legal if it is a part of the boat trimming and not repetitive) that accelerates the boat momentarily and if done correctly will ensure a smooth surf down the next wave.
  • Luffing up (or in some single handers also bearing away) just before hitting the wave in front to allow the boat to climb over the wave and maintain speed (this is the jumping part)
  • Pumping at the right timing to help the boat surf down the next wave

During our sailing sessions at TopLevel Sailing we teach our sailors how to use any legal action to ensure their boat surfs for the maximum duration of a downwind leg, and above all, how to be fast by never being slow!

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