Upwind Wave Techniques

Sailing is a sport full of variables. Waves are one of these variables, and the term “wave” can include anything from small undulations in the water to giant walls of water moving across the surface of the sea. They can move faster or slower than the boat, they can be at odd angles to the boat, but above all they are a significant factor in deciding winners and losers in any regatta that they are present at. This blog is not about specific techniques, but is designed to make you, the sailor, think about how you tackle each different wave. Remember this: If you get a bucket of water thrown at you, it can cause you to stagger backwards. When you sail your boat may be handling a hundred buckets being thrown at its bow on each wave. For certain the design of a boat helps you deal with this, but dealing with it well is an art, which is always well developed in the front end of the fleet.

When we race we are always seeking the best VMG upwind. That means we have an optimum angle that we have the best speed and height combination to reach the mark. Waves alter this massively – a wave coming straight at you needs to be dealt with by minimising the pitch in the boat, so when you crest the wave the bow doesn’t slap down and dig into the water, causing a stall. When the wave is side on to the boat, you get “washed” down the wave. Subtle tiller movements and mode changes depending which part of the wave you are on are needed to minimise the damage the wave will do to VMG. If gravity is causing the wave to push your boat downwind, coax it up, but if you lose speed, you still lose!! The finesse in waves, even in high winds, is essential.

Its up to the individual to develop their techniques to deal with waves. Tuning partners really help you to see what the effects of change are. However, a good sailor will sense when they are dealing with a wave well or badly. Slowing down is usually a death knell. Not slowing down probably means that you are reaching.

Factors to consider are these: The wave provides an “uphill” surface and a “downhill” surface. On the uphill the wave is pushing you backwards, and to maintain speed you often have to free off a little to maintain speed. If the waves are short enough and gravity doesn’t stop you too much, you can engage high mode to get over it quickly. Whilst this is not often possible, it is certainly common enough to practise the technique. If the wave is long or steep, or fast moving, you have to keep speed by freeing off. On the downhill surface, you can usually go high mode, because gravity is helping your speed to stay high.

At the peak of a wave, you have to encourage the hull not to splash down with the bow and consequently lose speed. This usually involves body movement with the shoulders, and also freeing off for a second until the boat is travelling downhill smoothly, then coming up.

Whilst we could write a book about wave technique, we hope this blog has opened your eyes a little to the possibilities of handling waves better. It doesn’t matter if you’re a world champion or a rookie, wave technique can always be improved. You can gain so much by practising these wave techniques and evaluating them that at Toplevel Sailing we always examine wave technique minutely on video, and can state that massive gains are easy to make from the midfleet downwards.

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