Olympian and in-demand professional sailor Ben Saxton gives Andy Rice his five best tips for racing in light winds and tide

The lighter the breeze, the more significant the effects of any current or tidal flow. Ben Saxton has raced every kind of boat, from foiling catamarans to planing dinghies to displacement keelboats, so few people are better qualified to give advice on how to sail in light winds and tide.

As Ben Saxton says, whatever you’re racing, you need to be aware of the direction of the current in relation to the course, and take every opportunity to note when the tide might be on the turn.

“Every single mark that you go around, take a second or two to see what the tidal flow is,” he advises. “Use lobster pots, moored boats, or even the choppiness of the water to tell you what the direction of flow is and if it’s on the turn. The angle of the committee boat is a great indicator at start time, and if you’re on bigger boats, you can use the instruments to look at your speed and course over ground compared with course and speed through the water.”

Rig for the current

The direction of tide affects your rig setup for two reasons. First, if the tide is with the wind the water is flat so you can set up with flatter sails. If the tide is against the wind the water will be more choppy, so you set up with deeper sails and more twist because then you accelerate faster. Secondly, the apparent wind is much higher if the current is pushing you upwind. If you’re sailing in five knots of true wind you might set up for seven or eight knots of breeze, but with current flowing from the direction of the wind you’d be set up for three to five knots.

Current taking you upwind?

Calling accurate laylines is hard enough as it is, but it becomes even more critical in a tidal situation. When the current is pushing you upwind, make sure you under-lay the layline, especially in a keelboat where extra tacks aren’t too expensive.

Britain’s Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell in light winds at Tokyo 2020. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

What you absolutely must NOT do is overstand your approach to the windward mark because now you’re battling against the current while your rivals are being pushed up beneath you.

Current taking you downwind?

You know that scenario where everyone is short-tacking up the shore to stay out of adverse tide for as long as possible. Eventually you have to make the break into open water and hope you’ve correctly judged your layline. If you’re leading the charge at least you’re in clear air, but you’ve got no accurate gauge of how you’re doing until you start eyeballing the windward mark with a transit behind.

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If you’re not quite holding the transit, then take your medicine early and tack away again while you’re in the weaker current. It’s better to overstand the layline a bit more than you think, especially if there are boats in front of you. You’re going to need all the clear air you can get, so play safe and go a bit further before your final tack for a higher layline.

Light wind and tide downwind

Once you’re safely around the windward mark, all things being equal with the breeze, you either aim to stay in the strongest current if it’s pushing you downwind, or aim for the most tidal relief (generally the shallower water) if the current is against you. Just as with upwind, the direction of the current has a huge effect on the apparent wind that you (and the sails) feel across the deck.

To go fast downwind there are a couple of golden rules. One is to keep the spinnaker flying as far away as possible from the boat at all times – over-sheeting the mainsail will create a bigger gap with the spinnaker.

The other is to never let the boat speed drop too far. If you steer too low, then you end up having to reset and go even higher – and slower. So do a little head-up early, just at the point when you’re losing pressure in the sails, rather than doing big correctional head-ups too late.

Leeward approach

When the current’s carrying you downwind towards the leeward mark, make sure you drop earlier than normal or you’ll get carried past the mark. Head up sooner than you think – you see lots of people turning too fast and losing boat speed because they feel like the mark is disappearing so quickly. Coming out of the leeward mark the boats in front of you will have probably been knocked down a bit by the tide, so you should be able to hold a nice lane.

When the current is pushing you upwind, however, everything changes. It’s easy for the whole fleet to logjam at the leeward mark. Even if the mark is physically near, there’s still a lot of sailing to be done before you get round it. If it’s light winds you go much faster if you’ve got a couple of boat lengths of space around you, so keep clear and sail fast at a hot angle with good apparent wind, and you can make huge gains at the bottom of the run. Do whatever it takes to keep the speed and momentum going when you’re battling the adverse current.

About Ben Saxton

Ben Saxton is one of Britain’s most versatile professional sailors. Winner of the Nacra 17 catamaran World Championships, Saxton represented GBR at the Rio 2016 Olympics. These days he’s in demand on the keelboat and sportsboat circuit.

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