Preparation is key when it comes to racing fast and wet boats in offshore races, advises pro navigator Mike Broughton

There’s spray everywhere and your eyes are stinging. You are planing downwind in 20 knots of wind averaging 18 knots of boat speed and just as you are piling into the wave in front the tactician asks: “What’s the TWA (True Wind Angle) for the next leg?”

You want to use the deck screen so you can see the navigation programme that will give you the ‘tidally adjusted TWA’. You glance down just as a wave takes you unaware from the side and nearly knocks the screen out of your hands. The tactician, crew boss and bow team are all waiting to know which reaching sail is next and the mark is coming up fast…

Homework is key when navigating small (sub-40ft) fast boats. Working from the rail in very wet conditions is always challenging, so the trick is to be able to come up with the answer to the question before the tactician asks. Keep your ‘patter’ brief and concise.

Analogue items that won’t let you down when sea water is airborne should be readily to hand (round your neck or in a pocket), including a hand-bearing compass, a VHF speaker/handheld, tidal stream booklet, wet notes and a copy of the sailing instructions are all essential. If racing somewhere like the Solent with lots of turning marks, then a plastic chart and chinagraph pencil is also important.

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Admittedly, using a hand-bearing compass from the rail of small boat that is bucking around isn’t easy and takes practice. For rough days I occasionally take out my 1990s Autohelm ‘electronic personal compass’ (bought secondhand on eBay). They are great for rough seas as they allow you to line up your sights, level the device and keep pressing the button and get an accurate average reading in quick time.

Good boat electronics will help you in rough seas, although you may need to slow down the damping. Chartplotters that are less than five years old can display much more race information these days, though it can be tricky to see the display while hiking on the rail.

Personal electronic gadgets such as mini chartplotters, smartphones and tablets can be very useful but will usually need waterproof covers. Many personal phones get lost each year when racing on big breeze days: using a redundant older phone purely for navigation can be a solution.

Most competitive boats use a deck screen that is a ‘slave’ or repeater screen to a laptop below decks. This allows more sophisticated navigation software to be utilised. Waterproofing the system is vital; there is good reason why a Fast 40+ has between eight and ten small electric bilge pumps operating when charging downwind in a blow.

Touchscreens can go haywire with lots of water droplets on the screen. Some allow you to change the settings from fingertip to ‘pen’ inputs in these conditions. For wet days, I use an offcut from a leather chamois to wipe away water.

I use my screen with a small ‘holster’ and have it attached with a cord in case it gets knocked from my hand. Having an iPad or tablet such as a deck screen hung around your neck slows you down when moving about in rough conditions. Personally, on a small boat, I find a screen hung round my neck can be destabilising when crossing a boat and definitely makes me less nimble.

Noting the course

Getting the course noted down in rough conditions can be tricky and it is probably one of the hardest parts of the race when it is noisy on deck. Setting up to receive the course by text message, which you input into your software, is the best option, but always be ready to scribe into a notebook.

Sometimes going below decks to get out of the wind to listen to it will seem like the answer, only to have the engine strike into life at high revs halfway through the announcement. Small race boat engines rarely have soundproofing.

My preference would always be to ping the committee boat and have the upwind sail tuning complete, along with any calibration tacks, enabling the boat to be on a level keel, prior to reading the course.

Have a list of marks and decodes taped to a bulkhead. Get someone else to listen and cross-check the course and then call out the first two marks. Input the marks, do a quick course drawing and brief the crew prior to ‘pinging the pin’ and thinking about starting tactics.

It helps to discuss tactical options with the tactician well before the course is transmitted. Make an effort to anticipate the first two marks and talk through likely wind and tidal influences. Better to anticipate your strategy than make rushed tactical calls.

Being prepared for electronic meltdown is part of the game. In 2001, I was racing a Mumm 30 in the Tour Voile downwind at night in the Chanel du Four in 25-30 knots of wind. I will never forget my deck screen lead getting trapped in the mainsheet traveller and going blank. We were moving fast with wind against tide and needed to dodge rocks, and quickly work out which lighthouse was which.

In strong winds, I had to resort to cowering over a paper chart spread out at the back of the cockpit searching for the next lighthouse with my head torch, while the chart turned to papier mâché in front of my very eyes. Fortunately, my hand-bearing compass and notebook with drawings saved the day.

Mike-Broughton-Headshot-400x400About the author

Mike Broughton is a pro race navigator who has won many titles including World and European championships. He is a qualified MCA Master to captain superyachts and previously had a successful career in the Fleet Air Arm flying Sea King and Lynx helicopters.

First published in the March 2020 edition of Yachting World.