Mastering the art of sailing in light airs gives rewards. Jonty Sherwill asks Steve Benjamin how to keep going when the wind dies away

The forecast was spot on, the breeze has slackened as pressure rises, but now with the remains of an open sea swell and the tide soon to turn against you, making progress towards the next waypoint is going to be tough. It’s time to change mode and prepare for a drifting match.

With boats crossing tacks in slow motion, you can hear the chat on board: some crews are losing patience, but others remain quiet and focused. Sailing well in these near-calm conditions takes discipline and practice, and needs a skill set every bit as important as a heavy airs gybe.

While ships and powerboats can seem oblivious to your need for flat water, even the disruption of a big wash presents an opportunity for gains on the opposition.

The key to success is concentration and practice and while some light airs techniques commonly seen on the racecourse may be illegal, doing it the right way can involve some disciplines that are not immediately obvious.

Photo: Paul Wyeth

Photo: Paul Wyeth

“We’ve all been there – becalmed offshore and waiting for the slightest fill of the new wind to get the boat moving again and on with the race,” says Steve Benjamin. “Those who are successful will likely leave the competition slatting their sails behind and collect the trophies.”

So even if the sound of an engine in the distance seems a tempting option for an early supper ashore it’s unlikely to match the satisfaction of staying with the game and enjoying getting to the finish line through sheer skill.

1. Maintain momentum

As the wind dies it seems inevitable that your boat is going to stop, but try to maintain any momentum to keep the sails you have up working. Coast along with an absolute minimum of crew moving about and avoid the temptation to change sails.

If the wind truly dies to zero and you have a jib or spinnaker up it is probably going to backwind so consider dropping that sail. If you have a windseeker, have it ready as using this smaller sail will help it fill more easily and hopefully get the boat moving.

Light wind sail inventory

Windseeker – also called ‘drifter’: non overlapping sail, measured as a jib – a ‘free’ sail under IRC.

Spinnaker staysail – also called ‘daisy staysail’: measured as a jib, designed to fly inside a spinnaker and tacked abaft the headstay. Can be also be used as a windseeker in a limited sail inventory

Code 0 – flat asymmetric measured as a spinnaker, tacked to the bow, bowsprit or spinnaker pole.

2. The art of drifting faster

If there’s no windseeker a spinnaker staysail will do and may be set flying or with a luff tape into the head foil. It should be tacked at the headstay and with two sheets on the clew – the sail can then fill on whichever tack it wants. Heel the boat to leeward to let gravity assist the fill, and build apparent wind by close reaching.

Trying to run downwind does not work as you will lose apparent wind; the ideal true wind angle is about 60°. If you can get the boat moving, the first mistake is to put a larger sail up too soon; obtain three knots of boat speed consistently before changing.

3. Point in the right direction

If there is almost no wind and the sails will not fill, point the boat at the next mark. If you can gain some speed on either tack, determine if you need to head up or head off to build more apparent wind. If flying a spinnaker or asymmetric it works well to helm to leeward and watch the luff of the sail with the tightest trim possible.

It’s a fine line before the sail totally collapses from either sailing too high, or running too deep – this is known as ‘sailing over the spinnaker’.

A Code 0 is a particularly good choice for very light airs because with it you get the sail area combined with the flat shape to sail close to the wind.

If there is windward-going current use it with what little true wind speed there is to combine and build the apparent wind.


Ground wind and current shown here at 1 knot each, producing resultant true wind of 1.6 knots. Boat speed is a notional 0.5 knots and apparent wind around 1.9 knots. In this scenario, course over ground (COG) on starboard tack will be nearly dead upwind. As race committees often set courses based on ground wind (they are stationary) in calm conditions with a cross tide there’s unlikely to be enough windward mark offset correction – the race would probably have been started in more breeze. Thus heading off on port puts you immediately at risk of an overstand if the mark is upwind – unless there is new pressure to the right!

4. Bad old rock ’n roll

If the boat is rolling in swells or chop, the waves will shake the wind out of the sails. If the mainsail is slatting violently from side to side, keep it trimmed in and consider rigging a preventer to stop the boom flying around.

The rig set-up for light winds is loose, but not so loose that the rig shakes about. The headstay should be eased for light winds upwind to add helm, but tensioned for downwind sailing to keep the spinnaker away from the mainsail. Check that class rules allow rig adjustment during racing.

5. Stay alert

Be ready when ships are around. You can prepare for big wash by having minimum crew on deck sitting as low as possible forward and to leeward while others can go below – aka ‘dogs in the house’. No one on board need be idle and some quiet preparation below deck to make the kedge ready could turn out to be a winning move.

Just a nod from the navigator with an eye on the GPS could see you steam ahead of the fleet if others are caught napping when the tide turns foul. Make sure you have enough line – we successfully anchored in the English Channel in over 200ft!


Steve Benjamin is a consultant for North Sails with a racing career that has included three dinghy world championship wins (Fireball and 505) and an Olympic Silver medal in the 470 class in 1984. He has competed in five Admiral’s Cups, is a founder and committee member of the High Performance Rule (HPR), and sits on the Rating & Measurement Rules Committee.