Correct trim will allow a yacht to make the most of calm conditions. Pip Hare gives her advice on how to ride out the doldrums
Psychologically, I have always found sailing through calms to be far worse than battling any storm. Endlessly flogging sails and oppressive heat can fray tempers on any yacht. With no ability to go forward and no sign of any breeze it can be difficult to maintain a positive approach. But, if managed in the right way, whether cruising or racing, total calms can be productive, useful and even fun.
Review your watch system
Change to single person, short watches during the day and involve the remaining crew in other jobs. The on-watch crew will look out for both traffic and wind and try to keep the boat going in the right direction.
Overnight either return to original watch patterns or have a reduced watch with the remainder on standby in case of squalls. When racing, avoid filling the cockpit up with on watch crew. Only one person is necessary to hold the helm, the rest should sit where their weight will have the most impact, returning to the cockpit only when required.
Think hard about trim: how should the boat sit best in the water to encourage movement? And how can you achieve this within the rules of racing? As a rule of thumb most weight in ultra-light breeze should be to leeward and as low down in the boat as possible. Modern wide stern yachts have a large wetted surface area which creates drag in very light winds so benefit from weight forward. More traditional shapes prefer weight in the middle.
Most of these changes will need to be made by moving crew weight around. Be specific about where you want off-watch crew to sleep and don’t be afraid to ask them to move if conditions change. Ensure that all movements around the deck are gentle and slow to keep any momentum you may have gained.
If your racing class allows the movement of equipment as well as crew, then put the effort into stacking gear in the position where the weight will have most effect. This can be hard work in hot and sweaty conditions but will pay dividends.
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Lock and drop
Helming during calms can be impossible: if there is no flow over the rudder then turning the wheel will have no effect. Consider locking the helm into one position, using a wheel lock or the autopilot in ‘helm hold’ mode (this is a function most pilots have and simply locks the ram in one constant position).
Do not worry too much about which direction you end up pointing; if you are going nowhere then it does not really matter. Once the breeze kicks in and the boat starts to move don’t forget to unlock the wheel.
Even with the slightest of swells, relentless snapping as an empty mainsail flops from one side to the other can damage not only the sail but the sanity of your crew members. Dropping the main in total calms has a number of advantages: it makes for a calmer atmosphere on board; allows a total survey of both sail and halyard for damage; enables a makeshift canopy to be made up over the boom; and in 1-2 knot downwind conditions will allow uninterrupted wind to flow onto your headsails. Even if the mainsail is down, pin the boom into one position to minimise snatching movements.
Calms are a great opportunity to clean, maintain and take stock on longer ocean voyages. Make a job list, prioritising those that need to be done before the breeze fills in and allocate individual tasks. Try not to be overambitious and ensure that every job is finished and tools put away before each new one is started. Always be prepared for the wind to fill in at short notice.
Take the opportunity to do things that are not possible when under way. Perform a rig check, open all hatches and ventilate the boat, get downwind sails on deck and inspect for damage, tape up sharp fittings, clean and lubricate moving parts.
Make an inventory of remaining food, water and other consumables. Empty and clean the fridge, or any large lockers which get the better of you in a seaway. If becalmed for longer than expected, especially in hot weather, check your rations. Is it necessary to limit water consumption? Be aware of the impact this may have on morale.
Clean the hull
When the boat is stationary it is an excellent opportunity to clean the bottom. To do this from deck level you will need a ‘flossing rope’. This can be made using a long piece of cover from a 12-14mm rope with knots tied in it every half a metre or so.
Two crew members take one end of the rope each and drop it under the bow of the boat, then pull the rope backwards and forwards between them walking slowly backwards along the sidedecks until they reach the keel.
Swimming off the boat should only be attempted by strong swimmers and with appropriate kit for the water temperature. For every swimmer in the water, ensure there is one person on deck watching and always trail a recovery line astern. If diving under the boat to inspect keel, rudders or prop, ensure the diver is fitted with a safety line and there is no risk the engine could be turned on.
Send a crew member aloft to look for any wind, they should go with binoculars and a hand bearing compass to give precise information about any patches of breeze they may see. Finally, have some fun. Total calms are a great time for celebration so make a cake, have a special meal, play a game of cards, laugh, relax and believe that the wind will come.