Professional sailor, Pip Hare gives us a guide to light wind sailing skills. How to keep your boat moving and how to make the most of light weather

Keeping a boat moving in light airs can be more challenging than dealing with big winds and seas. It requires a huge level of attention to detail and a lot of effort that may seemingly reap low rewards. All sailors will eventually end up in a situation where ghosting along is their only choice, whether it’s crossing the doldrums with limited fuel supplies or trying to make your way across a ridge of high pressure to a new weather system ahead of your class.

Light airs technique does not solely rely on good sail selection, and it’s important to regard the boat and crew holistically to ensure small puffs of breeze are not wasted. Here are my tips for keeping your mind in the right place and your boat moving in winds of less than 5 knots.

Change your mindset

It can be easy to get despondent in super-light airs, so the first thing to adjust is your mental approach. It may not feel like the effort you put in is worth it for the distance travelled, but try to think about time instead of distance. If you’re able to get into new breeze just half an hour ahead of your opponent then this time advantage will immediately transfer into miles.

That said, flogging sails and constant rolling of the boat can eventually fray anyone’s patience, and if this is the case then be prepared to take some time out. If you have a crew then ask someone else to take over for a bit, if you’re short-handed or alone take a short nap, drink some water, eat some food.

A nap on the bow can be a chance to reset. Photo: Brian Carlin/Team Vestas Wind

Pilot or hand steering?

I find using the pilot is preferable to hand steering in light airs; the pilot will easily adapt to rolling swells and is better able to monitor rate of turn at slow speed and make appropriate adjustments. In very light winds steer to a compass course and trim sails accordingly, making ‘1 up, 1 down’ adjustments on the pilot if the wind direction changes. Set the response to a medium level to keep on track.

If you’re trying to sail out of an area of high pressure then strategically you may need to stick to a certain wind angle. Asking the pilot to sail to wind can be tricky if the mast is rolling around a lot, influencing measured speed and direction because the apparent wind changes quickly as the boat accelerates and slows down. If steering to wind then damp down the wind settings in the pilot processor to smooth out some of the sudden changes and steer to True Wind Angle. My preference under 4 knots of wind is to stick with a compass heading and make adjustments using my autopilot remote to reflect changes to the wind direction.

In some conditions, however, hand steering will get the best results, particularly downwind with a spinnaker or cruising chute. If your pilot is struggling then do try the human approach, it may be that hand steering for a bit helps you to understand and adjust pilot parameters. In cases where hand steering is just better, make sure you rotate the helmsman frequently as the concentration levels will be exhausting.

Light winds ahead: Pip and crew on Medallia set off with sails stacked on the bow. Photo: Paul Wyeth/RORC

Stop flogging

One of the most torturous sounds to a sailor is the relentless lazy flog of a fully battened main when becalmed offshore. Heeling the boat to leeward should help to eliminate this flogging but you’ll also need to use the sheet, traveller and maybe a preventer arrangement to stop the boom from swinging around.

Upwind, bring the traveller to windward and let off just enough sheet to allow the sail to open the leech and take some shape (ensure the vang is off) – but not so much that the sail is able to flog. Reaching or off the breeze it may be a good idea to use a preventer to pin the boom into one position laterally and use the vang and sheet to set leech profile. Remember that as the wind hits your sail and the boat accelerates the apparent wind will go forwards quite quickly so it’s best to over trim the sail.

Trim the hull

The trim of your hull in the water will have a big impact in how much energy you’re able to convert from zephyrs of wind into boatspeed, so it’s well worth moving weight around on the boat to help. In particular try to create some leeward heel, which encourages the sails into an efficient shape for when the wind hits them. In addition to this – especially with more modern hull shapes – try to move weight forwards to stop the transom from dragging.

In light airs it makes sense to vacate the cockpit. Photo: Corum L’Epargne/The Ocean Race

If governed by a rule such as IRC where stacking of equipment is not allowed, use crew weight. Get the crew to sit on the foredeck or hiking forward and to leeward. Reduce the number of people in the cockpit – I’d suggest just one trimmer and one person at the helm. Everyone else moves forward and to leeward and can come back for manoeuvres if necessary. Off watch crew should sleep in the forepeak and to leeward leaving aft bunks out of bounds. If you’re struggling for bunks drag mattresses out of aft cabins and sleep on the floor further forward for the duration of the light airs.

In classes where stacking kit and sails is allowed, move everything as far forwards as you’re able. I stack my sails on deck butted right up to the stemhead. All tools, spares, personal kit etc is moved into the forepeak. When stacking in this way ensure that a day bag is left aft with food and personal kit to cover 24 hours.

Move like a cat

Crew movement around the boat should be gentle. A heavy-footed walk down the deck can disrupt delicate sail trim. When trimming sails, try to move sheets in and out smoothly so as not to shock the sail or ‘shake’ the shape out of it.

If you’re travelling at 2 knots of boat speed then nothing needs to be done that quickly, it is better to accelerate slowly than to lose all momentum through sudden, jerky movements.

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