Wave and wind? Don’t worry, here’s how to cope


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Managing the boat in strong waves and high winds has always been considered an edgy topic. Both in racing, where speed makes a difference, and in cruising, where it is certainly convenient to reach our destination as quickly as possible but also with as much comfort as possible, Waves and wind must be approached with the right preparation.

All the more so in these conditions, in order to best conduct a boat, it is necessary to take into consideration the gait with respect to the wind, the intensity and direction, and the state of the sea, including the direction of the wave, which is not always in line with the wind. All these factors are closely related to each other.

wave sailing

The upwind wave, how to catch it

It is clear that the swell is particularly troublesome in upwind gaits. How many of us have made upwinds that seemed interminable, in conditions with little wind and wave against or with formed seas and sustained wind conditions?

Let’s go back to the previous installment where we talked about VMG (read here), that is, the best and true speed of approach to a point when a direct course cannot be followed. We have learned, for example, that you can lead an upwind boat with a slightly wider gait, more leeward of sails but much faster, or with a narrower gait in the wind, with the sails cocked but slower. Well the VMG has to be taken into account especially in these particular conditions where in any case, if no wind shifts in our favor are expected, it is intuitive that it is not convenient to make a very narrow windward. The boat would slow down too much and we would risk, after an hour of sailing, to be just ahead of the starting point with considerable “discomfort” on board given by the annoying pitching we would be forced to endure. It is therefore certainly more advantageous to sail slightly more leaning but much faster. Our VMG improves greatly and we will reach our goal point much faster.

How to adjust sails when there is a bow wave

Adjusting the sails is also of particular importance for sailing at its best and most efficiently. With little wind, and even more so with a contrary wave, the boat needs power that must come from the shape of its sails, which if they are sufficiently fat can help the boat break through the wall of contrary swell. But how can I increase the depth of my sails? As far as the mainsail is concerned, already it is enough to let the halyard and cunningham go a little: the maximum depth of the sail recedes to the center of the rope, and the profile definitely becomes more powerful.

Thinning the mainsail to reduce heeling with formed wave

The base of the mainsail, if left in, increases the depth of the sail, especially in the lower part, also giving it a profile more suitable for such conditions. With sustained air, as we know, the profile of the sails must be leaner in order to reduce the heeling of the boat, and by re-crafting the halyard, cunningham and base we are able to achieve this. With formed wave be careful not to over-weed the mainsail. However, it must remain quite powerful to counteract the opposing swell.

The headsail

What should we do with the headsail? The effect of the halyard is very similar to the cunningham and halyard effect we have seen on the mainsail. By dropping it, the sail increases its depth in the center, more suitable for light winds while by docking it you bring it back more toward the bow, becoming more suitable for sustained wind conditions.

Instead, the position of the sheet point can have a considerable effect; in fact, it is impressive how heavily this adjustment can affect a boat’s performance, especially in formed swell.

In fact, with the sheet point positioned more toward the bow, the sheet pull is more vertical and more directed toward the leech. As a result, the mainsail tends to be more closed and less warped. The sail then becomes more powerful and better suited for light wind and wave conditions.

wave conditions
An example of a headsail with the sheet point fairly far forward. Note the almost vertical sheet pull on the leech

Conversely, with the sheet point further back, the sheet pull is more horizontal and directed toward the base. As a result, the leech tends to be more wispy, open and fast; the sail is flatter and better suited to sustained wind conditions.

Roberto Spata

Class of 1962 from Como. Laser National until 1983, he then approached offshore sailing by racing on all types of boats. Specifically, in the IOR, IMS, Maxi Yacht, One-design, ORC and IRC Classes, he holds the roles of tactician, helmsman or mainsman. He also often does sail and boat tuning.

From 1988 to 2000 he worked with North Sails. He continues to have technical relationships and with all the sailmakers, designers and shipyards also as a project manager.



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