Mike McNamara tips on


Sailing to windward even in normal conditions is hard and demanding. When you have to do it in a breeze, it becomes exhausting, and in light weather, when that windward mark just refuses to get any closer, it becomes very, very frustrating...

When you compare all that hard work with the glamour, thrills and sheer exhilaration of three sail spinnaker reaching, then it makes one wonder whether beating is worth all the effort.

Of course it is... it even has its own strange fascination. The aim, of course, is to make the beat as short and quick as possible. The speed made good to windward is, in fact, a compromise between sailing as close as possible to the wind (pointing) and sailing as fast as possible through the water (footing).

Some sailors have the knack to do this right from the word go Ė the understanding that they need constantly to trade the importance of one against the other, depending on what is demanded. Sometimes pointing high at the expense of speed and sometimes sailing rather lower, to go for extra speed at the expense of pointing. This perhaps, can best be described as having the ďfeelĒ of the boat.

For those sailors who have to work at getting this feel there are certain invaluable guides to help them.

Wind Tufts
When the sail is working properly, all three windward tufts will stream upwards at approximately 45º. The leeward windtufts will be parallel to the water.

If the top windward windtuft collapses first, the leech is too slack. The solution is to sheet in slightly. If the bottom windward windtuft collapses first, then the leech is too tight. So ease the sheet slightly.

Once all three are working together, then the helm can modify his heading angle depending on what he wants to do, knowing that the leading edge of the sail is presenting a constant angle to the wind.

If he wants to go for speed, he can bear away just enough to get the windward tufts parallel to the water, being careful of course, not to bear away so far that the leeward tufts collapse or that the wind coming from further abeam, causes too much heeling over!

If he wants to pinch a bit, he can feather up until the windward tufts go vertical or even flow towards the luff. Here he has to be careful not to luff up so far that the airflow breaks down and the tufts collapse.

Sometimes it is difficult to get the bottom windward and leeward tufts in sync. First the windward one goes and then immediately the leeward one collapses. This usually means that the leading edge is too straight and the wind finds it too easy to go from one side to the other. Slacken the rig tension slightly to give a touch of jib luff sag. You may not point so high, but you will go a lot quicker.

There is a nice simple rule to steering upwind. The helm is constantly moving of course, to keep the boat on track, but if the crew can feel the boat altering course, then it is too violent.

Some say that you have to steer through or around waves but this is so hard to do accurately, that for most sailors, it pays to let the boat have its track and let the waves do their worst.

However, if the boat hits two or three waves in succession, then bear away a bit, ease the sheets and get some speed before heading up again.

Do not confuse ďfeelĒ with the tug of weather helm. Weather helm is the boat telling you that itís in trouble and needs help. Itís probably heeling too much or the mainsail leech is too tight. Easing the main slightly and heading up minutely are often the answer.

In most conditions, therefore, a neutral helm is the fastest. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult to get used to.

Checking the wash is a good guide to speed. The smoother, the faster is the golden rule. In light weather, watch out for that leeward aft chine digging in. This shows up as a curling, turbulent wavelet to leeward of the rudder wash.

Donít forget to sit back in a breeze to get the flatter, more powerful after sections in the water and the veed bow out. Obviously the sailors have to move forward in lighter winds to get that transom out.

As sailors, we have to develop split personalities, as part of us has to concentrate on the here and now - coping with what the wind and waves are doing to the boat at that particular moment. At the same time, a part of us has to keep looking ahead to see what is about to happen. Will the next gust be a header or freer? Will this wave stop the boat and so on.

This is where the crew can help. and both sailors, by looking to windward can make their judgement as to what to do. Crews should be especially encouraged to give their views. This means that there should be plenty of chat about where the gust is and what it will do, etc.

Even if the sailors are totally wrong, it doesnít matter. At least they know that the gust is coming and interestingly, after a while, the gusts start to agree with you!

Avoid the Laylines
If your final approach for the windward mark is made too far out then you are liable to:
(a) The wind direction changing, which you canít take advantage of, as you are locked into the tack.
(b) Some rotten sailor coming across in front and tacking on you. So you have to tack and sail much further than you should!

The Approach to the Windward Mark
This is often where many places are lost and gained. As boats start to converge, the wave turbulence increases and the wind becomes more chopped up.

So avoid getting to leeward if you possibly can, even if it means sailing out beyond the layline slightly. The extra distance sailed is more than made up by the extra speed.

Avoid approaching the mark on port if you can. There may be a gap in the starboard horde but more usually there isnít! (ed. note: and donít forget rule 18.3 about tacking within 2 lengths of the mark Ė a rule which has come in since Mike wrote this)

Finally, donít you dare hit the mark. Itís lurking there ready to get you if it can. So plan to keep it at least a boomís length away!

Remember too, the faster you do the beat, the quicker you get on to those lovely reaching legs. Happy Beating!

                                                                                                                    Mike McNamara

copied from the U.K. WAYFARER NEWS #50/Summer 1991