I sail an Optimist. I'm a pretty dedicated racer, and I've been sailing for about a year and a half, but I still get a little nervous when the air is heavy. Do you know what kind of psychological motivation I could give myself to overcome my fear?
Dan Dickison responds:
It's very natural for sailboat racers to be nervous about heavy air. I've been racing for over 25 years and I still get apprehensive when I'm heading out to a racecourse where the puffs are knocking boats over and blowing the foam off the whitecaps. Actually, it's healthy for sailors to be a little nervous about these kinds of conditions. It's an indication that you're respectful of the weather and aware of its power. Any seasoned sailor whether a racer or cruiser will tell you that's being slightly afraid is the most healthy outlook to have.
That said, there are ways in which you can become more comfortable in heavy air, and the most direct method is by practicing in it. The next time you have an opportunity to sail in big breeze, look at the occasion as a learning experience. First, make sure that all the gear on your boat is secure and that you don't have any frayed lines or fittings that aren't securely fastened. Also take a quick look at your sails to make sure they're up to the rigors of heavy-air sailing. Then make sure that your safety equipment—life jacket, flotation bags, etc.—are in good order. After that, you'll be ready to go out and start honing your heavy-air skills.
You probably already know how to "blade" your sail out with the outhaul, vang, and cunnhingham, so do everything you can to make sure the sail (or sails if you're on a boat with a jib) is depowered. Then, as you start sailing, make mental notes about how the boat performs in the stronger wind. Upwind, you'll begin to see that you can anticipate the puffs and use them to your advantage by hiking early so that the boat won't heel excessively when the puff hits. If you do this, you'll be translating the additional wind power into boat speed. And gradually, you'll be getting more comfortable with heavy air.
One of the most worrisome maneuvers in heavy air is the jibe, particularly in a boat like the Opti, which has the ability to capsize. When you practice heavy air jibing, ideally you should do it in protected waters if you can, or with someone in a powerboat standing by to assist you should you need help. After you take a couple of afternoons to sail in heavy air, you'll start to realize that your comfort level will gradually come up.
One year, when I went to Key West Race Week, I was really worried about how we would handle the big breezes aboard our Tripp 26. We went out to practice the day before the regatta, and though we made a few mistakes, we rapidly got used to the conditions and figured out how we needed to set up the boat and handle it so that we could sail effectively and confidently in those winds. The next day, I had tons more confidence as we hit the starting line. Give yourself a chance to get used to the conditions and you will too.
The other way to go about getting accustomed to sailing in big breeze is to do it with a sailing partner. If you have a friend who also races Optis, get that person to come along with his or her boat and you'll both become better at heavy air sailing together. Best of luck to you.