This article was originally published on SailNet in November 2000.
If you’re a sailor who races and you’ve ever had the occasion to try and explain your sport to the uninitiated, it’s not unlikely that you’ve used the analogy of a game of chess. The myriad combination of moves and strategies that apply in this age-old board game are a fitting expression of the complexity of sailboat racing. For me, Dave Perry nailed the best analogy for sailors and non-sailors in the first chapter of his popular bible for racers—Winning in One-Designs
: "Take pro football. A pretty complex sport, right?…Now imagine, just for a minute, that every field was a different size; that in fact, the boundaries continually changed during the game. Furthermore, the playing surface moved along under the feet of the players and varied in speed and direction throughout the game. In addition, some areas of the field were soggy, others icy, and still others sandy, with irregular, one-foot-high ridges running all over."
With that vision in mind, it’s pretty easy to understand how racing sailboats is arguably one of the most complex sports ever devised by civilized man. And truly one of the most elusive aspects inherent in the game is its source—wind. An enormous amount of information is available both online and in print about wind and how to understand it as a phenomenon, and it would behoove every serious racing sailor to digest as much of this as possible. But that’s a lot to ask when you’re getting ready for next weekend’s local championship and you’ve got a lot of other things on your list. So, to get an initial handle on the wind conditions that will likely prevail for a particular regatta, here’s a short list of what to pay attention to and how to best prepare yourself:
- At least three days before the first race, begin gathering weather data. Start by printing or cutting out the weather maps that cover the race location and place them side by side, creating a sequence that illustrates the flow of weather systems. Take particular note of the air temperatures in each image, and find out what the water temperature is for the general race area. If the water is cool and warm temperatures are forecast for the land near the race area, it’s likely that a predictable thermal flow will evolve.
- When you arrive at the regatta, keep that file of weather information handy, and add to it daily during the event. That information should help you determine whether you’ll be sailing in a high-pressure or low-pressure system, or in a transitional phase between the two. Under a high-pressure area, you can expect the winds to be more stable with regular oscillations. Under a low-pressure area, the winds will likely be less stable and therefore shifty. In a transitional phase, with a low moving in, the winds will likely be strong and steady. With a low giving way to higher pressure, chances are the winds will be fitful and unsteady.
- Gather as much local knowledge as possible regarding the normal wind patterns in the area. This will include information about any geographic influences that might play a part. But be sure of your sources. Anyone can spout a few lines (or write them for that matter) about the local wind, so make sure you’re listening to an astute sailor who’s been racing actively in that location for several years. And if tide or current are apt to be factors, check in with the fishermen that frequent the area because they'll likely have a handle on those phenomena.
- Get out on the racecourse early and take visual observations of the conditions. Ideally plan to be out on the course more than an hour before the start so that you can get accustomed to the conditions and get a handle on what the wind is doing. At the 1986 J/24 Worlds in Newport, RI, Chris Hufstader was part of the tactical team on board Ken Read’s winning boat 96 Degrees. After garnering accolades for their victory at the end of the week, Hufstader revealed that one of the team's keys to success was going out early to the racecourse and timing the wind's oscillations. Because of the conditions on those days, they knew more or less when they would need to tack to hit the next shift, and so they positioned themselves accordingly.
- Keep an eye on the weather while you’re out on the water. This may sound overly simplistic, but you'd surprised how few competitors take this important factor into account. So watch the clouds, if there are any, in the immediate region. Dense clouds that are low on the horizon will have an impact on the wind, usually causing it to intensify in strength and either to veer or back.
- If you’re sailing more than one race each day, keep in mind that the wind will likely change throughout the day. In a reference to the earth’s rotation, Lightning Champion and sailmaking pioneer Bill Shore used to say, "when you’re racing in the northern hemisphere, go right." That's an over-simplification of course, but it serves as a good reminder for racers to be vigilant regarding the trends in weather.
- When sailing in a multi-class regatta with other classes starting ahead of yours, make sure someone on your boat watches these boats as they leave the starting line area and sail upwind (assuming it’s an upwind start). By simply watching the boats that start ahead of you, it’s possible to learn a lot about what the wind is doing up the course. Having a good pair of binoculars on board will come in handy here.
- If it’s a multiple-day regatta, try to give your crew an idea of the conditions they can anticipate for the next day of racing. This will help them prepare mentally.
Now, the above list of concerns is purposely general. You’ll find that you’ll need to refine the list of steps you take for various racing venues, because what’s important on a tidal bay may be a far cry from what’s important on a mountain-rimmed lake. Still, keepig yourself as informed as possible about the local and regional weather—before and during the competition—will allow you to sail with confidence, and that leads to a proactive, offensive mindset. If you just go out there without really getting a handle on the wind conditions, then you and your crew will be relegated to sailing in a reactive, essentially defensive mode. So do the work beforehand; then you and your crew can have the confidence of knowing that you’re not simply rolling the dice. That alone will help you fare better out on the racecourse.
Seeing the Wind by Bob Merrick
Understanding Apparent Wind by Steve Colgate
The Pre-Race Checklist by Dan Dickison
SailNet Store Section: Binoculars