The jib telltales tell me whether I'm at sailing the right angle to maintain boat speed. When I look at the weather side of the bow, I'm checking out the wave that's hitting us right at that moment. If I see I've connected with that wave badly, I'll know that I have to put the bow down a bit extra to build speed again.
When I look a few boatlengths ahead, I'm studying the character of the next set of waves to figure out how I will get the boat around or through it. Steering in waves is a bit like playing the stock market—you really never know until afterward whether you've chosen the best route. And there are always plenty of hindsight Charlies sitting on the rail ready to let me know if I get them wet! The goals to sailing fast in lumpy conditions are actually the same as in flat water: you want to keep momentum up, steer only as much as necessary, and maintain a constant angle of heel. Wave sailing, however, requires constant adjustment of sails and helm to accomplish these goals.
Here is my to-do list for maintaining boat speed through the waves:1. Recognize the 'biggies'2. Figure out the best course to minimize a wave's impact3. Adjust the sails to help maintain speed during course change4. Keep the boat on the same angle of heel through the maneuver5. Concentrate1. Recognize the 'biggies.'When sailing in waves, remember that waves are three dimensional, they move in more than one direction, and no two are exactly alike. I try to "read" what shape the each wave will be and how it will intersect our bow so that I can figure out what I am going to do about it. But one constant holds true: The sooner I start to alter course for a wave, the more gradual that course change can be.
There are two very different ways a wave will slow a boat down. The first is by making the bow bob up and down, which reduces forward speed and momentum; this is usually caused by connecting with the wave at too much of a right angle to its direction of travel. (Visualize a fresh, steep powerboat wake rolling in from straight ahead.)
The second way in which a wave slows your progress is by knocking the bow of the boat to leeward, which usually happens when a larger wave hits from the side. If you can steer so that the bow intersects a wave at roughly 45 degrees to its direction of travel, you'll be able to minimize the performance-reducing effect of the wave.
2. Steer the best course.Let's assume that your boat is marching upwind, perfectly set up for the given conditions. What should you do once you've identified the next big wave? The accepted wisdom (to steer up the front side of the wave and bear off down the backside) works well when the waves are large and slow enough that each one requires a bit of time to climb over. In short chop, however, there just isn't space for a gradual course change twice on each wave. And often the waves are not square to the wind.
Waves that are square to the bow are impossible to steer between. If you try to pinch up over one wave, you will probably not have enough time to build speed again before the next one hits. Put the bow down early to build speed, and then head up to your regular course through the face. Again, this is a long-term problem, and what you learn from each course alteration can be applied to the next.
3. Adjust the sail trim. As you steer, trim and ease the sails accordingly. The most important sail adjustment is to ease both sails when you put the bow down to build speed.
4. Constant angle of heel.Large waves will often induce heel as they roll underneath, making it hard to bear off. Dinghy crews can help keep the boat flat by hiking a bit extra at the top of each wave. On bigger boats it may be necessary to depower slightly to prevent a skid sideways.
The more sloppy and awful the conditions are, the more important it is to spend time sailing upwind before the race to check your trim and settings and to get a feel for what the waves will do on each tack. If you do this, you have a better chance of coming off the line with confidence, no matter what you see ahead.
In almost any arena, whether it's the America's Cup or the Tuesday night beer can series, the best drivers are the ones who appear to get their boats around the racecourse almost effortlessly. Though these guys may make it look easy, it's clear they're working all the time, concentrating intensely. That's particularly true in waves. If you start daydreaming or thinking about the next mark rounding or how the boat to leeward is doing, you won't be truly aware of the waves coming at you and chances are your mind won't be able to process the best way through, over, or around them.
Riding the Waves
In big breeze and waves, set up the boat with a wide groove. Keep the boat on its feet and steer around the really big sets.
In all conditions, apply what you learn from each set of waves to the next set.
Wind, Waves, and Sailors by Michael Carr
Mainsail Twist for Waves by Dobbs Davis
Talking the Talk by Carol Cronin
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