The winds at our lake have been running from 15 to 45 mph and when we sail on a broad reach we can't keep from broaching when the gusts hit. What are we doing wrong?
Dan Dickison responds:
Thanks for your question. Rest assured that you're probably not doing anything wrong, but there are some other things that you can do to lessen the impact of the gusts that are causing your boat to broach.
Most savvy sailors are aware that the wind's strength and direction are always changing, so they are forever adjusting the sail trim of the boat for optimum performance, and occasionally the other aspects of trim, like weight placement and heel. These sailors keep a close eye on the wind in all conditions so that they'll be able to make those adjustments at the appropriate times. They're especially watchful when the wind is erratic like it tends to be during the puffy conditions you've described.
You might want to emulate these sailors and assign one person on board to keep an eye on the puffs that are coming your way while you sail on a broad reach and have that person alert whoever is on the helm (as well as the person trimming the sails) as the puffs descend. By easing the sheets as the the puffs hit the sails you can usually counteract most of the wind's force and translate it into boat speed. If the puffs are overwhelming, and 45 mph is pretty strong, you'll have to make sure that your sail trim is set up properly for this kind wind. Ask yourself beforehand, is the halyard tight enough? Is the outhaul taut and the cunningham tight? How about the vang? If the vang is tight on this point of sail, you can relieve a lot of the pressure on the upper leech of the mainsail by easing the vang tension just before the force of the puffs hit. Of course start by easing the sheets and then use the vang. It's sort of a secondary control for these instances, but very effective if the wind is strong enough to overpower the amount of sail you have up.
The person on the helm can also lessen the impact of these puffs by bearing away slightly and putting the boat on a broader angle to the wind just as or before the gusts hit. Of course you'll be altering your course and that might not make sense depending upon your destination, but it's merely a momentary alteration to help the boat stay on its feet.
Here's hoping that this information is useful to you. If you'd like to look at a more in depth discussion of sailing in heavy air, have a look at the article that Rich Bowen wrote for us about Shifting Gears, especially the part about heavy air and waves.