If you've ever had the opportunity to watch a sailboat race from a high-vantage point, like a bridge or a cliff, you've probably seen puffs move down the course in the form of dark patches on the water. These puffs are usually generated by wind from a higher altitude sinking to the surface of the water. Higher-altitude winds move faster than surface winds and this constitutes the puff. These puffs of wind disturb the surface of the water slightly more than the rest of the air and thus cause the water beneath them to appear darker.
The best way to practice spotting puffs is to spend time trying to predict when you're going to sail into them. This is a great way to improve your sailing because you can do it by yourself in any boat that can be single-handed. To run the drill, just sail upwind and try to spot puffs ahead of you. In the beginning, don't worry about tacking for puffs. When you see a puff, try to predict how many seconds it will be before you sail into it, then start counting down the seconds. If the puff hits when you get to zero you've done it perfectly. After practicing upwind, turn around and do the same thing downwind. After a while, you'll also develop the ability to discern how strong a particular puff will be, which is valuable information because it allows you to anticipate the effect and trim accordingly.
Sailing into more wind can greatly increase your boat's speed, but in order to get to the best puffs you need to get a good look upwind. Standing up on the deck will get your eyes a little higher up off the water, which is a good way to get a better view. On most boats you can't sail the whole race standing on the deck so it becomes especially important to stand up and get a look to windward before the start of a race.
When you are looking upwind, if you can clearly determine that one side of the course has more wind than the other, the tactics for that leg will be greatly simplified. This isn't to say that you should ignore other variables such as current or wind shifts. However, sailing to the side with more wind is almost always a winning move.
When one side is not clearly favored it becomes even more important to pay constant attention to where the puffs are. The goal is to spend as much time in the puffs as possible without ignoring other important tactical considerations. Sailing to an area of more wind is often the right thing to do, however, a common pitfall is to chase a puff that is too far away. If you have to sail all the way across the course for a puff, chances are that it will be gone before you get there. And remember, Murphy's Law dictates that the next puff will fill on the side you just sailed away from.
Once you've gotten a handle on seeing the wind, you become increasingly valuable as a crew because upwind you can count the puffs down for the trimmers and the person on the helm. And downwind you can help to ensure that the boat stays in the strongest breeze as much as possible. Identifying someone to watch for puffs and lulls downwind is something many crews forget to do, but it can really help you make gains.
Placing a high priority on spotting puffs and getting your boat into more wind is almost always a successful tactic in sailboat racing. Sailboats are after all wind-powered machines. So get that Laser or Sunfish out of the garage and spend some time practicing in the near term, and you'll be sure to improve your results when the next race rolls around.
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