Late summer, early fall makes for a good time to consider sailing in light air. For me, there are a few good things about racing keelboats in light air: You don't get wet, you will have a very smooth motor back into the harbor. Well, that's about it. Let's not kid ourselves. Keelboat racing in a drifter is no thrill ride, but all sailors are faced with it from time to time. If you look at the statistics for North America, light air (winds from zero to seven knots) is more the rule than the exception. The good news is that by focusing on a few key areas you can speed up the race and reduce the drudgery—concentration, clear air, and momentum.
Concentration A winning light-air helmsman requires only a very small brain. All he has to do is foot out of tacks and then keep both telltales streaming. This doesn't require special skills or experience, just complete concentration. The normal person cannot maintain complete concentration for a two-hour, light-air race. Since most keelboat teams number anywhere from six to 12 crewmembers, it makes sense to switch drivers. Back in the days when my friends and I raced the J/35 Bengal, we switched drivers at every light-air mark rounding, or whenever the driver snapped, whichever came first.
If you rotate drivers at every mark, you can also rotate sail trimmers and tacticians, essentially forming upwind and downwind teams. The "off watch" team rides down below where they can sit comfortably on the leeward side cushions. This is their chance to get out of the sun, drink water, eat food, and talk about something other than boat racing. Their weight is concentrated closer to the boat's center of gravity. By having half the crew down below, you eliminate the windage of the extra bodies, and the acting helmsman, trimmer, and tactician won't be distracted by the idle chatter of the bored or sullen if they remain on deck. Finally, when it is time to rotate again, the new team is relaxed and refreshed.
Clean Air Scientific tests at the leading wind tunnel sites have proven that the light-air wind shadow of a PHRF keelboat extends about 15 miles. Unless you are in the lead, your primary tactical concern when racing in light air, both upwind and downwind, is to stay out of gas. This means reaching around a boat ahead and to windward or getting out of phase with the fleet momentarily after a bad start. It also means jibing away from the pack downwind, and by all means, waving port-tackers across your bow when you meet them. Whatever it takes, just keep your air clear.
Once you have a clear lane of breeze, view the racecourse as if there were no other competitors to determine your placement strategy. Fleet-positioning and wind-shift leverage are not as critical as simply staying in pressure, connecting the dots (puffs) to the next mark. Forget about boats in the corners or covering any competitors. The goal in a drifter race is to avoid disaster. A third or fourth-place finish in a 15-boat drifter should be considered an outright victory.
Momentum From the moment the race committee flags go up and someone on your crew says, "they can't start a race in this wind!," you need to do everything in your power to preserve the forward momentum of the boat. Momentum is drained from the boat every time it turns or pitches. The only way to reduce the number of turns is to reduce the number of tacks and jibes. If you have 15,000 pounds of crew and boat, and only four knots of breeze, a tack will cost you three or four boatlengths. In extremely light air, try to tack no more than three times per mile as a basic rule of thumb. If you are approaching a starboard tacker, don't even think about trying to cross. Instead, start your duck several boat lengths away. If you duck a full length you might get half of it back with the extra boat speed developed during the duck. On the other hand, pinching and trying to cross the boat, followed by the inevitable crash tack, could mean losing as much as eight boat lengths.
In light air, it can pay big dividends to focus on mark roundings. Smooth crew work will allow you to carry speed around the corners and could result in gaining two to three boat lengths in the process. We used to observe a no-talking rule inside the two-boat-length circle. The no-talking rule eliminates all the coaching. With nothing else to do, the would-be coaches end up focusing on their own sail handling or weight placement tasks and the roundings go much better. The biggest opportunity for gaining during mark roundings in light air comes at the leeward mark. If you can carry the kite until you are inside the two boat length circle and steer the boat around the mark by heeling it hard to leeward, you will come out of the gate faster and higher than most of your competitors.
The way to minimize pitching its to keep the crew weight low and centered, and to reduce the amount of movement in the rig. My recommendation is to get the crew out of the cockpit and off the cabin top. Also, make sure that they keep their bodies out of the slot between the headsail and mainsail and definitely stay too leeward. Lets see, that means you might as well join the team down below if you are not steering or driving.
Light-air sailing and powerboat waves go together like death and taxes. If your rig can slam around when you go over or through those waves, the pitching motion will be accentuated. To keep the rig from moving around while you're sailing downwind, attach your spare halyard to a bow padeye and wind it up tight against the backstay. When sailing upwind, you will want plenty of sag in the headstay. You should sag the rig until the jib looks deep enough and then take up any extra slack in the backstay. If the headstay is pumping, the rig is probably too soft. When Rodney Dangerfield powers by in front of you, bear off a couple of degrees and heel the boat a little more if possible. The extra pressure and the weight of the sails will help dampen the pitching motion.
Finally, the last recourse you have for sailing in light air is to pray for breeze.