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Old 06-10-2002
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Carol Cronin is on a distinguished road
How to Steer in Waves


The author perfects her steering technique in the smaller waves during the second day of action at this year's Santa Maria Cup in Annapolis, MD.
The recent Santa Maria Cup in Annapolis, MD, gave me ample opportunity to cement what I know about steering upwind in a variety of conditions. As the only women's Grade-1 match-racing event in the US, the regatta was both a test of skills I wasn't sure I had (it was my first match race event as a skipper), and a surprising reminder that all of the basics are still very important, even at this level of competition. Wednesday through Friday we had flat water and light-to-medium breeze; for the finals on Saturday, the powerboats flying out to enjoy the weekend sunshine kicked up the washing machine cycles for which Annapolis is so famous.

In the preliminary portion of the event-the round-robin-16-year-old Guilia Conti from Italy finished just ahead of us, so we were matched up against her in the semi-finals and beat her 2-0. Frankly we were surprised by how easy it was since we had struggled to beat her in previous matches. It turns out, she lives on Lake Garda, and Saturday's conditions provided (in her words) "too many waves!"

When I’m steering in flat water, I like to look around at the course a lot, checking up on the telltales and the bow wave only occasionally. Random powerboat wakes are visible from miles away in these conditions, and just before one arrives, we always ease the sails out a bit, reach down to build speed through to the flat water on the far side, and then gradually trim back in to our normal pointing angle. These conditions ordinarily don't pose a problem, even for novice sailors.


When the sea state is bumpy, the author says her eyes roam from the telltales to the weather side of the bow, to a few boatlengths ahead, and occasionally up to check the mainsail trim, all without noticeably moving her head.
In bumpy conditions, however, my eyes tend to roam over a short one-minute circuit that doesn't require any head movement. I look at the jib telltales, the weather side of the bow, and wherever our next wave set is building—usually a few boatlengths ahead and to windward. Once in a while I'll glance at the main to check its trim, but if I try to look anywhere else the next big wave will likely slam the bow and slow the boat.

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.


When sailing in waves, it's common for drivers to oversteer, which only slows the boat down.
A common mistake in waves is to oversteer, which is like driving down the street with the parking brake partially engaged. I try to steer around only the obstacles that I know will really slow us down, focusing on the best long-term route without getting too wrapped up in 'that big wave.' If the sea state is larger than the breeze, I apply the same rules, but focus even more on planning ahead.

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 impact
3. Adjust the sails to help maintain speed during course change
4. Keep the boat on the same angle of heel through the maneuver
5. Concentrate

1. 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.

"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 on the bow, like the ones above, are impossible to steer between says the author. For these, she recommends putting the bow down early to build speed, and then heading up to a closehauled course through the face of the wave.
Remembering the two ways a wave will slow the boat down will lead you to the best option for the conditions. If the waves are coming more from the weather side, they will tend to slap the bow sideways. You can ignore the smaller waves, since they will just roll underneath you. Concentrate on steering a course that connects the troughs, and try to learn from each success or failure how much course alteration is needed for a net gain.

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.

"Only by concentrating can you take advantage of flat spots as opportunities to make gains."
5. Concentrate.
One often-overlooked aspect of sailing upwind in waves is that there are, frequently, flat spotsoften when you least expect them. Some helmsmen prefer to have these identified ("flat spot in 3.2.1," etc.) so they can point up higher when they get into these spots. But only by concentrating can you take advantage of these opportunities to make gains.

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 light air and powerboat slop, keep your eyes on the waves just in front of you and sacrifice heading for boatspeed.

In medium breeze and chop, keep the boat rolling. Find the flat spots so that you can gain by going into point mode.

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.






Suggested Reading:

Wind, Waves, and Sailors by Michael Carr

Mainsail Twist for Waves by Dobbs Davis

Talking the Talk by Carol Cronin


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