I do a lot of sailing around Newport, RI, where in the course of a summer day, the conditions on the water tend to change quite a lot. As the afternoon sea breeze builds and the current changes directions, waves form and the wind intensifies. It's situations like this that dictate adjusting the setup of the rig and altering your trimming techniques. The good news is that with a little more pressure in the sails, everyone finds it easier to maintain speed and fewer adjustments need to be made. But don't let this lull you to sleep. While it seems easier to keep the boat moving, the changes in conditions still affect performance and require adjustments. The rig tune needs to be examined between races, sail selection needs to be carefully considered, and the crew needs to start hiking harder.
Moderate Air and Chop The same adjustments generally apply for shifting gears in moderate conditions as they do in light air. The difference is that they may not have to be as drastic for your boat to maintain speed. However, if choppy conditions exist, the shifting range may be as great as it is in the lighter breeze. The advantage of dealing with waves is that they are easier to see than an impending lull and therefore they're easier to set up for and power through. In a tight race, getting through a set of waves better than your competitors can be the difference between winning and losing, especially when you're racing upwind close to the finish line.
Getting up to speed in moderate breeze is usually the easiest mission to accomplish. The breeze direction and strength are ordinarily consistent and you'll usually be sailing in relatively flat water. Under these conditions, everyone is likely to be going the same speed. But the next thing you know, there's a set of waves headed your way and you need to react. Since you've been sailing along for a few minutes going well with no effort, 'why,' you ask, 'can't we just sail through the waves?' You could, but the boat is going to slow down, the apparent wind will decrease, and you'll find yourself struggling to get back up to speed. As this happens, you look at the boat sailing a few lengths to weather and notice a flurry of activity as they sail right by, leaving you wallowing behind as your driver starts chasing the telltales, trying to get back up to speed.
The sailors that just rolled you probably did something like this: The crew on the rail noticed the set of waves headed in its direction and notified the speed team—the trimmers, the tactician, and the driver. This gave the trimmers and the driver a chance to ease the sheets, drive down a degree or two, and start building speed, which allowed the boat to power through the waves with little or no loss of speed. In situations like this, it's critical to ease the headsail, and sometimes it pays to pull the sheet lead forward to induce a fuller, more powerful shape in the sail. (If your boat is rigged with track stops, you don't have this option, so just ease it out accordingly.)
Communication with the mainsail trimmer is also important at this point because the traveler will most likely need to be lowered to aid the driver in coming down to a slightly lower course. If the headsail sheet is too tight or the lead too far forward, this will cause the mainsail to backwind and luff, which translates into lost boat speed and difficulty in getting the traveler to go down. The other complication is that the boat will probably experience excessive heel and then the rudder will stall, which results in the loss of more valuable speed. You get the picture—communication is key.
Once the set of waves has passed, it is time to get back to your optimum upwind speeds and angles. Once again, communication with the mainsail trimmer and the driver is critical. The person on the helm must feel that the speed is sufficient to return to a normal upwind mode. If the boat suffered any loss of speed getting through a bad set of waves, returning to the upwind course and trimming the sails too soon will negate any gains made by powering through the waves. And then you'll have to repeat the whole powering-up process again.
Heavy Air and Waves Heavy air is often the most challenging condition for racers. It's windy; it's physical; and if the boat isn't trimmed correctly, it can get just plain uncomfortable and discouraging. So how does everyone else do it?
Once again, the rig needs to be tuned to the appropriate setting and the sail selection needs to be carefully considered. On most boats, the breezier the conditions, the more depowered the boat needs to be. This usually means putting on more backstay tension, moving the headsail leads aft, tensioning the halyard, and dropping the traveler down.
One of the most critical adjustments that can be made while sailing in heavy air is mainsail trim, because it directly affects the driver's ability to steer. Of course, how the mainsail is trimmed is influenced by the headsail trim. If the jib is in too tight or the lead is too far forward, the traveler may not be able to go down as low as necessary or the mainsheet may not be able to be eased without the sail luffing. These situations will keep you from being able to depower the sailplan sufficiently, and you'll end up sailing around with too much heel, basically going slow.
Once again, it is important for the speed team to be in constant communication. The jib trimmer needs to keep an eye on the mainsail from time to time. If the mainsail seems to be flogging a lot and the boatspeed is slow, ask the mainsail trimmer if he or she is having trouble. If there is a problem, one of the first things to look at is the headsail halyard tension. Having the halyard too loose will make the back of the jib too round, and the wind coming off the leech of the jib will likely cause the luff of the main to backwind, forcing the mainsail trimmer to over-sheet the sail. Next, check the lead position for the jibsheet. You may need to trim the sail so that it twists off more in the upper leech, and this means moving the lead aft. The final option is to start easing the sheet a little. When it's very windy, it is amazing how much one inch of ease on the jibsheet can affect how the boat sails.
Always keep an eye on the competition, using them as a gauge for your own boat's performance. Upwind, major differences in speed and height between other boats and your own usually mean you need to make an adjustment somewhere, and chances are it'll have to do with the jib. Above all, keep in mind that no matter what conditions you are sailing in, communication among the speed team is key. Ask for feedback from the driver and the mainsheet trimmer on how the boat feels, and give them information on the surrounding boats as a reference. This is one of the easiest ways to determine what adjustments need to happen. That's it for now. Good luck and good sailing.