Into the Wind
by Jeff Williams

Heavy Air Sailing

Note: Much of this article is geared towards sailing dinghies, but most of it applies equally to larger boats.

It’s hard to deny it. The air smells a little different. There is a chill in the air every morning, and the Canada Geese are beginning to prepare for their annual migration to Toronto. Sailors will notice the afternoon winds are a little stronger. Gusts of wind that were once playful in July are becoming unpredictable and have a more sinister feel.

When I was a 13-year-old lightweight, Alex would come by for a sail at this windy time of year. Alex was strong, and must have weighed at least 220. Rather than being blown around out of control, with Alex we could go on the offensive. We never had a particular destination; instead, we cruised around looking for those big gusts that would give us our next speed fix. The old cottage Albacore skipped across the water with a rooster tail shooting up behind us. It was exhilarating, and we only dumped once in a while.

You don’t need a football player friend to enjoy fall sailing, but some preparation will make it easier. First, check the boat over. Small tears in the sails, loose bolts on the rudder fittings or other minor problems that didn’t matter much over the summer can suddenly become a big problem when the wind picks up. Use some sail tape (not duct tape) on minor tears or broken stitching, and go around the boat with a screwdriver and wrench to tighten things up. Make sure that your paddles and bailer, which are required by law, are tied in so you don’t have to swim after them if you capsize.

If you’re sailing from a dock, put some extra fenders or other padding on the edge to minimize the impact of a misjudged approach. Wear clothes appropriate to the water temperature. A polar fleece sweater will keep you warm even if it does get wet. Let someone know where you are going, and when you intend to be back even if it’s only for a few hours.

Of course it’s preferable to stay upright. A heavy crewmember is the easiest and fastest way to increase the stability of a small sailboat. Decreasing the power of your sails is the next option. You can decrease your sail’s power by making them flatter. For the mainsail, haul the halyard and the outhaul (on the boom) tight. The block and tackle that holds the boom down (boom vang) should also be tightened down. Many boats have a sliding track or bridle at the transom of the boat that connects to the mainsheet. This is called the traveler. Loosening the control lines on the traveler will help the mainsheet to haul down on the boom, further flattening the sail.

The next step to reducing power is to reduce the amount of sail. Lowering the jib is perhaps the easiest way to reduce sail in a hurry. Furling gear on small boats is becoming more common, and it’s a fast and neat way to get that sail out of the way. Note that furlers which wrap the sail around its own luff wire are not designed for reefing the sail, but to roll it up completely. Reefing /furling systems wrap the sail around a metal or plastic extrusion and allows you to partially roll up the sail in order to reef it (reduce its size). Small centreboarders often become unbalanced without the jib, but you can offset this by raising the swinging centerboard up a little.

Reefing the mainsail can be done in two ways. The most common and time-tested is slab or jiffy reefing where an extra tack and clew ring is sewn into the sail. Retrofitting a sail and boom to accommodate slab reefing is fairly simple, though sewing on the heavy patch material on the sail usually makes this a job for a sailmaker or a dedicated do-it-yourselfer. Roller furling for mainsails has been around a long time and is becoming more common with the new in-boom furling systems. These new systems are quite pricey so far, but the old furling systems with the crank work well too. No matter what system you use, the time to try it out is in light conditions before it’s needed. Unfavourable conditions are not the time to try something out for the first time.

When out on the water, ease the sails out a little further; try not to pinch too closely into the wind. Keep the ropes neat and untangled so they can be let out quickly in a gust. Be alert for wind shifts, especially in small bays where the wind will swirl around unpredictably. When running with the wind, watch the mainsail closely for signs that it will get backwinded and slam across to the other side. This is where beginners can get ‘boomed’. Also watch for a rhythmic rolling. This roll can accelerate in unballasted boats and then cause a dramatic downwind capsize. Catch it early by lowering the centerboard if it isn’t already down, and head upwind a little.

Finally, don’t let the occasional capsize cramp your style. Experienced dinghy sailors can spot the inevitable. If water is pouring in over the side and dunking is imminent, hook your leg over the high side and scramble onto the bottom of the boat as it rolls over. It will almost look like you planned it that way. This leaves you in a dry position from which to heckle your less fortunate crewmembers in the water, before standing on the centerboard in order to bring the boat back up for another round.

Jeff Williams