Light Air Sailing

light air sailingFor many of us, mid-summer means light air. Racing in light air is a special challenge. Doing well makes the experience much more satisfying than doing poorly... Cruising in light air means easy livin’. With proper technique, you’ll only have to resort to the noisy boat shaker sail in the lightest conditions. Following are a few thoughts on improving performance in light air.

Upwind Trim

• Speed first. Get the boat moving by footing off 5° to 10° below your regular closehauled course. Set the sails with powerful shapes by moving the jib leads forward and easing the backstay and outhaul. To encourage flow, trim with extra twist by easing the mainsheet and jibsheet a few inches (or more) from full trim. As speed builds, trim in and head up gradually, but don’t get greedy. Pointing too high will stop the boat in its tracks, particularly in chop, and send you back to start the speed-build process all over again.

• Crew weight should be forward and leeward, or down below, sitting atop the front of the keel. The goal in moving weight forward is to lift the stern out of the water to reduce wetted surface and drag.

• Keep clear air. Sailing in bad air in light going takes things from bad to worse. If anyone appears to be remotely on your apparent wind, clear out. Of course, you want to avoid tacking too often as well. When you do tack...

• Roll tack. Hike all crew weight well to leeward to induce heel and weather helm to initiate the tack. As the sails cross the center line, pile across the boat in one movement and hike on the new leeward side to throw the sails to the new leeward side. As the sails fill away, gradually hike the boat down to a proper heel angle for the conditions.

• Find more wind. A slight increase in breeze – from 4 to 5 knots – will provide a leap in performance. Look ahead, and sail to the new wind. If the breeze is building from a flat calm, the breeze will usually be stronger on the side of the initial fill.

Downwind Performance

• Speed first. Get the boat moving by sailing as much as 50° to 60° above dead down wind. As the boat speed builds foot off to a course about 40° above dead downwind. This will keep the apparent wind near the beam. If you cannot feel the apparent wind coming over the side of the boat, you are sailing too low. Keep the apparent wind forward. If you try to force the boat too low, you will park and have to start all over again building speed.

• Crew weight remains forward and leeward.

• Roll jibe. As with tacking, use crew weight to steer the boat and move the sails.

• With a symmetric poled spinnaker, over square the pole and rotate the spinnaker all the way to windward as you bear off. The clew should be at the headstay and remain there as it becomes the tack coming out of the jibe.

• With an asymmetric chute, ease the clew forward to the headstay as you bear off and trim the new sheet to flip the sail onto the new jibe. Ease as it fills. Come out of the jibe above an apparent wind beam reach to build speed, then foot off to an apparent beam reach to carry speed.

• Hold the main out until it wants to jibe itself late in the turn.

• Turn all the way through to a fast reaching angle to build speed coming out of the turn.

• Find more wind. As great as the impact of more wind is upwind, it is an even bigger consideration going downwind for two reasons: More wind enhances performance, and you stay in the puffs longer as you sail with them. Look upwind to see puffs coming down the course and sail to meet them. Starts

• Stay near the line. In very light air, you may want to reach back and forth on the line.

• Build speed. Leave yourself plenty of time to build to full speed on a close reach as you approach the start.

• Test your timing. Run through a practice approach to see how long it takes to build to full speed after tacking or jibing.

• Keep clear air. Avoid crowds if at all possible.

• Don’t over trim. Get off the line with speed.


The lighter the wind, the greater the impact of current. Here are a few tips:

• Starting: Run the line in both directions to get a sense of current impact and relative times. For example, even when your boat speed is five knots, one knot of current running up the line will give you a VMG of four knots in one direction and six knots in the other – a 50% difference – that can throw off your timing and make you early or late...

• Upwind and downwind. If there is a favored side to the course, and the advantage is due to WIND, then sail the same water upwind and down.

If the advantage is current driven, then sail the opposite water downwnd. Determine the favored side and figure out why it’s favored. • Cross current: If the current is running across the course (perpendicular to the wind), and it is stronger on some parts of the leg than others, then the correct strategy is to put your bow into the strongest current upwind and stern to the strongest current downwind. The reason has to do with the current’s shift of the sailing wind.

• One clue to current is seeing boats at anchor (like the RC) not sitting into the wind.

Other Considerations

• Preparation. Empty the boat of all excess gear. Keep the required equipment, sails and safety gear, but leave the extra stuff behind. The best way to do this is to empty the boat entirely, (clean it) and put back only what you need.

• Clean the bottom. If your boat lives in the water, you must clean the bottom every week to be fast in light air, especially as the water warms up.


Here are a few thoughts on making the most of light air cruising days:

• Slip your anchor early and get underway in the cool of the morning. Breakfast underway with the morning breeze over the deck. With an early start, you can still reach your destination while maintaining a leisurely pace.

• Go upwind...Close reaching and beating offer the best apparent wind and coolest sailing. Go upwind on light air days.

• Set a gennaker. A cruising spinnaker makes light air broad reaching fast and fun. Rather than slapping and slatting, you can sail downwind! A true wind broad reach will put the apparent wind near the beam for best speed and comfort.

• If you must motor...When the morning breeze fades away, you may find you need to motor through the midday doldrums. An autopilot can take the tedium out of this chore. If your mainsail is slatting as you roll in waves, it is best to take it down. Trimming hard with the main leech slatting puts tremendous load on the leech. Save your main for sailing.

• Do some night sailing. Escape the sun by sailing at night. With careful planning and attention to weather, safety and navigation, you will be rewarded with an extraordinary experience and an expanded cruising territory.

Bill Gladstone is Director of North U., the education division of North Sails. To find out more about Bill’s books and CDs and view the North U. seminar schedule, visit

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