Reaching in Gusts

What the Experts Say

Jim Saltonstall - Race Training with Jim Saltonstall
"Bear away in the gusts and come up in the lulls for maximum speed down the reaching leg"

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart
"...if you can anticipate when these increased wind bands are going to arrive and time yourself to head off just as they hit, you will be much faster on this leg than competitors who don't know how to take advantage of the speed potential that is there"

Ed Baird - Laser Racing
"If it's puffy and/or shifty you want to sail low in the header and/or puffs and sail higher in the light spots and/or lifts"

Rodney Pattison - Tactics
"In winds less than force 4 you should deviate slightly, luffing up in lulls and bearing away in gusts. In this way you meet the gusts earlier and stay with them longer"

Paul Goodison - Laser Handbook
" want to spend as much time as possible in the gusts and the least amount of time in a lull"

Ben Tan - The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing
"Steer to keep the boat flat, bearng away as soon as the gust hits, otherwise the boat heels making it more difficult to bear away"

Clive Eplett - Club Sailor: from Back to Front
"Head up a bit in the lulls to keep the speed on. Work lower in the puffs, staying in the pressure longer and building the opporunity to come higher when it has gone, so increasing the overall VMG"

Videos for Reaching in Gusts

Want some reaching tips from an Olympic Gold Medallist? No problem:

A good view of reaching technique from Steve Cockerill. You get a good idea how much he uses his sheeting to handle the gusts and keep the boat planing:

These two videos by Doug Peckover from Improper Course are excellent for Laser sailors looking to improve their reaching technique.

If you watch closely, using the shore as a guide to the direction the boat is pointing and the movement of the helm in and out of the boat as he hikes more or less depending on the power in the rig, you'll notice the frequent changes in direction to soak low or power up depending on the wind strength. The boat is nearly always planing.

In the second video in particular you'll notice the main luffing just slightly every so often, and how the helm will bear away to correct, before heading back up as the power in the rig drops:

Books with information on Reaching in Gusts

Paul Goodison - Laser Handbook, page 104

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart, page 150

Ben Tan - The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing, page 46

Rodney Pattisson - Tactics, page 42

Clive Eplett - Club Sailor: from Back to Front, page 55

Race Training with Jim Saltonstall, page 126

Ed Baird - Laser Racing, page 42

Dick Tillman - The Complete Book of Laser Sailing, page 72

Jon Emmett - Be Your Own Sailing Coach, page 171

Websites and online articles for Reaching in Gusts

The rarest of things - an excellent article all about reaching.

There are a few tips with screenshots from a top coach on reaching halfway down this post, and the excellent original hat-cam footage here and here

There is an excellent paragraph on reaching in this piece

useful article on sailing two-man dinghies downwind, including reaching

A very basic guide to sailing off-wind. useful if a little dated and incomplete

What We Learned...

If you only remember on thing about reaching in gusts then it should be this:

Bear off in the gusts, head up in the lulls.

Or maybe it is even easier to remember said like this:

Go down when the breeze is up, and go up when the breeze is down.

Of course, there is more to being quick in gusts than just this, but following this basic principle will see you faster than the majority of club racers on the reach.

Now let's look at the main reasons that this principle is important:

  • You want to keep the boat going as fast as possible at all times. Heading up in lulls will mean sailing on a faster point of sail when the breeze is lower, whilst bearing off in the puffs will take advantage of the extra boat-speed that you have (whilst keeping your VMG good).
  • Bearing off in the gusts means that you'll spend longer in the strong breeze. Gusts make their way down the race-course, and by bearing off with them you'll get the benefit of the extra wind for a little longer.
  • Conversely, by heading up in the lulls you are getting to the new gusts quicker. As they move down the course, so you move up to meet them, therefore spending less time in the lulls.
  • Gusts tend to heel the boat which is slow. By bearing off in the gusts you keep the boat flatter and more under control.

When a gust or puff hits your speed increases. This has a number of effects, but one important one is that your apparent wind shifts forward.

What often happens is this: the boat heels a bit more, and the sail luffs (because your apparent wind has shifted forward); so most sailors hike a bit harder, and sheet in a bit to re-trim the sail. But the better thing to do, especially in strong winds, is to see the gust coming, hike the boat flat as it hits, and let the boat bear off, thus re-trimming the sail by changing your boat's angle to the wind, not by pulling in the sail. If the gust is good, you can ease the main a little more and soak even lower, really taking advantage of the extra speed.

Timing can be crucial - bear off too early and you don't accelerate as quickly or as much, leave it too late and the boat heels slowing you down.

Why is bearing off in this way the best thing to do?

There are several reasons, some of which are mentioned above. Others include:

  1. You are using your body-weight and sail trim to steer the boat, rather than the rudder. This helps the boat maintain good hull speed through the water.
  2. You aren't over-stretching yourself. If you sheet in and hike harder, you're closer to (or even at) your maximum hiking ability. Bearing off saves energy, and also leaves you less likely to be in trouble if the gust increases - you still have more hiking power to offer if the wind gusts even more.
  3. In strong winds you are lowering your chances of a capsize. This bit may feel a little counter-intuitive, but bear with me: If you use the "sheet in + hike harder" technique then the sheeting in aspect will increase the heeling momentum on the boat. the boat screws up into the wind because it is heeling, increasing the pressure. If it gets critical you ease the main, but in some boats this just results in the boom hitting the water, with the sail still catching the wind, and...splash.
    If you bear off as soon as the gust hits (even easing the sail a little to aid the bear off) the boat will naturally flatten and accelerate. If you feel you are going too low it is easy to sheet in a little and allow the boat to follow the sail trim back up to a higher course, but in a much more controlled manner.

All these benefits mean one thing is sure:

Bear off in the gusts, head up in the lulls.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *