Understanding the Wind for Sailing

The first thing I do, in the few days leading up to sailing, is check the weather. I'm sure that most sailors do this. But there are different ways of doing it. A lot of club sailors, I suspect, check once or maybe twice to see if it will be windy or light, or if it will be raining or warm.

I don't check for those reasons.

Well, not entirely. Of course I check how windy it is going to be, but I'm just as interested in the wind direction. And I'm also interested in how warm it will be, but much more because I want to know what the sea breeze is likely to be doing rather than whether I'll get to improve my tan.

Understanding the wind for sailing can really help boost your results, and the basics of it are a lot easier and far less daunting than most sailors realise.

For example: for many years I sailed on an Estuary in north county Dublin. This meant that if the wind was blowing North to South or South to North then it would be coming over the land. The result of this was that the wind would be shifty and puffy, so you could make big gains by tacking on shifts and spotting where puffs would form. The windward mark approach would tend to be the most shifty section of the beat (because it would be close to the shore) and it would also tend to have less breeze (for the same reason).

This is useful for two reasons. Firstly, I could get myself in the right frame of mind. I'd need to be alert to shifts, and focused on my boat handling to take advantage of them. And secondly, I'd need to have a lake sailors mentality - be relaxed and accepting that there would inevitably be times when I'd be in an unpredictable lull and others would be in breeze. It can be vital to be conscious of this, because it is easy to make rash decisions in these conditions, but playing good percentages and being patient can often pay big dividends.

On the flip side, if the wind was East-West or West-East, then the shifts would be less frequent and less pronounced. Wind bends, on the other hand, would be important. The wind would either funnel out (as it moved from the narrow neck of the Estuary to the broad foot), or funnel in as it went in the other direction. This would mean that avoiding the edges (if the wind was funnelling out), or aiming for the edges (if the wind was funnelling in) would probably factor into my thinking. Also, if it was breezy, I'd need to have my hiking muscles switched on, as there'd be less tacking and more straight line speed needed.

Why you shouldn't worry that the wind is never as forecasted

Of course, when you turn up to the sailing club, the wind is almost never as forecast. This is the same no matter where you sail, and some people pay much less attention to the forecast for this very reason.

But frequently, the wind is different to the forecast in the same way.

That is to say, if the wind is forecast to be one thing, then you can be sure the forecast is inaccurate, but in a predictable way.

This is a very good advert for keeping a log or journal of your racing, but even if you can't be bothered to do that, making checking the forecast a habit will soon make predicting the actual wind from the forecast wind relatively straightforward.

Using the Sea Breeze

One of the things I learned very quickly when sailing on the estuary was that, in the summer months, a local wind phenomenon would affect most of our racing. In that warm part of the year (and I do speak relatively here - it was in Dublin after all), a sort of sea breeze would often attempt to form. This was because the prevailing wind was West to East (i.e. blowing out to sea), generally a good start for a sea breeze to form. As we raced on a Sunday afternoon in summer, with the first race starting at around 2 pm, this meant that, if a sea breeze was going to form, then it would form at some point during our racing.

Knowing such a thing is a massive advantage.

For instance, on a relatively light wind day, you could be half way through the race when, very suddenly, the wind would die. Stop dead. Complete drift conditions. The wind indicators on everyone's boats would start spinning around randomly, making it hard to even decide which side the boom should be on. And then, after an infuriating 5 to 20 minutes of this, the wind would appear from the opposite direction - turning beats into runs and runs into beats. Knowing that this was happening was huge, because you knew where the wind was going to come from, and positioning yourself to be amongst the first to get the new wind would guarantee a good finish.

The other day we raced in the summer was Wednesday night. If it had been a warm day then there was likely to be a sea breeze still manfully struggling on as the race started. But, as the evening progressed and the temperature dropped, the sea breeze would die and the wind would steadily track back to the direction of the original forecast. Again, knowing this was a massive advantage because it would mean that you'd always know to be on the inside of what was gradually going to become a persistent shift.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that good local knowledge is worth a lot of positions in a race, and will make a huge difference in your overall results.

Useful Tools for Understanding the Wind for Sailing

There are loads of sites for weather forecasting, but these happen to be the ones I have come across most frequently that are useful for sailors (any other recommendations would be welcomed):

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