Are you working hard enough on downwind boat speed? It’s easy to lose focus, even though downwind sailing requires at least as much concentration as upwind sailing. For this post, we decided to compile a big picture list of things to consider as you try to avoid the slows. We’ll focus on the details of some of these factors in separate posts.
Stay in Breeze
In Sail Faster Downwind: In Pressure and By the Lee, we learned that puffs are 3-4 times more “powerful” and last 4-5 times longer downwind than upwind. So, unless it’s blowing hard, your first priority is get in the puffs as soon as possible and stay in them.
- As you round the windward mark, look upwind for the first puff and position yourself to get in it.
- Force yourself to constantly look behind you at the wind on the water and other boats to help you connect the dots.
- When a puff hits, bear off or gybe to stay in it longer.
Find Clear Air
You can easily get passed if another boat takes your wind. On the downwind leg, a boat within 5-10 boat lengths may be taking your air. Parades of boats behind you are even worse. Clear air depends on the apparent wind, so use your telltales or masthead fly to check.
- Sight along your telltales or masthead fly back toward the other boat(s).
- If the telltales or fly point to the boat(s) behind, you’re in trouble.
It may be simple to clear your air just by turning up or down to change your apparent wind, as shown in this video from the International Sailing Academy. If you can’t just turn up or down, you may have to sail away from the pack.
Work the Boat for VMG
Compared to upwind sailing, it’s a lot harder to maximize your velocity made good (VMG) downwind. In light air, the optimal downwind sailing angle might be 30 degrees or more above dead downwind. This optimal angle changes rapidly as the breeze builds. Therefore, you have to work the boat, changing your heading as the breeze changes.
- “Up in the lulls, down in the puffs” is a good rule of thumb in medium air.
- In light air, a puff doesn’t change your optimal sailing angle much. Before heading down, check the following:
- Make sure you have good boat speed and apparent wind. If not, build speed first.
- Check the feel of the boat. Only head down if there is pressure on the main sheet and some heeling force.
- Look at the upper leech of the mainsail. Don’t head down unless there is some flow.
- Head back up as soon as you lose speed, pressure, or flow.
- In heavy air, you can head to the mark, and concentrate on control and tactics.
Reduce Drag with Heel and Boards
Be aggressive to reduce drag from the rudder, hull, and boards:
- Minimize helm, by heeling the boat to windward.
- Steer with body weight using heel, rather than the rudder.
- Minimize wetted surface by heeling the boat. In medium to heavy air, heel to windward. When you don’t have much weather helm, heel to leeward. In either case, commit your weight to one side and hike for maximum effect.
- Raise your board to reduce drag. Unless you need more bite for steering or stability, you can raise the board substantially. Adjust as needed for situations requiring steering or if the boat gets unstable.
Work the Sails
When sailing dead downwind, your sail is at its least powerful, since it’s not generating any lift. If possible, you want to maintain some flow over the sail, by heading up a little or sailing by the lee. Look for the following:
- Boom square to apparent wind (especially in light air).
- Leech telltale streaming periodically.
- Luff of mainsail a little soft, indicating flow behind the sail.
- Active leech. You want the leech to respond to changes in wind. Use the vang to tension the leech so it is roughly parallel to the boom and waves back and forth in the puffs and lulls. See our post – How To Set Your Vang Downwind – YouTube
- Cunningham off to keep draft of sail toward the center.
- Outhaul eased slightly for fullness, but not so much that it reduces sail area.
- Sail by the lee if you want more steering flexibility. See our post – Sail Faster Downwind: In Pressure and By the Lee.
If you sail a boat with a spinnaker or a jib, there’s much more think about. We’ll cover this separately.