In the last race at the recent MC Train Wreck regatta, with winds gusting into the high 20’s, several sailors capsized and/or buried their bows in the waves. SailZing asked Zack Clayton and John Porter to discuss sailing downwind in waves. Here are their thoughts.
Scows and Waves
As we know, scows have a round nose and have the tendency to ride into a wave rather than over. The MC and C are more susceptible to nosediving downwind as there is no spinnaker to help lift the bow downwind, unlike the E and A. To add to the downwind fun, the length of the MC seems to fit nicely into some lake wave patterns, just asking for the excitement of a nosedive and subsequent spin-out or the dreaded death roll.
At the recent MC Scow Train Wreck regatta at Lake Eustis, the final day of sailing allowed for these conditions to come into play and many of the fleet ended up going for a swim. The casualties were spread throughout the fleet from the leader to the tail of the fleet. The reasons for the capsizes were all different. In the front of the fleet it was a single-handed sailor pushing to gain as much of a lead as possible to hold off a double-handed yacht on the final beat. In the back of the fleet, the culprit is almost always not enough boom vang (letting the sail twist at the top) and not working on up-turns and down-turns to avoid hitting the wave directly and submerging the bow and then losing control and either gybing with a following tip, or a death roll.
Options for Sailing Downwind in Waves
Risky & Fast
- Windward board down 1/4
- Significant windward (reverse) heel
- Sail out to sidestay
- Vang tension to allow top of leech to twist off some. This allows you to sail by the lee when needed.
- Body position at center thwart
- Aggressively pushing past dead downwind (by the lee) when on top or backside of wave
Slow & Safe
- Both boards down 1/4 to 1/3
- Slight windward (reverse) heel
- Hard vang tension to keep the upper leech less twisted
- Mainsheet sheeted in 2-3 feet
- Body aft in cockpit
- Broad reach angle to go over top of waves (non-surfing)
- Both boards down 1/4 to 1/3
- Medium windward (reverse) heel
- Aggressively work boom vang to control top third of leech
- Mainsheet – just off sidestay and adjust depending upon current wind angle
- Body slightly aft – about 6 inches aft of center thwart
- Up-turn and down-turn to position bow to avoid hitting the face of the wave
In the recent Train Wreck Regatta, speaking with the teams that were in the top group, everyone took a slightly different approach and nobody was perfect. I think everyone will tell you they stuck the nose into a wave or six. In the front of the fleet, the Risky& Fast option was working perfectly for a single-handed sailor until it wasn’t (race over). One skipper (John) was playing the Slow & Safe mode dead downwind, another was sailing a higher, skip off the top of waves mode, and I (Zack) and the two boats next to me were in Managing Risk mode with significant rudder, sail and vang adjustments to go as fast as possible, yet still finish the race.
Playing your vang downwind can help keep you out of trouble. The MC rig is very flexible above the spreaders. As the wind builds, the top of the sail pushes forward, allowing the sail’s flow to push the top of the rig away from the sail. This can bring on the dreaded death roll. Pulling hard on the vang reduces this sail twist and the associated instability of the boat, but at some point, no amount of vang will overcome the flexibility of the mast.
Steering to Surf and Keep the Bow Out of the Waves
Where to Focus
The key is to focus on connecting one wave to the next while keeping your bow out of the waves. So where should you look to connect these waves? The answer is not that simple as two feet in front of the bow, or one wave to leeward of your boat, since each angle of sail and each wave and wind direction is different. Depending upon your speed, the waves and your angle of attack, you may be looking directly in front, to your windward quarter, leeward quarter. Also, look behind you occasionally to see what’s coming.
Wave Speed vs. Boat Speed
As we approach waves downwind, the boat will either be going faster or slower than the waves surrounding the boat. Usually, the waves will be faster than the boat in lulls and the boat will be faster in puffs.
When the boat is slower than the waves, it is often possible to “surf” the waves to gain distance down the course faster than if you were sailing in flat water. A single pump of the sail per wave is allowed per RRS 41 to help initiate the surfing. In addition to the pump, steering perpendicular to the wave and moving your weight forward can help to catch each wave. Be careful not to make that forward movement quickly and/or in violation of RRS 41’s prohibition on ooching. As the wave passes, you have either initiated surfing and are cruising fast toward the windward side of the next wave or the wave has passed underneath you and the bow is about to face the windward side of the wave.
Keeping the Bow Clear
If you surf or are just sailing faster than the waves, your bow will approach the windward side of a wave. Now you need to make a snap decision. At each wave, you have to aim for a spot that keeps the bow up and allows it to go over the wave.
- If you are surfing and the wave is long, with plenty of space before the next wave, look for the high spot on the wave you are surfing and drive toward it. See how long you can surf!
- If you can’t keep surfing, look both ways and decide which direction of turn will get you toward the nearest low spot in the wave that is coming. Every wave has a low spot. Aim for it. As you approach, it helps to approach at an angle. This angle can be reaching or sailing by the lee. Reaching makes it easier to keep the bow out safely, but usually takes you further from the mark. By the lee is fast, but the risk of the death roll is higher.
- If you are in a puff, you have two competing concerns. First, if the puff is strong, you are likely experiencing twist of the sail. This is forcing your mast to windward trying to induce a death roll. Second, you are now going faster than the waves, so you are doubly concerned about sticking your nose into a wave.
Big Gains are Possible
In all instances, your goal is to make progress to the leeward mark. Each wave you can sail over is like a ladder rung on the racecourse. If the waves are faster than the boat, the more you surf, the more you gain on the fleet. If you are faster than waves, the more waves you pass successfully, the more boats you pass.
Recovering from a Nose Dive
- If you have just started to dig the bow in, move the tiller back and forth as though you were trying to “shake” the bow 12” in either direction.
- If you are buried further, quickly look for which way has less water to move to get you out of the wave and will avoid a collision with the boats around you.
- If the best option is to turn to windward, trim the mainsheet in rapidly to help spin the boat. If you are running with only the windward board down, this can help unload the forces driving you into the wave because as you turn away from the board in the water, that board will lose flow and allow the boat to “flutter” out of the water.
- Be wary of the turn to leeward, but if you can make that turn without risking a capsize or are forced this way because of other boats around you, ease the sail and turn to leeward while being aware of your weight.
- Move body position aft in the cockpit and bounce up and down to shake the bow free.
Zack Clayton and John Porter
Steering Downwind With Tom Whidden – Sailing World. See the section on waves on Page 2
Video by Jon Emmett – steering in waves.
Gain Dinghy Handling Skills With Fresh Insights – great video from Steve Cockerill about sailing downwind in a breeze
Play Your Vang Downwind – SailZing Aha! Insights