Looking at the water is like drawing a map of what could happen, whereas signs on your boat are an indicator of what has happened. Vaughan Harrison, International Sailing Academy
Seeing Wind on the Water
Like the above quote implies, you are always going to be behind the curve if you are reacting to changes in the wind, rather than anticipating them. Seeing wind on the water will help you:
- Keep your boat moving in puffs and lulls
- Find the optimal sailing angle in light air when you lose feel
- Predict headers and lifts
- Know where to go on the course
This is a complex skill that experienced sailors have developed over many years. The rest of us will have to practice and get better over time. In this post, we’ve collected the best advice we could find from books and online resources.
What to Look For
Close Range – Ripples
- Look for small curved ripples 2-4″ long. Small ripples are the best up-close indicators of wind direction. They are not the same as the larger waves on the water, which often do not accurately show the wind direction.
- Try to picture horizontal lines connecting the crests of these ripples. These lines are perpendicular to the wind direction. Also the inner side of the curved ripple points toward the wind.
- Check your sailing angle against these lines. This will help you see if you are in the groove, especially in lighter air when you can’t always feel the boat.
- As the wind gets stronger, the ripples develop more texture and become darker.
Reading the Wind on the Water from the International Sailing Academy uses a picture to test your ability to read the wind direction and emphasizes the importance of this skill for recognizing and responding to puffs and lulls.
Early Planing and Reading the Wind from windsurfer Shawna Cropas uses several pictures to test your ability. Windsurfers have to be very good at seeing wind, since their light rigs are much more sensitive to changes.
More on ripples
Small ripples are technically called capillary waves and gradually merge to form the larger waves (called gravity waves) we are all familiar with. Here’s a video – Ripples on a Pond – that shows capillary waves and gravity waves and how they merge.
Some sailors use the term “cat’s paws” for these ripples. Other sailors use cat’s paw to describe a puff that spreads out over the water.
Lack of ripples doesn’t always mean lack of wind
Sometimes there will be wind at the surface, but no ripples, for various reasons such as surface tension and wind shear. Here’s a link to a discussion of this on the Wooden Boat Forum.
Further Out – Dark/Coarse Water, Sparkles, Waves, Whitecaps, Streaks
- Dark/coarse water shows puffs and larger areas of stronger wind. Besides being dark, the water will look coarse, like a surface that has been roughly filed. You have to train your eyes to see this accurately. Don’t be misled by water that is dark due to cloud shadows. Also, sometimes glare can prevent you from seeing dark water.
- Sparkles on the water can be useful if they show a pattern that differentiates between coarse and smooth water. For example, this Video Blocks picture shows a denser pattern of sparkles about 2/3 of the way up, indicating coarse water. The less dense sparkles are not due to coarse water.
- Larger waves, whitecaps, and streaks are indications of progressively increasing wind. The best reference for this is the Beaufort Scale, which allows you to estimate wind speed by the visual appearance of the water.
Puffs come in all sizes and shapes. We’ll cover this in a separate post. Until then, here’s a Sailing World article to get you started.
More on Streaks
At higher wind speeds, streaks of bubbles or calmer looking water can form. The streaks are aligned with the prevailing wind direction (not the direction of momentary puffs), and are due to something called Langmuir circulation.
Improve Your Skills
Ingham’s Insight: Wind Spotter, from Sailing World has a good collection of tips to improve your observational skills. These include:
- Good vision – have yours checked
- Use quality polarized sunglasses to reduce glare
- Tilt your head back and forth – the polarized glasses will give you different views
- Look twice – look away and then back
- Higher up – stand in the boat
- Scan the area, rather than focus on one spot
- Get away from the crowd
- Look at the water where the clouds are changing – cloud changes may indicate wind changes
- Confirm your water observations by looking at smoke, trees, flags, and other boats – heel angle, hiking, pointing angle, speed
- Get on a boat and practice calling puffs, including their timing and direction. Check your predictions with the feel on your skin, sound in your ears, and the reaction of the boat.