Light Air Sailing
by Peter Commette
Originally published in the Snipe Bulletin, June 1992
In 1973, I won the U.S. Youth Championships, single-handed division, with all firsts. Luckily, though, I was saved the certain embarrassment of losing badly at the World Youth Championships by a rather unfortunate set of circumstances. These circumstances ultimately dictated that I participate in another regatta being held at the same time, and that the runnerup from the U.S. Youth Championships attend the World Youths in my place. That runner-up was Augie Diaz, and he blew away the competition at the World Youths, winning easily.
Why would I undoubtedly have lost? And why was our runner-up such an easy victor? The answer is simple: The U.S. Youth Championships were sailed in heavy air, and the Worlds were held off Portugal in light air. Augie had developed a keen light-air technique in the Snipe, and at the time, I didn't have a clue as to how to sail in light air.
Over the years I have learned how to sail in light air, thanks to the Finn and Snipe, and I would like to share with you how one once abysmally slow light-air sailor has learned how to go fast in these conditions.
First, foremost, and at all times, you must be smooth. I am constantly telling my crew to ''be like a gazelle." When a boat is slowed down in light air, due to the skipper and crew crashing about, it takes absolutely ages for the boat to get back up to speed.
Second, you must always keep the boat moving. This means that you must forget about pointing and foot, foot, foot.
You must also reduce your wetted surface. Watch Brent McKenzie, from Lake Lanier, one of our fastest light-air skippers. He sits practically up at the front of the cockpit in light air to reduce wetted surface. Some have even theorized that the centerboard should be raised a bit, reducing its wetted surface, but I have never had the nerve to try this! I do remember what Jeff Lenhart did at the predominantly light-air 1990 U.S. Nationals at Annapolis with a grandfathered cut-back, low surface-area board.
Next, use gravity to help you fill the sails. Only when the boat is really moving, and there are no bad waves around, should you ever bring the boat to a flat position, not even after a roll tack. The boat should never approach vertical. This will give you a little feel in the helm, too, as well as reduce wetted surface even further.
Finally, your sails must have the correct shape. You need them to take up the shape that was cut into them for approximately ten to twelve miles per hour of breeze. You do not want the leaches tight, the drafts too far forward, or the sails too full. Therefore, you want to use your forepusher to induce mastbend, which also will sag off the leading edge of the jib. Sagging the jib is good because it allows the jib to take a more full, powerful draft-forward shape. However, you cannot point at all with a jib that is sagging too much, so you have to be careful not to overdo it. My rule of thumb is that when the crew is off the sidetank and sitting in the boat, I begin to induce bend in the mast and sag the jib. If it is extremely choppy water, I will induce less bend in the mast to keep my mainsail more powerful and let my jib halyard off some. If it is extremely flat water, I will sag my jib exclusively by bending my mast more.
Your outhaul should be fairly tight in light wind in both chop and flat water. The reason is to open up the bottom of the leach.
Some final tricks that I use are: Cassette tape for the telltales. With flat water I always stand up, looking for puffs and balancing the boat on the balls of my feet. I will take off as much clothes as possible without disgusting the rest of the fleet, as a sweaty body can really feel the windshifts and puffs better. I stay as low as possible and heel the boat more when there are waves. Put your vang on at the highest point to which you want your boom to rise so that you can ease in the waves and the lulls without ruining the upper trim of your mainsail.
It's important to remember that concentration and patience are crucial if you are to do better in light air. No one enjoys these conditions, but a great percentage of sailing is done in light air. The gains made in light air are sometimes impossible to recognize, but if you take the advice that I've given you here, it won't be long before you'll find yourself at the front of the fleet!