Depowering in Heavy Air

by George Szabo
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George Szabo is current US and North American Snipe Champion and the US Champion of Champions for the past 2 years. He is a sailmaker at Sobstad Sails in San Diego and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Have you ever noticed that there are two types of people in the parking lot on heavy air days? There are those that rip their foul weather gear because they are so excited to get it on and go sailing, and those that keep trotting back and forth from the boat to the restroom. I used to be one of the trotters, but after sailing many races in breeze I learned how to balance the boat for breeze and now I enjoy it.

The first thing to realize is that sailing upwind in heavy air has the same feeling and skills that are required to go fast and sail well upwind in light air. The difference is that the sails are adjusted significantly differently. In light air you can go fast with full, draft aft sails that are sheeted tight. In heavy air you need flat, draft forward sails that are sheeted loose. To get from one extreme to the other it is necessary to make some adjustments to you mast tune. It you don't, your boat will not balance and you will have a slow, difficult, and frustrating day of sailing.

While on land, I start at a 21'4" mast rake with 1 1/8" pre-bend for my Proctor mast (I 1/2" forsidewinderand Cobra II) with myjib up. From here I drop my shrouds down a half hole on the shroud adjusters and I also move the shrouds aft one hole on the deck. The jib halyard is pulled to the same mark on the mast as it was before. Tightening the shrouds prevents the mast from over-bending sideways, and moving the shrouds aft helps you keep more headstay tension when you ease the mainsheet out in a puff.

Once you get out on the water you want to set up your boat with the goal of reducing dragandmakingtheboatfeelaslight,bouncy, and lively as possible. To start, set your aft puller at neutral and pull your fore-puller on to this same spot. Then make sure that the clew of your main is all the way out to the band and that the tackline is tied so that the foot of the main is tight. Next pull your Cunningham on tight so that the draft in the main is in between the front two sail numbers on Starboard tack, if it is really windy you won't be able to get the draft this far forward no matter how hard you pull on the Cunningham. The last thing to do to your main is to pull on your vang with two hands. When you think you have enough on, pull on some more, you want to make your sail flat. If you get over-bend wrinkles or your top batten begins to hook then you need to ease some vang. Warning- remember to ease your vang before you go around the top mark or you will break your mast.

With the jib you want to move your lead forward about two inches from your light air flat water setting (about four holes) and you also want to sheet the foot of the jib out to about 18" off of centerline at the splashrail. The goal is to have the jib sheeted out, but to keep the middle leech of the jib parallel with the centerline of the hull. You should try several lead positions to see which one makes the boat feel the best. The jib cloth should be set so all but one small wrinkle is taken out of the jib luff.

Now that your boat is set up, sail upwind, ease the main, and keep the boat FLAT. When you keep the boat flatter it just plain goes faster. This doesn't mean that you always have to hike harder. When you get a puff, let the tiller go to leeward to reduce pressure and drag, and ease the main quickly. Most impor- tantly though, don't try to sheet hard and point high. Keep your boat moving by reaching upwind. When you put all of these things together you will find yourself going faster and pointing higher in the breeze.

See you at the weather mark.

--George Szabo
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