High Wind Training for Novice Sailors

Learning to Sail in High Winds - The Foster Journey

After having owned a sailboat (Cadence, our Catalina 387) and sailed for just over 6 months now, I would still consider us novice sailors.

Heck, 16-18 knots of wind gets me nervous and starts a series of aggressive reefing over-reefing.

Mostly, we sail upright because, yes, it’s comfortable, but also because we don’t have the sailing skill set to do otherwise.

That is, until our high wind training.

Here’s a quick list of lessons learned, and we’ll dig deeper in the following paragraphs:

  • Lead with the Main
  • Sail on the Edge
  • Use Weather Helm as a Gauge
  • Secure, secure, secure
  • Plan for Single Handing

Lead with the Mainsail

The mainsail is your first rudder. Use it and lead with it. The rudder, is your second rudder. It must follow the lead of the main.

Using the mainsail. Captain Ruben puts the mainsail up before he leaves the dock. The mainsail gives better control under power. It also provides stability in wind and waves.

Lead with the Mainsail. Set the trim (how tight the sails are pulled into the centerline ) with the mainsail first, then the headsail. Loosen the main sheets until you lose power and the sail luffs. Then trim it in until the luffing stops. If you’re trimmed too tightly (like we normally do), the boat will turn up with gusts…more on this below.

Keep a Bubble in the Mainsail. When you’re trimmed properly, you can slightly under power the sail just until a bubble, or looseness appears in the leading edge of the sail. This can provide a buffer against gusts.

Sail on the Edge

When you’re beating into a strong wind on a close haul, the sail heels quite a bit. Too much heel loses sail power and creates excessive drag. Too little power in the sail, and you’ll get pushed around a bit and the sails will luff.

Instead, there’s a sweet spot where the sailboat finds its Cadence.

To find this sweet spot, head up into the wind until the sails just start luffing. Then bear away just a bit until the luffing stops.

This is the edge where you want to sail in high winds.

The edge of luffing is where you’ll find the most speed with the most margin of safety for large gusts.

Common Mistake. Many sailors will trim the sail until the tell tales are streaming. That’s good, but there’s a 10-15 degree window where this occurs. This means you could have good tell tale streams, but but on the downwind side of that margin. If a gust hits, you’ll have 10-15 degrees more weather helm to manage…if you don’t broach.

Use Weather Helm as a Gauge

Weather helm is the boats tendency to turn up towards the wind. Trying into the wind provides relief for all the pressures on the boat.

When you’re pointing a certain degree off the wind, let’s say 50°, you will find that you push the rudder away from the wind.

The main sail wants to turn into the wind and you counter this at the helm.

The further you are away from the edge, the more powerful you’ll feel the effect of weather helm.

It’s a gauge that tells the helms person how much margin of error there is when a large gust comes.

Less weather home, more margin for error. More weather helm, less margin for error.

How to Trim Just Right

Best way to determine if you’re sailing right on the edge is to turn the boat gradually into the wind until the leading edge of the sail (the luff) begins to “bubble”.

Your head sail is typically the first to show signs of pinching. You’ll notice it starts to flutter at its luff.

This shows you you’ve pinched too far. The luffing happens because the wind is now blowing on both sides of the sail, and not creating a push-pull dynamic.

When this luffing occurs, move the helm away from the wind just slightly.

Your sails will catch, and that’s the edge on which you want to sail.

What Are Your Tips?

If you’ve read this far, it’s likely because you have some experience or tips that you could share. We’re by no means experts, so share your tips in the comments below!






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