When Vaughn isn't coaching sailors at our week long, all-inclusive Laser clinics in Mexico, he continues his work with countless Olympians, youth and masters sailors. He coached at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and founded ISA in 2008.
Very few sailors excel in light wind and choppy water. It is the most challenging condition because your sail and telltales aren’t always working. You must constantly anticipate changes in boat speeds and this never allows you to get comfortable.
Even though it’s light, changes to apparent wind are constant. Subtle changes will slow the boat, stall the sail and induce leeway, making your experience miserable. In order to conquer these challenges one must learn to:
The simple way of looking at apparent wind change through chop is:
This article will specifically explore non-hiking condition with three to six knots and minimum one foot chop.
Your body weight controls the speed of the boat and the amount of weather helm. Too little body weight on the rail and the boat will not go fast in the flats, or accelerate down the back of the waves. Too much body weight on the rail and the boat may lose weather helm between waves, resulting in a loss of feel and difficulty steering to the waves and optimal angle.
Optimal weather helm ranges from five to ten degrees of heel depending on wind strength and wave size. The lighter and choppier, the more weather helm the boat will need to navigate sets. That being said, the foils will lose grip if too little weight is on the rail during sets. The happy medium is a narrow range, which is why crew weight must be fully active during bad wave sets and accelerate (hiking) into the flats. Body movements also help propel the boat forward. In bigger wave sets it is useful to lean aft to help punch the nose through waves.
Good steering reduces the impact drag of your boat hitting each wave. It also reduces rudder drag of the boat wanting to head up beyond optimal upwind angle, which causes you to make a corrective steer. You should have a general idea of the best sailing angle in flatter spots by watching your telltales. When you hit the waves, that angle should be your highest angle of steering and you should never go above it.
Rather, steer down the backs of waves to produce power and weatherhelm then help the boat ride back up to your optimal angle as it crashes the next wave. Depending on the wave pattern, this could be a rhythm of pulling and pushing the tiller every 1 to 3 seconds.
Two of the easiest places to make mistakes when steering are:
It’s difficult to be completely scientific about sheeting, but the key element is keeping your angle of attack on the sail exactly the same. If the apparent wind moves aft as it does when your boat is slowed by waves, then your boom should drop to leeward to keep the flow around both sides of the sail consistent.
Your body weight controls the speed of the boat and the amount of weather helm.
If you keep the sail sheeted in tightly, you will see the leeward telltales rise and sail begin to lose a large percentage of power. Easing will also allow for steering by increasing the range below optimal angle (sometimes referred to as steering groove). As long as you are consistently hitting waves and not accelerating up to your top speed, it is recommended to leave your sheet eased until there is a noticeable speed increase. Essentially, there’s no need to fan or pump your sail on each wave.
Set your sail up to be forgiving. Maintain some twist in the leech to allow for optimal flow during periods of choppy water or unstable conditions. Once maximum speed is reached tighten the leech by reducing twist and making a flatter sail with less drag. In the Laser, keep the boom vang at block to block setting so that easing the main both straightens the mast adding a deeper entry angle as well as camber, and drops the boom to leeward to accommodate for apparent wind moving aft.
Let’s put it all together.
A lot of races are sailed in this sloppy and sticky condition. Not only upwinds but also downwinds can be quite frustrating. Residual chop from winds throughout the night can wreak havoc on a race course, and without good preparation, one can easily feel lost. During clinics at ISA we do dry land training in the boat to simulate the sequence of “ease, hike, trim” and prepare you for a very worthwhile day of training.