Olympian and Volvo Ocean Race sailor Annie Lush shares advice on sailing with the wind on the beam with Andy Rice
Years of short-course racing in small keelboats in fleet race and match race competitions had made Annie Lush very good at downwind VMG sailing. But when she started offshore racing, she found herself sailing across the wind: the forgotten art and science of reaching!
“For me, that was the biggest shocker. Going from Olympic sailing to ocean sailing was not so much the difference between inshore versus offshore. Okay, so it takes a while getting used to not sleeping much. But more than that, it was the sudden realisation that everything I’d learned for 10 years was not that relevant to offshore where you spend a lot of your time trying to sail the boat as fast as possible, mostly on some kind of reaching angle.
“When you’re racing around the world, you’re trying to go as close to your fastest angle. So you want to reach whenever you can, you never want to sail VMG if you can avoid it. For me it was about learning completely new ways to set up the boat for top reaching speed.”
Here are Annie’s five expert tips for helping you hit optimum speeds with the wind on your beam.
When you’re beam reaching and struggling to manage the power in the rig, go extreme on all your settings. If you’re reaching along in 25 knots, that’s pretty extreme conditions for any kind of boat. So extreme situations demand extreme measures and going to the extreme of your settings.
It’s easy to think you just pull on the Cunningham a little bit more than usual. Don’t! Pull it on as hard as it will go, pull on as much backstay as you can, don’t be afraid to go to the end of your controls because that’s what they’re there for.
As for crew weight, most boats want the weight all the way aft and as far out as possible.
Know your limits
Having talked about the extremes, there is a caveat. If you’re on the cusp of whether or not it’s possible to carry a spinnaker, or any kind of big headsail, remember to keep in mind the performance window that the sail was designed for.
Normally your sailmaker will give you a maximum apparent wind speed that the sail will tolerate. This is an important number to keep in mind because when you’re reaching, there’s a lot more stress on it. You might have a spinnaker that is fine for sailing downwind in 30 knots of true wind, but if you’re trying to suddenly sail 125° true wind angle, it might not be able to take it.
So you do need to know the design limits of your headsails, otherwise you’ll be blowing up your sails pretty quickly.
Balance the helm
What configuration of sail plan is going to work best on a reach? The overriding goal should be to achieve good balance on the helm so that the rudder isn’t overloaded. You want the boat to be able to track in a straight line.
For a reach, chances are you’ve got more sail up in front of the mast, which means the mainsail might be flapping a lot as you try to lose the power. If your main is flapping all the time you might as well put a reef in it.
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Practise your reefing procedure before racing and consider if it’s worth installing different systems to make it easier. Putting a reef in or out shouldn’t lose you too much time because you can keep the boat going in a straight line, whereas getting a spinnaker up or down requires a big bear-away while you make the sail change.
Also keep staysails in mind. Even though it’s more sail area, a staysail can really help with balance and keep the boat tracking straight.
Before you get on to the reach, make sure everyone knows what the target angle will be, especially the trimmers because they need to set up the leads for the sheets. If you’re going to be flying a spinnaker or a gennaker on a really tight reach, you’ll want to set up with a lot of tackline tension.
Have someone calling the puffs, so that the helm is ready for a bear-away if needed and the trimmers can ease the sails slightly. You know everything is working nicely if no-one is having to adjust anything too radically.
Big eases of the headsail are exhausting when you have to constantly wind in the sheet again, and it’s a sign that the boat is out of balance.
Reduce sail early
If you see signs of a squall and think it’s about to strike, don’t wait for it to happen. Reduce sail early while it’s easy to do. If you have to get a big sail down in 30 knots of wind or more, it’s a big turn downwind and will be hazardous and time consuming.
These early calls will preserve energy and equipment. However, one trick from our days in the Yngling carries up to bigger boats nicely too. When you’re pushing for a gybe mark or a scenario where you’re not quite holding the spinnaker, strap the foot in by sheeting on as hard as possible. Now blow the kite halyard and the sail will flutter out to leeward above the surface. Once you’re able to bear away, just rehoist the halyard and off you go again!
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