How to navigate in light winds and tides

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Highly demanded Olympian pro sailor Ben Saxton gives Andy Rice his top five tips for running in light winds and tides

The lighter the breeze, the greater the effects of any current or tidal current. Ben Saxton has raced on all types of boats, from foiling catamarans and glider dinghies to displacement keelboats, so few are better qualified to give advice on how to navigate in light winds and tides.

As Ben Saxton says, whatever your run you need to be aware of the direction of the current in relation to the course and take every opportunity to notice when the tide might be turning.

“At each mark you go around, take a second or two to see what the tidal current is,” he advises. “Use lobster pots, moored boats, or even the choppy water to tell you where the flow is going and if it’s the turn. The angle of the committee boat is an excellent indicator when setting off, and if you are on larger boats you can use the instruments to compare your speed and course over ground against heading and speed in the water. ‘water.

Rig for current

The direction of the tide affects the configuration of your rig for two reasons. First, if the tide is upwind, the water is flat, so you can settle in with flatter sails. If the tide is against the wind, the water will be more choppy, so you set up with deeper sails and more twist because then you accelerate faster. Second, the apparent wind is much higher if the current is pushing you upwind. If you were sailing in five knots of true wind you could settle in for seven or eight knots of wind, but with a current coming from the direction of the wind you would be set for three to five knots.

Does the current take you upwind?

Calling precise laylines is hard enough, but it becomes even more critical in a tidal situation. When the current pushes you upwind, be sure to go under the layline, especially in a keelboat where the extra tacks aren’t too expensive.

Britons Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell in light winds at Tokyo 2020. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

What you absolutely must NOT do is overtake your approach to the upwind mark as now you are fighting against the tide while your rivals are being pushed under you.

Is the current taking you downwind?

You know that scenario where everyone is running on the shore to stay out of the unfavorable tide for as long as possible. Finally, you have to make the breakthrough in open water and hope you have judged your layline correctly. If you’re leading the charge, at least you’re in clear air, but you don’t have an accurate gauge of how you’re going until you start looking at the windward mark with a transit behind.

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If you are not quite holding back the transit, take your medicine early and resume the course while you are in the weaker current. It’s best to go past the layline a little more than you might think, especially if there are boats ahead. You’ll need all the clean air you can get, so play safe and go a little deeper before your last tack for a higher layline.

Light wind and leeward tide

Once you are safe around the windward mark, all things being equal in the breeze, you aim to either stay in the stronger current if it pushes you downwind, or aim for the larger terrain. (usually the shallower water) if the current is against you. Just like upwind, the direction of the current has a huge effect on the apparent wind you (and the sails) feel on deck.

To go downwind quickly, there are a few golden rules. One is to keep the flying spinnaker as far away from the boat as possible at all times – tucking the mainsail too far will create a larger gap with the spinnaker.

The other is to never let the boat speed drop too far. If you steer too low, you’ll eventually have to reset and go even higher – and slower. So do a little head-up early, just as you lose pressure in the sails, rather than doing big correctional head-ups too late.

Leeward approach

When the current carries you downwind to the leeward mark, be sure to descend earlier than normal or you will be swept past the mark. Head sooner than you think – you see a lot of people turning too fast and losing boat speed because they feel like the mark is disappearing so quickly. As you come out of the leeward mark, the boats ahead of you will likely have been knocked over by the tide a bit, so you should be able to hold a nice lane.

However, when the current pushes you into the wind, everything changes. It is easy for the whole fleet to get confused at the leeward mark. Even though the mark is physically close, there is still a lot of navigation to do before getting around it. If the wind is light, you go much faster if you have a few boat lengths around you, so stay clear and sail fast at a warm angle with a good apparent wind, and you can make huge gains in bottom of the race. Do whatever it takes to maintain speed and momentum when battling the reverse current.

About Ben Saxton

Ben Saxton is one of Britain’s most versatile professional sailors. Winner of the Nacra 17 world catamaran championships, Saxton represented GBR at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Today, he is in demand on the keelboat and sportsboat circuit.


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