Disclaimer : This post is not meant to be a hard and fast guide for dealing with gusts! There are many other things that go into dealing with gusty mountain winds, the most important of which is sailor ability. Please remember that your confidence and ability play an important role in being able to sail in difficult conditions.
Believe it or not, Colorado is one of the hardest places to learn how to sail. Learning about the weather and wind patterns in Colorado is probably the most important step to mastering sailing in the Rockies. Weather plays a huge factor in staying safe on a sailboat and knowing how it affects us while sailing will turn a novice sailor into an experienced one. During the summer, Colorado has hot days with very little wind, and stormy evenings with incredible wind spikes and thunderstorms. It’s those wind spikes or gusts that can turn a pleasant outing into a horrible one in seconds. So, what can we do to prepare for these inevitable gusts?
First, we need to look at the general wind patterns for Denver, CO. In the Spring and Fall months we get an average wind speed of about 8.3mph. During the hot summer months that average wind speed drops to 6.9mph. Now that might not seem like a huge difference; but remember that average, means half the time the wind speed is below that mark. We also need to keep in mind the max wind speed during the Spring, Summer, and Fall. Looking at data from Climatology Reports (http://www.thorntonweather.com/denver-climatology.php) we find that during the summer months the maximum wind gust also drops. The average max wind speed stays about the same throughout all the seasons, but we get higher wind speed maxes (around 45mph) during the spring and fall months. Why is this important? In order to prep for wind gusts, we must first understand when they are likely to happen so that we can be prepared for such an outcome before it happens. Keep in mind that these re averages and generalizations, the wind gusts in Colorado can strike even during the hot summer months, especially when there is a thunderstorm on the way.
Now that we know when to expect gusts (unfortunately all the time), we need to know how to prepare! Just like any other sport or skill, you need to practice. The easiest way to prepare is to reef, and reef fast. If you don’t know how fast you can reef your boat, you should time yourself, with a crew and by yourself. If you can’t reef in under a minute you may have some trouble avoiding knock downs when the wind picks up. The gusts don’t come with any warning, by the time you see it, it may already be too late. Look at the wind forecast before leaving the dock, know what you will be sailing in that day. If the forecast calls for gusts, start with a reefed mainsail, or furled genoa. As you get comfortable, you can always shake the reef!
Sail trim is very important when sailing through a gust. Adjusting your trim to avoid knockdowns will be your best ally. As the wind picks up, especially while sailing upwind, you will want to tighten the outhaul, cunningham, backstay, traveller and boomvang. All those adjustments will flatten your mainsail and not allow it to draw as much power. Remember the flatter a sail, the less power it will generate. As you increase draft, you will increase power. For your Jib or Genoa, you will want to pull the blocks aft, this will tighten the bottom of the sail and again, reduce sail power. Adjusting your sail trim allows your boat to remain balanced. Ideally, we have a perfectly balanced boat, if you were to let go of the steering the boat would continue straight. We aim for a slight weather helm, as a perfectly balanced boat is very hard to achieve.
Boat balance is also achieved by shifting body weight side to side, and forward and aft. We don’t want to put a bunch of weight too far forward or aft, as it will bury the bow or give us lee helm. As much as we can, we want to center the weight of the crew around the keel or beam of the boat, this means the skipper is sitting in front of the traveler while steering. On a J/22 we don’t want to have any crew behind the traveler, especially while battling gusty conditions. We also want to have crew on the high side, or windward side of the boat. A flat boat is much easier to control than a boat heeling over. The combination of windward weight and proper sail trim will allow us to drive through the gusts.
Our final adjustment for sailing through gusts, is to literally sail the puffs. As the gust comes, we want to aim the bow into the wind and ride the gust upwind. As our boat turns into the wind (just before stalling) it will flatten out and allow us to keep control. As the gust wanes, we fall off again to pick up speed. The goal is to keep the boat on the same degree of heel throughout all the gusts, heading up and bearing away through each puff. A great racer will be able to pick out the puffs and drive their boat through them without losing any speed or control. Remember, if you can’t control the tiller with only 2 fingers, you are not balanced and out of control (on a J/22 that is).
Gusts are an integral part of sailing in Colorado. Knowing when they strike and how to adjust will help sailors navigate and even enjoy gusts. Practicing reefing and knowing when to reef (early and often), will also go a long way in building confidence through gusty weather. Remember, if you can’t control your boat, you have too much sail up. Reef, get comfortable, and maybe next time you won’t need to reef. Knowing what all the sail trim lines accomplish is also very important, look out over the next few weeks as we will talk about what each line does! For now, remember that on a keelboat if you do get knocked, just wait for the boat to right itself, and don’t forget to close the hatches!