It was early summer, and twilight had stretched itself across the sky with feline languor. The afternoon breeze had dwindled to a zephyr, and we were ghosting along up my favorite river under main and genoa, the sails just filled. Ahead of us, the full moon rose fat and orange as a ripe cantaloupe, and we slid silently into its glimmer.
I have a confession to make. I love light air sailing.
I’m not sure why that should seem like a confession; I think maybe it has something to do with the sailing-as-adventure thing, that if you’re not blazing along on a screaming reach that requires goggles and maybe a snorkel, you’re somehow not trying hard enough, at least not for Instagram.
Or maybe it’s the whole no-pain-no-gain ethos, that you have to suffer to sing the blues. They don’t call the Newport Bermuda Race the Thrash to the Onion Patch for nothing, and there’s a certain grudging honor in that nickname, the idea that somewhere along the line you’re going to take it in the chops, and you should be proud of enduring and overcoming.
Which, of course, you should be, and I have been. Yet while I can tolerate a 30-knot upwind butt-whipping as much as the next person (for the most part), I can also tolerate a root canal, if you take my meaning.
Truth is, we all have our different concepts of what constitutes challenging, inspiring sailing, and I’m willing to guess that for many people, sailing in light air doesn’t make the cut. I beg to differ. In fact, becoming a skilled light air sailor—in mindset and in practice—could be one of the more challenging aspects of sailing, whether you’re racing, cruising on passage, or just heading out for the weekend.
And, if you look at the graph on page 51 of the January/February issue of SAIL that Technical Editor Adam Cove has pulled together in his story about this very topic, it’s a skill that we all should be working on, since light air—he sets a limit of 7 knots for his data—constitutes a significant chunk of our time in the places and months many of us sail.
Bigger wind is a gimme. When it’s blowing and the adrenaline is pumping, it’s easy to dial in your focus on boat speed, sail trim, and helm, and the consequences of losing that focus are often spectacular and easy to immediately see (crash jibe or broach, anyone?).
Light air requires a different kind of intensity and even commitment. Patience is hard. And while the consequences may be less overtly dramatic, they’re still going to affect your progress. I have watched many a helmsperson come unglued when a fickle soft breeze taunts them like a cat with a plaything, and I’ve seen boats first around the weather mark after a fine upwind leg give it all up when the gentle hand and keen concentration necessary to do the same in light air downwind just isn’t there.
And how many times have I seen a perfectly good sailboat motoring when we are still sailing? Sometimes you have places you need to be, but I’m willing to bet that many sailors are quicker to crank the plant and motor at 8 knots—as today’s boats so easily do—than be thrilled when they can tweak out 5 knots in 6 knots of true wind—which many of today’s boats can also do.
Last but not least, you must admit that it’s a lot easier to enjoy a glass of wine and a singular kind of peace when the boat’s flat and your mindset is deliberately embracing chill. We may have been hours late for dinner when we chose to ghost up that river, but I wouldn’t have traded that full moon light air glide for anything.