I discovered sailing on the south coast of Cape Cod, where the breeze is a reliable 15-22 knots out of the southwest like clockwork every day; the sun rises, heats up the shore, that air rises, and the sea breeze comes rushing in. My first taste of sailing in light air happened in high school and college where I was racing predominately on small lakes. The inconsistent and lighter winds frustrated me at first, but as I learned to better harness them and apply that to my strategy on the racecourse, light air and I got on better terms.
As I expanded my cruising and racing world, I learned that light air was far more prevalent than my perspective acknowledged. To enjoy sailing more, I needed to improve my ability to handle light winds. I gave myself no choice when we sailed our Luders 33, Ben-Varrey, engineless for three years, and since then I have nearly doubled down by installing an electric motor with just a small battery bank. I’ve learned some lessons, inshore and offshore, that have made me truly enjoy light air sailing.
There are few moments more magical than when it is blowing only a handful of knots, the ocean is flat, and your boat is effortlessly cutting along through the water. We chase these moments. If you tend to turn your engine on as soon as your boat speed drops below 5 knots, you will miss them. Today’s boats can easily power at 8 to 10 knots, making it oh so tempting to just furl and power in light air.
But if you let it, time takes a different form on the water. Adapt to that and you will find that everything is relative. Revel in the challenge of light air sailing and take pride in continuing a tradition while advancing your level of seamanship.
A Light Air Mindset
Sailing is a mental game more than anything else, and attitude is the most important part of enjoying any type of sailing, especially light air. It starts with setting expectations and placing a focus on why we are spending time on board our boats.
If we were only interested in getting to places quickly, we would be more pragmatic in our mode of transportation—perhaps a powerboat instead? Enjoying sailing means that there is already a love for the journey, not just the destination. Appreciation of light air sailing is about expanding that emphasis on the journey.
Onshore schedules place the most pressure on passages and even day sails. Removing that stressor can completely change the game. Do what you can to minimize land-based commitments—keep your plans as loose as possible, and prioritize the sailing aspect of time on the water. Fellow sailors are understanding, and if you arrive later than expected for dinner, I’m sure they will still have a cold drink waiting. Likewise, if the current turns on you and the wind starts to drop off, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a new destination that can comfortably be reached by sail.
Be ready for slowing down by having your boat fully prepared with food and especially drink. It sounds obvious, but I’ve been on boats that have dropped from races because we didn’t pack enough food to carry us into the evening. Especially when cruising, always leave with plenty of food and drinking water on board—it’s never worth stressing over this. The right cold drink or a favorite meal can serve as a great morale boost when you aren’t logging many miles under your keel.
Another obvious but crucial item is sun protection. Whether it’s big straw hats or a dodger and bimini arrangement, a little protection goes a long way to preserving your sanity and health and discouraging the reach for the start button.
A Light Air Sailplan
It is way more fun spending money on new sails than diesel fuel. It is also a blast to be moving as quickly as possible for a given wind condition, even when cruising (I can’t be the only one who makes a game of racing against the clock or any other boat on the water that is heading mildly in the same direction).
Our favorite light air sail is our drifter. It’s the cruising version of a code 0. It hanks on to our forestay, has the cut of a high-clew 170% genoa, and is made from 1.5-ounce nylon (spinnaker material). These can also be built with a luff tape or contain a pre-stretched rope luff for free-flying. For our Luders 33, it’s good for sailing in conditions under 8 knots apparent, from a beam reach to close-reaching. The lightweight fabric lets it fill in even the slightest amount of wind. A true code 0 would let us point higher and would be a great investment for anyone looking to squeeze even more performance out of their boat.
While the drifter could be winged out on our pole for anything off the wind, we prefer to switch to our asymmetrical spinnaker for a bit more boat speed at those angles. We fly this in two different modes: tacked to the bow for reaching to broad-reaching, and flying it off the pole when broad-reaching to running. Using the pole lets us project the asymmetrical spinnaker to windward, like an articulating bowsprit. This exposes it to more pressure, stabilizing it better in light air and offering trimming flexibility during any shifts. I sit to leeward when driving upwind in light air to keep a better eye on my headsail and shift to the weather side when flying a kite.
The cut, condition, and adjustability of the mainsail can also have a significant impact on boatspeed. Dacron performs well in light air because it doesn’t stretch much in those conditions. However, if a sail is already blown out and baggy, it can lead to higher drag upwind and proves very inefficient. New sail technology extends the performance period, but proper controls are still needed to influence depth, draft position, and twist. Fine tuning not only allows you to squeeze every bit of performance out of each sail but will also keep your mind occupied.
Regardless of the sail inventory you select, make sure you have a sail combination plan for every light air wind angle. Any holes in your inventory or plan will tempt the iron genny. Traditional headsails may be the preferred choice when the sea state could damage a drifter or code 0 on the spreaders or as soon as tacking upwind is able to support proper sail shape.
Sailing hard on the wind, it is critical to maintain a high enough apparent wind angle, otherwise power is lost. While the boat may be pointing well, boatspeed drops to where leeway increases and VMG (velocity made good) to windward is worse than a wider angle. Reaching back and forth won’t get you anywhere either, so it is all about striking a balance for each particular boat. When in doubt, let those sheets out and try for a touch more boatspeed.
The wind velocity is different a few feet off the water than at the top of the mast. In technical terms, this is a boundary layer effect, but basically it’s due to drag on the air caused by the water’s surface. Combine this with the velocity vector from your forward motion, and that’s why the apparent wind varies in velocity and angle over the height of the mast.
Telltales and a masthead wind indicator can be helpful tools when questioning what you are feeling at deck level. In light air it is especially important to compensate for this gradient by adding appropriate twist to sails. Accomplish this by adjusting car or traveler position and sheet tension to open or close the leech of each sail. Twist can also help to manage wind shear when in unsteady conditions.
Most sailors won’t go so far as to loosen the shrouds, which would be ideal for lighter conditions, but at the very least, easing the backstay can help put more power back into your sails in light air.
Light Air, Light Touch
The rudder is an effective tool for turning a boat, but it is also a great brake. Want to slow down before a start? Erratic steering is a great way to spill some speed. This is the opposite of what is desired when trying to squeeze every knot out of the boat in light air. Be gentle with the helm and consider adjustments to sail trim to help turn the boat.
Maintain that same light touch as you move about the boat. Calm and relaxed movements not only help those driving the boat forward focus, but they also minimize disruption in air flow caused by the boat rocking.
Keep your head out of the boat. Look for shifts, puffs, and avoid areas that could have wind shadows or turbulent winds (think onshore obstructions like mountains, cliffs, and buildings, or large anchored commercial vessels). Reading the water can help avoid sailing into wind holes too—it is worth staying in the pressure, even if it is a bit more distance.
Current is also a larger factor when boat speed is lower. Be aware of local currents and use them to your advantage. If you’re in shallow enough water, there’s nothing wrong with dropping an anchor, enjoying lunch, and then continuing when the current switches. I’ve even used this tactic while racing; holding position is better than moving backwards down the course.
Minimize your tacking, too. Narrow passages will limit options, but otherwise, save the effort. Trying to tack on every small shift will ultimately just cost you distance, as getting up to speed after a tack in light air takes significant time.
Hand steering in light air is the ideal, but of course you can’t keep it up forever. That’s what autopilots are for, but light air demands special considerations. Autopilots are only as good as the amount of flow over the rudder. If a boat isn’t moving, an autopilot can’t keep her on course; the rudder will just flap around and be as effective as fin out of the water. So, the first trick to successful autopilot use in light air is to keep the boat moving…forward.
The next factor to consider is that the flow over the rudder, even when moving, will be minimal. So, any course correction will take longer. To turn up the level of patience in your autopilot, adjust the settings. This will help minimize oversteering and any rapid movements that will unnecessarily waste power.
Even a dialed-in autopilot won’t hold a highly accurate course in light wind—expect the boat to wander a bit more. It’s the trade off that comes from taking a break from hand steering.
We have an Aries wind vane autopilot on Ben-Varrey. In light air, the sensitivity of the wind vane is not always there, especially downwind. We secure a tiller pilot in place of the vane and use the Aries unit to multiply the force of the tiller pilot to steer the boat (it’s the most energy efficient set-up possible, beyond using the Aries as it was designed).
The apparent wind direction can rapidly change in light air; when running into a patch of lighter wind, the apparent wind will shift forward as the momentum of the boat continues to carry the vessel forward. Once the vessel slows to match the wind conditions, the apparent wind will shift back to its previous orientation. If you are steering to the wind, the boat will wander significantly while chasing “velocity headers.” Consider this while hand steering too.
If you’re fortunate enough to experience steady, albeit shifty, winds, that changes the strategy. Steer to the wind. Hand steering for a few minutes before engaging the autopilot can give you a feel for how the conditions should be handled and what mode to use.
Finally, consider a preventer. It’s commonly thought of as a heavy-air safety mechanism to secure the boom to avert an accidental jibe. But it’s just as valuable in light air, at any angle of sail. Securing the boom from motion not only reduces wear and tear on components when experiencing any wave action but also keeps the boat quieter, maintains the boom in the proper trim position, and better converts any motion into forward movement. Just keep an eye on the preventer rubbing against the shrouds when close-hauled. Add some chafing gear, if necessary.
You can improve your boat’s light air performance by shedding excess weight. Offload gear you don’t need, like that bag of spare parts from your last boat that won’t fit anything on board your current boat. You probably also don’t need five identical Phillips head screwdrivers, either. I know, there’s a chance that four could fall overboard, but isn’t it more fun to live life a little on the edge? Weight means the boat sits lower in the water and has more wetted surface area. Ditch unnecessary gear, reduce drag, and gain some boatspeed.
Likewise, clean your bottom. Frustration does not begin to describe sailing a boat whose hull is covered in barnacles, weeds, and other marine organisms. Combine that with light air, and leeway can exceed any forward motion. The cleaner the bottom, the more fun a boat is to sail, especially in light air.
The first place most minds wander on this topic is bottom paint, and, yes, it’s worth spending the money on good bottom paint. However, without regularly sailing Ben-Varrey and diving on her occasionally, we would still grow our own science experiment and reduce her speed to a crawl. Better bottom paint just decreases the frequency with which we need to sail and scrub the boat.
Warmer waters mean more growth, but it’s also more comfortable for cleaning the bottom. In tropical environments, I’ll tackle a little bit of the bottom each morning when going for a swim—it keeps the task manageable. In colder waters, all of it gets done at once.
Allowing yourself the challenge and pleasure of light air sailing has a couple of side benefits we don’t always think about. It gives you additional options in tight situations and the ability to confidently move the boat in the event of an engine breakdown. You’re also lessening your impact on the environment and lowering your boat’s carbon footprint, relying on wind instead of fossil fuels.
Most of all, experimenting with how to get the most out of yourself and your boat in light air provides an interesting challenge, and it makes you a better sailor. It’s tough to say the same about motoring along.
Light Air Torture
There are two major forms of torture in light air: bugs, and large waves and wakes.
Once, my wife, Alison, and I were ghosting along through mid-coast Maine and passed through a swarm of black flies. They were drawn to the boat as a place of refuge and dedicated the remainder of their lives to driving us crazy. Without wind to blow them away or a fly swatter, I grabbed a sail tie, and with increasing precision sent no fewer than 200 of them to a watery grave over the course of a couple hours. Even as the wind built a little, they clung to the leeward side and took turns executing sneak attacks into the cockpit. In the final hours of the battle, a swarm of dragonflies came to back us up, and we claimed a hard-fought victory.
A close second behind bugs is a confused sea state. This can be caused by heavier weather that diminishes quickly, swell from a far-off storm, or a swarm of powerboats clueless about their wakes. I’m not referring to some minor wave action, but rather a situation where sails are endlessly flogging and anything on the boat that could make noise has come alive. If you encounter either of these scenarios, it’s fair game to fire up your engine and live to sail another day.
SAIL Technical Editor Adam Cove is a marine consultant, naval architect, and former CEO of Edson Marine. A racer and cruiser, he repowered his 1969 Luders 33, Ben-Varrey, with electric propulsion and sails the U.S. East Coast and offshore to points south and east. Follow his travels at covesailing.com.