Heavy Weather racing

“Big Weather” racing

These notes are aimed at folk who are new to Sigma 38’s , or those who find they are not in the chocolates when it blows 20 knots plus. They represent one very fallible persons current best guess , and so can certainly be improved on – in fact if they stimulate some discussion  and disagreement I will be delighted.

They assume a correct rig set up – a topic all of its own, but always have max forestay length as a basis for your set up.


Sail shapes are the critical factor.

Between 20 –30  knots I would be using a No 2  and a full main (assuming a full crew  and Solent type seas).  Bigger seas would require earlier reefing to enable bigger course changing.

Genoa – At the bottom of the range in flat water I would sail with a max draft between 40 – 50 % to get good pointing. As the wind builds and the seas increase , pull on the halyard tension to get the draft forward to 30% –  it’s a much more tolerant shape.  The trimmer should keep the leech just inside the spreaders until the top of the range when the top can be twisted off to match the main. Beware – Modern sail materials require much less halyard tension than Dacron sails – too much and you just ruin the sails. Sheet one hole  aft if you get overpowered.

Main –Unlike the genoas ,this sail has to cope with all wind strengths. In these conditions we want a minimum drag  , minimum heel inducing shape. Start with the outhaul full on , some backstay , enough vang to keep the upper leech moderately closed , and close it the last bit with the fine tune on the main . Traveller will be just below the centre line , moving to lee as the wind increases. As this happens pull on  backstay and you will notice the sail flatten due to the luff curve being pulled out . This will open the leech , so close it 50% with the vang. I pull this on until the boom begins to bend , which also puts bend in lower down the mast so you can scarcely see any shape in the lower 1/3rd.Always let a bit of vang off before you bear away. If you adjust the backstay you will nearly always have to adjust the vang- ie if you need more power you might let off a bit of backstay which puts more luff curve back into the sail, and thus more power – but the speed drops. Why? Because it also tightens up the leech – possibly too much so that it stalls – until you release a bit of vang and off you go like a rocket! You may need to pull on halyard or use Cunningham to keep it “draft forward “ ( don’t do this too early or you will lose pointing- use it in response to weather helm). By this time the main should be “bladed” – an almost flat aft end of a combined aerofoil that is tonking you to windward at 6.5- 6.7 knots with relatively little heel. Now HIKE!

In  steady conditions set the main up and play the traveller – if its gusty you might have to ease the fine tune as well. Sail on the speedo . MY current target speed is 6.7,- any lower than this I drop the traveller down  till the speed builds then bring it up again – but seldom to the midline unless I want to squeeze someone.  Cant get the speed ? Put the bow down a bit so leeward telltails stall a fraction. Once we have the speed the keel works and we can point higher   Is the sheet too tight? ( all telltales should be flying in these conditions) , still no speed – check the jib – too tight is v slow , too loose is just a bit slow. Cant point ? Check jib draft – is it sheeted in enough – adjust it – any better ? – no ?  is main too twisted ?  – close leach with  sheet or vang and watch the speedo.  Play the main fine tune and or traveller to keep the helm light , the heel comfortable  and the speed up. These adjustments are a continuous iterative process that never ceases.  The hikers call  the shifts, gusts laylines and tactical options , the trimmers talk numbers  and shapes to the  driver and the tactician watches for shifts and  calls for footing or pointing or VMG sailing .  9 brains are better than one!


Control is the issue. Broaching is the problem and understanding why we do it is crucial.

Leeward Broach

This happens when the wind is between the quarter and the beam  , the boat heels, the rudder stalls and we round up and fall over . Prevent it with an experienced hand on the vang so that if a gust or wave threatens to heel the boat – the top of the main is twisted off and we live to surf another day. In really extreme conditions , leave the jib up and slightly over sheeted to help keep the bow down – and stop the spi wrapping round the forestay if all does not go to plan! If the vang is released and the rudder still stalls the spi trimmer needs to let off 3 metres of sheet in a run and the guy man lets the pole forward ( but not so it touches the forestay – have you marked your sheets and guys?).

If you go over , the sheet and the vang are let fly and you get under control, BUT get the vang back on before you get downwind again or you will gybe broach ( see on!) . If you don’t come up, release the spi halyard (have you flaked it?) and pull the sheet on hard. If the spi is always attached by two corners it is easy to retrieve – let go more than one corner and you are in trouble!

Practice sailing on the edge in 15 and then 20 knots – and try all these things – it will give the crew tremendous confidence in 30 knots to have thought it all through beforehand.

Windward or Gybe Broach

This can seriously spoil your day! Don’t go sailing on a windy day without talking it through.

It happens when running deep and  the sails take over and heel you to windward , stalling the rudder out and that very low boom comes scything lethally across.

There are two causes :

1.       Main not sufficiently vanged. The top twists off and causes a heeling moment to windward . Either vang it harder or sheet in.

2.       The spinnaker is flown too far to windward . If the helmsman is squeeking or you fancy keeping a head on your shoulders , keep the pole trimmed further forward than ideal and oversheet. If you start to roll, vang on , guy forward 6 inches and wind on that sheet.

The irony is that in light to moderate winds , it is fast to have a twisted main ,the pole well back and the boat heeled to windward . However it takes a superhuman crew to pull this off in a blow.

If it does go wrong, hit the deck .Nothing else matters ! When the boom is over , pull on the new backstay , release the old backstay , blow the vang , release spi halyard  ( I hope you flaked it or have a knife handy)  – and pull on both sheet and guy –  in precisely that order( but nearly simultaneously!). The spi will float gently over the water if you have BOTH sheet and guy in tight and the halyard off – if you don’t, you will be fishing again!

The Hoist

Hoist on a very broad reach . Too tight and you will broach out – too deep and  the sheet trimmer may not get it in quick enough and you might gybe broach. The guy trimmer wants to get the pole no further than 45 degrees back from the bow ( to help avoid that gybe broach) and the sheet trimmer wants to sheet hard for the first 2/3rd  of the hoist to avoid a twist – then dump until it is up , the sheet on again very  very quickly. The halyard man needs to be a blur!

The Drop

In exreme conditions we turn down to a very broad reach , Let the windard sheet and guy run ( flake them first!) and retrieve between the boom and the foot ( you need a loose footed sail).Before the drop , lead the lazy guy through the “letterbox”, and keep the retrieval crew safe to windward so they can brace themselves on the coach roof rather than be pulled overboarrd. It’s a doddle.
Short handed , its best to spike the tack and pull in hard on the lazy guy to “flag” the sail prior to retrieval . Consider releading the lazy guy to a snatch block attached to the companionway rails so that you can retrieve from within the companionway rather than the lee side.
The halyard MUST be flaked , and there must be a knife at hand to cut it if for some reason it doesnt run.

The Gybe

Don’t gybe the kite above 25 true unless you don’t make ANY mistakes at 20 knots! Drop it and rehoist. If you know how to gybe the kite safely and consistently in 30 knots – write your own article.

Centre the traveller , sheet in before the gybe with mainsheet falls immaculately flaked, and once the boom is 20 degrees back , let off some vang to depower the gybe ( and blow it completely if you broach out)– but get it back on FAST once the boom is over and BEFORE you are dead down wind . Keep heads down and clear of arc of main sheet. It should be in enough before the gybe to avoid a redundant loop snagging your unfortunate crew – but NOT knotted on the cockpit floor.

30 Knots

Only fly the kite if it’s a very broad reach – tighter and you will need to let off the vang, – deeper and the kite needs to be seriously forward in the gusts with loadsa vang – but play safe and avoid dead downwind until you have confidence in your control. Wear life jackets and brief everyone about that boom .

Try it all first when you are not racing  –  its fun!