Sailing in Very Light Wind

Oh yes, there is nothing like sailing up on the rim with the hull of the boat crashing down on the waves below and actually feeling like you are fighting the elements just to get home in one piece. The adrenaline rush from literally being ‘frightened’ is something else. Now I sound like I am an unnecessary risk taker! I’m not because I do take precautions but when out in the wet stuff conditions change for better and for worse and you have to be able to deal with either because you will have to from time to time.

What about then the challenge of sailing in very light airs? The Lune Pilot would appear to be motivationally challenged in the light winds department. She weighs 250kgs, has a fixed keel and has 10.5m2 of sail in standing lug rig (that’s not a great deal). She was built for a purpose and to a design that is more than 100 years old. The original boat from which the mould was taken was built to convey pilots out to ships in the Lune estuary and Morecambe Bay. Later she became a fishing boat. She was not a racing boat – although at weekends the Lune fishermen and pilots would race their boats just for the fun of it – she was a working boat.

Learning to sail in light airs is a necessary skill. Especially is this the case on the Norfolk Broads in the UK where I sail a lot. I can’t count the number of times I have been out on Oulton Broad or in Oulton Dyke in a force 5 when mid-afternoon suddenly someone turns the fan off and the wind just dies.

Sailing in light wind is about maximising even the smallest detail to increase the effort being converted into forward motion. It’s about getting the very best out of the rig and the driver to make progress and it is this challenge accomplished that give a true sailor pleasure, IMHO. I always feel that if a sailor finds much frustration in light winds then he may need to buy a big engine and so then he may as well have a fridge for the gin.

A few things I do on the Lune Pilot

Firstly, sail shape. I aim to increase the curvature of the sails to form a lovely deep curve. It’s about aerodynamics. Increasing lift by maximising the distance the air has to travel behind the sail as opposed to in front. This will increase drive in very light wind. On the Pilot this is achieved by several adjustments and the movement of “ballast”. Releasing the out-haul so that the clew fixes to the boom inwards by up to 300mm (12inches) and slackening the down-haul by 40mm (2inches) will make quite a difference. As for the jib I very slightly slacken the halyard so that the luff will bend slightly. This along with a bit of slack on the jib sheets will allow a lovely curve to form in both sails. It is also important to make sure there are no wrinkles in the sail so that the flow of what little air there may be is uninterrupted.

Now, when the wind is so very light to the point where it can’t even force a shape in the sail and they just flop about, it might seem pointless at this time even trying and the temptation to start the engine (in my case oars) is now quite high. One more thing that can help is to move the ‘ballast’ (i.e. your body weight or that of the crew) to the leeward side of the boat to force a heel. This will allow gravity to form a curve in the sail by its own weight. It does sometimes work.

The final last ditch effort which will only be useful for a quick push to get through a turn is to wave the tiller backwards and forwards in a paddling motion. It’s no good for distance for sure but can just get you going again if only to get you through “dirty” air. The rudder on the Lune Pilot relative to the boat generally is huge and can give a fair push by this method. But this does bring me to an important point: The rudder steers a boat by applying drag to one side or the other, in fact significant drag. Therefore in light airs it is good to apply gentle steering adjustments and only to a minimum. I try to balance the jib and main to avoid having to steer at all if I can.

OK, I give up! There is no wind and none of the above is working and the tide is against me – its ‘engine’ on time. Un-ship the oars and pull. Ah, but then I enjoy rowing too so I love sailing even on calm days. I win all round!

Lune Pilot Thumb

2 Responses to “Sailing in Very Light Wind”
  1. Alan Stancombe says:

    Hi there!
    I have recently bought a Lune Pilot which I am refurbishing. I note that you have a lot of experience with yours. I have built a few boats but am not an expert mariner (My grandfather served on Trawlers in Lowestoft). If possible I would love to see some photos of your boat especially if they show how to rig it. When I have your e-mail address I will be happy to send you some pictures of my refurbishment.
    With best wishes
    Alan Stancombe

    • Lune Pilot rig was rigged standing lug but later gaff was offered. For those who like to plant with ropes there was also an options for gaff cutter. The mast will either be unstayed spruce or a hollowed out stayed mast.
      I’ll leave my email for a few days but will remove in. If you send images tellme a little bit about your boat and I’ll maybe post it in the visitor gallery.

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