Sailing Downwind: How Low Can You Go?

by Charlie Pendleton

Most sailors are highly tuned in to upwind strategy and tactics, but many mistakenly treat runs as a parade and an opportunity to catch a breather. Downwind sailing is just as tactical as upwind sailing and provides opportunities for big gains. Taking advantage of those gains depends heavily on communication in the boat.

Roles are reversed downwind. The crew is now fastidiously focused on a sail (spinnaker) and it’s the skipper’s turn to get their head out of the boat. The skipper (and/or a third if you are sailing with one) needs to consider the big picture: Are we in the breeze? Where is the next puff coming from? Where is the leeward mark? Are we on the right jibe? Once you’ve rounded the windward mark, make the transition to your new role.

There are two concepts are critical in a Rhodes. Sail as low as you can go – on the jibe that takes you closest to the mark. In a good breeze, you can sail a Rhodes extremely low – just “by the lee” – a little past dead down wind. However, as the breeze lightens up if you sail too low, the spinnaker will collapse. When the breeze is not strong enough, figuring out how low you can go requires communication between the skipper and crew. Jim and I constantly talk about the pressure on the spinnaker. If the breeze gets too light and the spinnaker is getting hard for me to fly, I’ll ask Jim to “heat it up a little” and Jim will head higher. If I feel good pressure on the spinnaker, I’ll let Jim know and he’ll point the boat a little lower.

In my last article, I talked about understanding whether you wanted to jibe or bear off around the offset or windward mark. This is an important decision and is driven by the following concept: jibe on the lifts. This is the opposite of what you do upwind (tack on the headers). The idea is to sail on the jibe that allows you to point closest to the mark (and therefore sail least distance). Finally, consider where you are on the racecourse in comparison to the boats around you. Are you positioned well for the mark rounding? With a single leeward mark or a gate, this usually means positioning yourself on the inside of the pack so you will be entitled to room at the mark.

Some good rules of thumb downwind:

  • Sail low in the puffs and higher in the lulls.
  • Steer with your weight – heel to leeward to head up, heel to windward to bear off (very effective when sailing by the lee).
  • Let the spinnaker breathe. If it’s within a foot of the head stay, it’s probably over-trimmed.
  • Don’t forget your vang! Too little vang lets the boom bounce and will spill wind out of your mainsail.

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