Reaching Fast When You Are Not Planing
Fast Reaching in Lighter Air

While we all love blast reaching at high speed, many of race in areas where some light air is unavoidable. Knowing how to reach fast in sub-planing conditions can be very important.


I think the feel of the boat is ultimately the most important thing to work on. The boat is trying to tell you how to make it go fast; you have to listen. Feel is what the helm feels like, and how much tension the sheets have, and perhaps some sense of how fast you are going through the water. While a little weather helm while closehauled means that you are getting lift from the rudder, weather - or lee - helm on the reach means that you are creating additional drag. You need much less lift on reaches, so practice sailing the boat with a neutral helm. While lots of things affect helm, in practice how far down your CB is, the heel of the boat, and fore and aft trim are the things you will use to balance the helm out. With the long pole and big spinnaker, the 5o5 gets a little lee helm sometimes. You can either keep the board right down, or sail with a little heel to leeward to balance it.

As soon as I am below close hauled, I lift the centerboard enough to stop it gybing. Then I play with it.... a little more down for power, a little more up if the boat feels "stuck to the water" or in breeze, overpowered. The more borne off I am, the more I pull up the CB. I even pull up the CB all the way to sail by the lee down to a mark, in light air flat water (if you are trying this, let the main all the way out, ease the vang way off, and pull the pole back to rotate the spinnaker away from the main).

In light air we sit forward, perhaps not as far forward as we might while going upwind, but close. As speed through the water increases we move aft somewhat. At low speeds we seek to reduce the hulls wetted area by sitting forward and getting the flat stern out of the water while immersing the more rounded - and lower wetted area - of the bow. As speed increases, wave making becomes more important, and we slide aft just a little to lengthen the waterline and let the boat sail on her lines.

Close reaching in very light air, and beam or broad reaching in light or medium, we often sit astride the centerboard trunk - motorcycle fashion. The crew sits about as far forward as he can, and I sit forward of the mainsheet jammer up against the crew. This keeps our weight in the center of the boat and forward. It also improves the feel, and allows us to balance the helm - or even turn the boat if necessary - by simply leaning slightly to one side or the other.

Provided the spinnaker pole is back slightly, the crew can see the luff of the spinnaker quite well, and the skipper can see far better than if they were sitting on the leeward side.

The tension on the sheets is telling you how much pulling force you are getting. If the tension is very low on the spinnaker sheet and mainsheet, there is very little force pushing the boat. Often the first signs of a slight puff will be a little heel, a little bit of corresponding weather helm and a a slightly increased load on the spinnaker sheet. You can simply lean to windward, get the boatspeed up, and then bear off a little to ride with the puff.

Sailing downwind in light air is really a series of trade offs. You can sail higher and generate more speed through the water, which brings your relative wind forward and increases it, but at the price of sailing a longer course to the mark. By sensing the feel of the boat, you can sail it as low as you can, without losing flow over the sails. The tradeoffs are often quite clear if you compare your speed and angle to boats around you. Even on a reach, the rhumb line may not be the fastest course, you might be able to go noticeably faster by sailing a few degrees higher, and then come down low - going more slowly - but only for a short time to get down to the mark.


The two most important feel indicators are the tiller and the spinnaker sheet. Unless the samer person has both - actually an interesting technique in some conditions - you have to communicate so that both of you know what is happening. The primary feel communication is the crew talking about spinnaker sheet tension with the skipper.

"Getting light, come up a bit"

is typical as the crew tells the skipper that the boat needs to be headed up for a little more speed and relative wind. Similarly

"Good tension!"

Is an invitation to bear off and use the speed and or puff to get more downwind to the mark.


I do not normally change rig tension or mast bend for a light or medium air reach. While important, the main does a lot less than the spinnaker, and the time is better spent sailing the boat and getting the feel. I do ease vang - actually I play with it a lot trying to keep the sail full and powered up, without stalling the top, and probably ease the cunningham. I almost never touch the outhaul unless I'm frustrated with speed.