Sailing In Heavy Weather

“Looking Back” by Toby Cooper. First published in the Chrysalis, Summer 1994.

Sailing the British Moth in heavy weather

Sailing the British Moth in heavy weather

In this article I hope to cover the key technical areas and do’s and don’ts that will help you control a Moth in strong winds.

Firstly, you have to be confident. Confident in your own ability and in the control systems on your boat. There can be no doubt that if your kicking strap, cunningham, outhaul etc aren’t up to scratch, they will not provide you with the service you require when you need it most. So sort out your controls and make sure they are up to the job.

The next key tip is to check all your equipment before you go out. For many races, I just rig the boat and throw it in the water. However, before heavy weather races, I check the rudder fittings, toe straps and tiller extension joint. I also check that the rudder downhaul system is working; there is nothing worse in a Moth than having a rudder lift up while you’re attempting to break the sound barrier on a screaming reach in a force 6!

Now the technical bits on how to sail the boat. Rule number one has got to be “flat boat”. Sounds easy enough? Well, we all know that it’s far from simple – as many knee caps can testify. It is a lot easier to keep a Moth flat if you are able to commit your body weight over the side consistently. What I am getting at here is that you need to be able to lean out hard and stay out. Good heavy weather helms appear to move very little, while those who struggle have to constantly move in and out. The trick is to sheet the main in as tight as possible and get your backside over the edge of the boat; and stay there.

Movements of the rudder to compensate for wind shifts should be little and often. This is due to the fact that:

  1. Wind shifts arrive faster than in light airs because the wind is moving faster.
  2. The effect the rudder has on the direction of the boat is proportional to the speed at which water is passing over it.

Progressive increases in boat speed through the water therefore require you to make smaller and smaller adjustments with the tiller. So concentrate on making only minimal but very fast reactions to changes in wind direction and you should find that you are more confident at staying out on the toe straps. The second key part of leaning out hard is the playing of the mainsheet. As gusts hits you, let the mainsheet out progressively and don’t just dump it in one go, or you’ll have to move your body weight inboard to compensate for the fact that you’ve let too much go. After a gust has passed, you should then sheet back in to keep the boat flat.

Another key to keeping the boat steady and relatively flat on the beat to windward is body stance and hand control. The ideal stance when leaning out is with the feet and legs pointing diagonally towards the back of the boat with the knees held tightly together. This enables you to roll towards the front of the boat in order to get in quickly, and should also reduce the strain on stomach muscles. Keep your head upright and looking forwards at all times. This will help you avoid becoming disorientated. If you look into the boat you will lose your all important sense of balance. Regardless of mainsheet system (transom or centre sheeting), hands should be close together so that the hand on the tiller can be used to trap the mainsheet and assist the sheeting hand in making adjustments. It is difficult to diagnose individual problems in this area, but the bottom line is that if your hands aren’t close together then you’re doing something wrong.

Downwind sailing presents a whole host of problems for Moth helms. The Moth does not like a “dead” run with the wind directly behind, and also needs to be eased into a plane. The trick with planing is to move the body weight back as soon as any sizable gust hits you. You then need to be able to lean out with confidence. Again, take note of the remarks above regarding small rudder movements and playing the mainsheet; they become even more critical while you are planing. There are times when even a good helm will struggle to recover from a wind shift whilst planing and may need to get his/her body weight back in the boat quickly.

There is a knack to this, but you need to know what the wind has done. If the wind has moved around towards the back of the boat (towards a dead run), pull in a small amount of mainsheet and give the boat a small luff into the wind with the tiller, to restore the relative wind angle you had before the wind shift arrived. If the wind has moved towards the front of the boat, the mainsail will back noticeably and here a large amount of mainsail must be pulled in and a very slight bearing away action made with the tiller. Sailing on a fast reach with the mainsheet too far out can be a very uncomfortable ride so you need to build up some courage and sheet in. If the mainsheet isn’t set properly, the first backwind shift that hits you is likely to dump you in the water with a windward capsize.

Gybing in windy weather causes all sorts of fun in a Moth. To execute a successful gybe you should:

  1. Ensure the boat is moving quickly, don’t bottle out and attempt to slow down.
  2. Start the gybe by making a very sharp and positive bearing away action with the tiller.
  3. Let the sail go right out.
  4. Give the mainsheet a tug to encourage the sail to cross the boat.
  5. Watch the sail and boom.
  6. As soon as the boom starts to move, count to one and move the tiller to the middle position.
  7. Cross the boat as soon as the boom crosses over your head.
  8. Sit down on the new windward side at the same instant that the sail sets on the new tack.

Sounds simple enough? Well, the key points here are bearing away and the point at which you straighten the tiller. The bearing away action must be positive. Many capsizes on gybes are caused when the boat has actually refused to gybe because the helm has hesitated while bearing away. The straightening of the tiller once the boom starts to move will actually slow the rate at which the boom crosses the boat, and will lessen the heeling force it imparts on the boat when it gets to the other side.

Before I run out of space completely, a quick word on control lines. The control of the kicking strap, cunningham etc. comes into play once you have mastered the above techniques. Concentrate on sailing the boat first and playing with the coloured bits of rope second. As a rule of thumb, in a real blow, the kicker should be tight; bloody tight! especially on the beat. The outhaul should be err you’ve guessed it; tight, and the cunningham; pull it on when it’s very windy only. The kicker may be eased a couple on inches or so on downward legs, the cunningham can be let right off, but leave the outhaul well alone.

Lastly, you may think Ive left out some detail on tactics; well they shouldn’t be any different from sailing in any other conditions. If you can handle the boat properly you give yourself time to think about tactics. There’s only one tactic I do change for really windy days; I tack less often on the beat to windward (it slows you down).