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Become a Student of the Weather – Part 1

Because I am not a student of the weather but now knowing what I should have realised much earlier after speaking with a lot of high achieving competing sailors, that no race planning is complete without gathering as much information as possible prior to heading out to race.

To that end I have put together a 2 part interview that I did on this very subject with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey. The questions and answers from that interview are below.

How do you collect data about weather and wind at a regatta venue especially historical information prior to arriving?

I think the “gold standard” is to try to make contact with a respected local. The main things to speak to them about are:

a. What are the two or three biggest factors to concern yourself with in terms of race-course effect (ie: tidal? Geographic features that effect the wind?, the characteristics of sea-breeze evolution? etc etc). You just want to hone in on the big things.

b. What are the best forecast resources locally? Again, this will save a lot of time. We are so much more fortunate these days in regard to the amount of resource available. The down-side can be that there is too much info. You need to hone in on the best resource.

c. In the lead-up to the event, touch base with this person again and discuss the weather map and what he/she might see as important over coming days.

Do you put together a plan for the days racing with regard to the forecast?

First thing would sail choices then also the sailing kit to take afloat. Sounds simple, but if you are not comfortable, you’ll find it harder to get the most from yourself.

Spend the morning continuously checking the sky and water to see if the forecast is playing out – you want to know if the forecast is accurate, in order to gauge the confidence to have in it.

Obviously forecasts are general and not necessarily specific to the regatta venue, what notice do you take of the forecast?

Depends on all of the above. If you have done the homework and have done some validation in order to gain confidence, then it can be quite a weapon. If not, well, you’d take it into account, but more likely to sail the fleet and place the boat conservatively.

How do you call wind shifts and what feedback do you want from your crew?

Its important to get a feel for the range of shifts and what you’d class as mean headings on either tack. This gives you a framework for the decisions during the race.

Re feedback, it is critical to know your position relative to the laylines and relative to the fleet.

How long before the start do you collect data on the wind?

From first waking up in the morning. I want to know if the forecast is playing out accurately to start with – or more likely, which forecast to start with has it more accurate.

Can you tell whether a puff is a lift or a header before it gets to you?

I think I have a reasonable eye for that. Not as good as some people I have sailed with!

But I think this is a constantly “improve-able” skill. eg: During the per-race tune-up, I will develop my instincts by looking at an approaching wind line and take a stab at whether it will lift, head or stay the same direction.

The resultant change (if any) in the True Wind Direction will go in the memory bank for later when I see a similar looking wind line approaching.

Other things help with this “instinct”, ie: if we are already one one edge of the wind range, odds are that the next shift will be back towards or beyond the mean.

In an oscillating breeze how do you work out when to tack?

Again, where are we on the course with relation to laylines? I’d be more likely to tack from port to starboard on a “mean” heading if we only have a few percent left of starboard tack in the leg.

Where are we in relation to the fleet? If 90% of the fleet is to our right – and on port tack, you’d be silly to continue on starboard tack for too much longer looking for more left shift unless you had established in the pre-race tune-up that gusts are not moving down the course.

Where is the True Wind Direction in relation to what we consider is our “range” of shift.

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