Light Airs Sailing – 4 Skills To Learn To Tackle Dead Calms

Posted on August 17, 2015 by Richard Shrubb under Boat maintenance, navigation, Passage Planning, Sailing Comments Off on Light Airs Sailing – 4 Skills To Learn To Tackle Dead Calms

Wind too light to properly inflate the spinnaker...

Wind too light to properly inflate the spinnaker…

All sailors have fond memories of a brilliant reach they have done in 10 – 12 knots of wind, sat on the windward rail with a beer in hand, watching the coast scream by as their yacht goes as quick as it is designed to go. Add in some sunshine and you have perfect sailing conditions!

People who like to sunbathe and do little else remark on how nice boats look from the beach on perfect sunbathing days – that is, strong sun, mirror like seas and not even a gnat’s fart of wind to get the boat going. Sailors on that boat may say how nice the bronzed beauties look on the beach but little else of the sailing – as with too much wind, too little can be a hard and stressful time.

The 2015 Fastnet Race

In 1979 the Fastnet Race made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons. A nasty storm system hit the fleet and 18 people drowned in the chaos that ensued. So many lessons came from the race in question that I studied it in some depth on my Maritime Studies Degree course some 15 years later – the lessons for sailing in storm conditions are still as relevant today as they were then.

On the 36th anniversary of that awful race, this year the fleet heading on the 604 mile route from Cowes to Fastnet Rock off Ireland, and back to Plymouth faced quite the opposite winds – dead calm. Though an unhappy crew on a becalmed boat may mutiny and with too much rum in them may make the skipper’s life rather uncomfortable, fatalities are unlikely in this case.

In the race briefing, there was some reference to ‘kedging’ or ‘warping’ to keep the vessels moving – the only legal way to make progress through the water if totally becalmed under the race rules…

Here are four skills you should learn so that you can tackle dead calms;

#1 Kedging

Kedging is a term for dropping the anchor off the front of the vessel and pulling it to make progress through the water. You don’t do this for fun – ask any crew what hauling a boat up to the anchor manually is like and they’ll grimace and probably tell you in no uncertain terms how uncomfortable it is. An hour on average spent pulling a tonne or more of anchor and chain off the sea floor is no bloody joke.

One tactic commonly used is to drop anchor when the tide is about to turn against you and wait the tide out for six hours. Though you are making no progress over the land, you aren’t going backwards. This happened a couple of times in the Volvo Ocean Race’s leg through the Malacca Straits earlier this year.

#2 Rowing

Yes, some boats without engines still have oars! I have been known to have to row a few times and as long as the crew is kept lubricated with some sort of fluids it is tolerable on a 20-25ft boat. But don’t suggest the crew rows more than a few miles as there could be mutiny!

Indeed, on a flotilla cruise in the early 1990’s a young lady on our boat was so excited to see a boat with an engine coming into Dartmouth past us, she used her bikini top as a flag to catch his attention – it was worth the indiscretion as once we’d caught his attention he towed us in!

#3 Good engine maintenance

To this day, despite many years of sailing I have always avoided doing a diesel engine maintenance course, referring darkly to the ‘D Sail’ beneath the hatch.

It is a smelly, noisy contraption that has caused me too many problems at sea. However, good knowledge of how to change the oil, check the fuel and make sure that things like the glow plugs, the timing belt and so forth are in good nick will mean that you should be able to get home when there’s no wind.

Unless you’re a very Green type who has a wind generator and solar panels on your deck, the diesel will keep your batteries charged and thereby allow you to go night sailing – and of course, keep the drinks cool on that sweltering, sunny day…

#4 Good navigation

Knowing what the weather’s about to do can inform you of the route you should take.

All ocean races are about who does what and when relative to what weather conditions are coming their way. Frequently the boat that sails the longer route even though it is much longer will beat the boat that is taking a risk through light airs. A good navigation and weather forecasting course will save the day even on your cruise across the Med, Cape Cod or Channel!


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