Become a Student of The Weather – Part 2

                       

Part 2 of the interview that I did on the subject of weather and how it affects your sailing with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey.

Do you take notice of the clouds on the course and how do they affect your decision making?

Yes, absolutely. I think broadly speaking, the clouds can tell you a lot about whether the forecast is playing out, or not. This assumes you had that information to hand prior to racing.

What can Clouds tell you?

Lots but to highlight a couple of things that I look for:

  • In terms of a sea-breeze development, they are fundamental in highlighting the convection above the land
  • On a day of squally and rainy conditions, the clouds are your main indicators for where to go and where to avoid going.
  • The approach of a change in conditions (be it a tightening of pressure gradient, a front etc..).
  • Basically they are part of the environment in which we make our decisions

If the wind shift seems persistent how do you establish a new mean or is this a constant process?

The mean is something we set in our minds, so of course it is quite a fluid number. Keeping an open mind and constantly updating what is happening and where we are relative to course and laylines is key.

How do you calculate wind strength in order to set your boat up for the conditions?

I think the keys here are:

  • What is the sea-state?
  • How dense does the breeze feel on the sail plan?
  • Are the waves offset to the True Wind Direction?
  • I’ll try to get a quick feel for these questions in the first couple of minutes in a pre-race line-up. Set the boat up and adjust as necessary using your senses. Then check in with performance relative to other boats and make some simple evaluations based upon your power level and balance

If a front is predicted during the race, does your strategy take this into account?

Yes – you’d be constantly monitoring the sky and the True Wind Speed and True Wind Direction.

If you feel a sudden change in temperature either up or down, what can you read in to this?

Tricky one… we all feel when the wind becomes warmer when sailing toward land on a summer’s day in an offshore breeze or the colder air filling in when a sea-breeze starts to build.

Hard to generalise what this means. Sometimes it is obvious, like the examples here. Other times it can be quite subtle.

But I think it is another indicator that things have just changed and you need to be tuned into what it might mean and how it affects your decision-making in the short term.

What effect can a rain squall moving across the course have and how can you use it to your advantage?

If the squall is generally upwind, I’d be aiming to place the boat near to the leading edge of the rain squall. But not so close that I get engulfed too quickly relative to the fleet.

In general you will find more breeze and shifted direction on the edge. If the rain squall is downwind of the gradient True Wind Direction, I’d try to get away from it as quickly as I could (or try to avoid it if you are sailing downwind).

In this case the colder air coming from the cloud would generally reduce the True Wind Speed.

Do you time shifts to get an idea when to expect the next shift or is it something that you feel?

I’ve never really taken the times of shifts methodically like that and I do not write the shift range down I seem to have a good recall for the numbers.

Where is the best place to get your weather information from?

I have developed a trust for Predictwind. Very user-friendly. Gives a good over-view snapshot, but allows you to dig deeper into the bigger picture synoptic and cloud situation with a few clicks. I like it.

Do you look at a weather map and what do you read from it?

Yes – I think it important for sailors to know what is driving the weather and what are the 2 or 3 biggest influencing factors. This helps over the course of an event.

I just like to know what is driving the wind we see and how might that change over the course of the day or the event, I think it is just another component in developing your decision-making instincts.

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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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To Improve – Get Back To Basics

The best sailors are those who understand the importance of solid boat handling skills as the foundation for performance.

A question that we should always ask ourselves is, what would make the biggest difference to improve our performance on the water?

The answers we give ourselves range from tactics and strategy, sail trim, navigation, better speed, knowledge of the rules, to understanding the weather.

In reality, the biggest leaps in performance when you are racing come from going back to the foundation of sailing itself and that is boat handling.

Once we learn the basics of sailing, we then focus our energy on the nuances of the sport and start straying from the basics, and the majority of the mistakes we make come from poor execution of basic sailing manoeuvres.

Bad mark rounding’s, poor control in acceleration and deceleration, tacking, gybing just to name a few, all force us to sail with our heads in the boat.

If our heads  are in the boat, there is no way that we can concentrate on refining the other aspects of performance sailing like sail trim, boat speed and strategy.

If we handle our boats well, if we can manoeuvre them readily in and out of tight situations, if we can use the currents, closely duck a competitor then the confidence we have in ourselves will enable us to then work on the nuances.

Once we hone our boat handling skills, our confidence level rises, as does our ability to put our sailboats where we want them to go so that when we achieve excellence in boat handling, we can then focus on the next big piece of performance.

Reading, learning and studying the nuances of tactics and strategy is one thing but applying them in situations under pressure is quite another, if we can’t get in and out of tight mark-rounding situations, if we don’t have speed off the line, if we can’t effectively complete a lee-bow tack or a close duck, then we can’t really make use of the tactics and strategy that we have learned.

With regards to boat handling, this is where the biggest gains are to be made and remember, you can’t reach the top of the mountain without starting at the base!

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