Which is the best way to sail downwind?
Your marine products experts know that downwind cruising can offer some of the most relaxing sailing of the season. Just ease the mainsheet, pole out the genoa, engage autopilot, mix a drink and let the miles tick away as a cooling breeze rolls across the transom.
You might start wondering, if progress is a little slow, whether you would be better off digging the spinnaker out of its home in the forepeak? Would the bothersome cat’s cradle involved in putting it up and the tricky business of gybing, potentially perilous for a couple, pay off in time saved?
These are questions that any cruising sailor might ask, but what is the answer? The likelihood of a boat identical to yours sliding past with a different downwind set-up, offering a direct comparison, is seriously remote, and two identical boats with two different set-ups: all but impossible.
How do we find out?
We spoke to Sunsail, which very kindly agreed to loan us three identical Beneteau F40s from its racing fleet in Port Solent. Each boat would be crewed by two, with a third onboard to take pictures and make notes.
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Each boat would fly a different downwind rig and sail in the same wind on the same day to settle the issue. The criteria used to select the best downwind rig were speed, comfort and hassle.
The plan was to check wind direction on the day and set a distant waypoint dead downwind. The boats would start in a line, and the distance to waypoint was noted.
On the day, the wind was forecast to back from NW to W, and remain quite light at around 5-10 knots. With a knot of ebb tide under us, the apparent wind would reduce still further. It was also a baking hot day so a sea breeze looked certain to back the little wind we had even more.
How did it go?
We were off. Well, sort of – we made 3.3 knots over the ground with the wind 3.1 knots apparent. Our problem was, squared right off, we were not generating any apparent wind, or so little as to make no difference.
At first we made ground over the asymmetric boat by holding a straight course: she had been 50 yards ahead, but by the time she came back on port gybe she was 50 yards astern of us.
Then the wind backed 45 degrees, freshened a touch, and had us sailing east instead of south-east, our advantage evaporated and even though our speed over the ground went up to 5.1 knots, the asymmetric boat was 200 yards ahead of us and the symmetric boat remained a quarter of a mile ahead.
Gybing was a controlled business, not a tremendous ordeal for two, and would have been quicker if we hadn’t rigged the afterguy, but it was the seamanlike thing to do.
So don’t forget these reminders on how to become a pro at sailing downwind. 1) Always check the direction of the wind; 2) remember to set a distant waypoint dead downwind; and 3) keep in mind that all boats will react differently, so get some practice in.
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