Sailing 101: Sailing in Different Weather and Wind Conditions, Its Quite an Oar-Deal

Ahoy Sailors, by now your sailing knowledge should be FERRY impressive, but one problematic yet very possible circumstance is a change in weather and wind conditions. This lesson will teach you eight lessons to adapt and recover when the weather isn’t behaving because schooner or later, you will find yourself in this situation as well as detail measures to take to ensure full preparedness. Stay tuned for the next lesson, which will explain different sails and what they do.

SOUTHERN CALIF.— Many have said that calm seas never made a great sailor. On the other hand, rough seas and heavy wind are just a rite of passage for many. However, it could be argued that the best sailors are those who manage to avoid heavy weather entirely. Reading a weather report and planning your voyage as to avoid unforgiving weather is the best call of them all. But, if you find yourself under gloomy skies and heavy chop unexpectedly, then getting yourself back to shore becomes paramount. Here are useful advisories to execute when caught in troubled waters and extra tips for starting your voyage well prepped.


  • Keep track of the weather while you’re out on the water:
  • Always keep an eye on the sky. Fog, dark clouds, and lightning are clear signs that bad weather is approaching.
  • Monitor barometric readings. A rising barometer indicates that good weather is coming, while a falling barometer indicates that foul weather is likely.
  • Pay close attention to shifts in the wind direction and temperature; these are signs of changing weather.
  • Be mindful of the West as bad weather usually approaches from this direction. Although storms from the East are possible and often pack quite a wallop.
  • Continually monitor your radio and weather channels and ask for information about local weather patterns by radio, especially if you’re in unfamiliar waters.
  • Finally, take note of what other boaters are doing. If they’re heading for shore, it can give you a heads up about coming weather changes.



  • Identifying Changing Winds:


Light Wind: Think observation and patience.


Here, the overriding strategy is to sail towards wind velocity. When it’s blowing four knots, your boat might move at two knots, which is well below hull speed. If the wind increases to six knots in a puff, you might sail twice that speed. No shift is significant enough to make up for doubling your speed, so sail to pressure in light winds at almost all costs. Pressure might be geographic, such as a wind line nearshore. It can be puffy, where you must use one puff to take you to the next. Or the wind might come in lines from one side or the other. Sometimes these puffs move down the course, so you must line up with and intersect them; other times, they move slowly, so you have to be patient and sail to them. Have everyone onboard stand up and observe while discussing the nature of the puffs.

A sailor might say, “The wind is light today. There are streaks of puffs showing on the water. We need all eyes out of the boat.”

The tactician might respond with: “Let’s make sure to sail well into the puffs because they seem to move very slowly down the course. Tack too soon, and they will never get to us.”

Pay close attention to ­current. The current has a more considerable relative effect when boat speeds are low. If the current is 0.2 knots and you’re moving at two knots, that’s still 10 percent of your rate. That said, it has been found that blindly playing the current is not always the way to go. Since wind pressure will also significantly affect your speed, current is still ­important.

A tactician might say: “See those puffs on the water? I want to sail solidly into one of those then take it toward shore to get current relief. But unfortunately, we can’t cross the middle in a lull because the current is too strong there, so let’s wait for some pressure before tacking.”

Typically, a light-wind day is not ideal for playing shifts. Only substantial shifts are worth considering, and even then, they should be used to deliver you to the subsequent pressure. Patience is everything. Things will happen slowly, so look way ahead, trust what you see, and stick with the plan. Tack sparingly and wisely.


Medium Wind: Be tactical

More pressure has only a cumulative effect when it’s windy enough to get up to full speed. For example, suppose it’s blowing 10 knots, and your boat is at its 6-knot hull speed. If a puff blows two knots more, you might go only 6.2 knots and point a little higher. But, of course, that’s nothing compared with light wind, where you can easily double your speed.


Playing oscillations by tacking when heading below the mean is a classic medium-wind strategy. In these conditions, prioritize finding and agreeing on a mean. Again, it should be a collaborative effort with one person leading.


Sometimes in this ­condition, you will see puffs on the water and, even though you are not prioritizing pressure, with them often comes a directional change that you can take advantage of. ­Ideally you can take a lift (or at least a neutral heading) toward a puff. But then, keep going if it’s a header, tack, or an even bigger lift. Either way, when you get to the puff, take advantage of whatever shift it brings, and, as a bonus, you are in more wind.


The shifts are subtle, and you will not see them on the water. React to those by keeping a close eye on the compass. On this kind of day, spend significant time close-hauled, writing down compass headings, then agree on a mean for each tack.


Heavy Wind: Hang on and go fast

On a heavy-wind day, avoid excessive maneuvers. Tacks are slow relative to going fast in a straight line. Maneuvers are also tiring, and when things can go wrong, they go very wrong; it’s best to keep them to a minimum.

A windy day is a day to play oscillating shifts, but the windier and wavier it is, the more significant the transition must be to make up for lost speed during tacks. Sailing to pressure gives only incremental gains or might even hurt you if it’s blowing hard enough. So, the priorities are usually seeking out flatter, protected water, current advantage, and geographic shifts.


Persistent Shift Day: These are difficult to ­recognize


Any wind strength can have a persistent shift. The problem is it’s hard to recognize. So, keep an eye out for a couple of different kinds of ongoing changes.


A persistent shift can be slow over many hours. While these are incredibly important for distance sailing, they will have almost no effect on a short course. For example, if the forecast is for the wind to go 20 degrees right over 10 hours, it will shift two degrees per hour on average. That is only 0.5 degrees per 15-minute leg, which is insignificant compared with ­oscillations we typically follow on the ­compass.


When that’s happening, an expert might say: “The wind is forecast to clock right today. But it is happening slowly, and the oscillations are 10 degrees, so let’s play the oscillations. I will make sure to adjust our mean occasionally to reflect the expected shift.”


A persistent shift often comes all at once as a new wind fills in. In lighter air, it’s easier to see because the filling breeze brings both angle and pressure from that side. It might fill in because of a thermal, or it might be a front. Look for any sign that might give some clue of what is coming. Those puffy clouds onshore might precede and predict a thermal. A front often comes with a line of low, dark frontal clouds. Look for darker water moving your way or sailboats sailing in something different than you are sailing in. These are all signs of a persistent shift filling in quickly.


Hybrid Conditions: Use a mixed strategy

The reality is that there is rarely a consistent kind of day as laid out in the previous scenarios. Instead, there are some priorities you can take to create a successful sailing trip.


What to do? Prioritize. Identify the most critical factors and give them weight.

  • Fifty percent oscillating shifts are big and medium air, so shifts are important.
  • Thirty percent geographic right: Not as important as the oscillating shifts but still significant.
  • Twenty percent current left: Current is light but still has an impact.

The three conflicting factors are now put in perspective. Shifts at 50 percent are as significant as geography and current combined, so they are for sure the focus. The current and geography directly conflict, but they’re close in importance, so I won’t stress either one.

There’s one final caveat for boat-specific conditions. Not all strategies work for all types of boats. For instance, a catamaran, skiff, or foiling boat that goes 20 knots upwind will go only a few knots while tacking. A keelboat tacks okay, but there is still a loss. But a round-­bottomed dinghy in flat water might have almost no loss at all. A fast boat is sensitive to pressure, where a keelboat or dinghy gets up to a hull speed of, say, 6 knots in a low-wind range, a skiff or cat gets faster and faster as the wind comes on. The current affects fast boats less because the speeds are high compared with the current.



  • If you’re out on the water and a storm is heading your way, you should prepare yourself, your passengers, and your boat by taking the following steps:
  • Make sure that everyone on board is wearing a properly secured lifejacket.
  • Reduce your speed and continue with caution, keeping an eye out for other boats and floating debris.
  • Close all hatches and ports to avoid swamping.
  • Get your passengers to stay low in the boat near the centerline for stability and safety.
  • Secure any loose items to avoid losing them overboard.
  • Pump out the bilges so that your boat sits higher in the water.
  • Check marine charts to find the nearest shelter, noting any hazards in the area.
  • Reroute cautiously to the nearest safe shoreline.


  • If you find yourself in a situation where a storm has already hit, here are some additional tips to ensure the safety of everyone on board:
  • If there is lightning, unplug all electrical equipment. Stay low in the boat and away from metal objects.
  • Head the bow of the boat into waves at a 45-degree angle. This maneuver will keep the boat in the most stable position possible.
  • If your engine stops, drop an anchor from the bow to combat drifting and swamping. Never drop anchor from the stern.


It’s essential to learn about local hazards before sailing in any new or unfamiliar waters. This can be done by obtaining local marine charts and/or checking with local boaters and marinas.

Local boaters and marinas will typically have a wealth of knowledge about boating in their area.

  • Find out if there are local rules such as horsepower restrictions, hours of operation, or access to locking operations that could impact your trip.


  • Hazards To Be Wary of Include:


  • Whitewater Areas- Whitewater areas can easily drag a boat or person downstream. Rocks, debris, and a strong, rushing current, are some of the dangers of whitewater.
  • Shoaling Areas- Shoaling areas, marked and unmarked, gradually become shallow and are often difficult to spot without local charts.
  • Hazardous Inlets- Hazardous inlets can produce abnormal currents or changes in water levels. Inlets can be narrow, shallow, or intense during bad weather. Safely running a dangerous inlet

requires that you have immediate reserve power to maneuver out of harm’s way.


  • Abnormal Tides or Currents- Abnormal tides or currents, ones that are altered by weather can affect your ability to navigate or steer your vessel correctly.
  • Low-Head Dams- Low-head dams present a hazard for both below and above the dam. Small vessels, objects, and people can get trapped in the hydraulic ‘hole’ at the base of these dams, creating a dangerous situation. Therefore, always look for warning signs or buoys indicating low-head dams.
  • Powerlines- Powerlines create a particular hazard for sailing vessels or any vessel with a mast. Always ensure that your boat has enough clearance to pass beneath any powerlines safely, and if you are unsure, don’t take the risk.
  • Low Seasonal Waters- Low seasonal waters do not appear on local charts, which show only the average water level. However, keep in mind that waters are generally higher in the spring and lower in the summer. Adjust for low seasonal waters, as they make it more likely for your boat to run aground.
  • Obstructions- Pay extra attention to obstructions such as bridges, channel openings, and commercial fishing nets. When you are close to these types of obstacles, proceed with caution.


  • Reefing:

The area of the mainsail is reduced by a technique called reefing. Reefing is the act of reducing the area of a sail, typically by folding or rolling one edge of the canvas in on itself.  The importance of reefing in heavy weather cannot be stressed enough. A better alternative to reefing is using the right sail for the right conditions. Many a genoa jib has been reduced to shreds in heavy air when a skipper fails to change sails promptly. Much like reefing (which should be done before you need to), you should also raise your storm jib and douse your main before the heavy weather starts. Making the call to reduce sail or go bare poles can be a life-saving call when made at the appropriate time. If you don’t know how to reef or have difficulty changing sails, you should refrain from sailing in heavy air until you have had a chance to practice in lighter conditions.


  • Establish A Float Plan:

With cell phones and email, we often think help is just a text message away now. However, at sea, especially in heavy air, sending a text message or making a phone call can be impossible. By leaving a detailed account of your planned voyage in writing with someone close to you, you can assure that it will not go unnoticed when you are late. This small action cannot be stressed enough.


  • Avoid Glass and Label Your Canned Goods:

In rough seas, the galley can become a battlefield. The pitch and yaw (rotation around the side-to-side axis is the pitch; rotation around the vertical axis is called yaw) of rough seas and gusty winds can turn a Dutch oven into a scud missile. Likewise, things like glass jars and wine glasses soon become shrapnel as objects fling themself out of cupboards, smashing on bulkheads and cabin floors. You can protect your glassware in the cupboard with silicone webbing available at most big box stores and online mega marts.

Another helpful item to have aboard when heavy weather hits are canned goods. They are battle-tested and virtually impenetrable, even when stored in dank old dark holds of a sailboat. The drawback with can goods is you have to open them to see what’s inside when the humidity and seawater peel off the labels.

Please do yourself a favor and label the can’s lid before putting them in the galley locker. Three days at sea with water seeping into every uncaulked hole can make even the most astute seaside chef scratch their head when they pull an unmarked can from the hold.


To ensure that your time on the water is safe, you need to know and follow the regulations and guidelines found in The ABCs of California Boating. This booklet is based upon the California Harbors and Navigation Code, Vehicle Code, Penal Code, and California Code of Regulations. Still, it uses simple terminology rather than the legal language of these laws. Not all provisions of law about boating are included. Consequently, the booklet is not suitable for law enforcement or litigation. You may read through an online copy or order a free copy to keep on your boat.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *