Get Better at Reading Wind Shifts

Going fast on a Laser is fun. Going faster than your competition is rewarding. But simply going fast is often slower than consistently being on the right tack, so you need to put getting good at reading wind shifts nearer the top of your practice list.

Smooth bottoms, faired foils, new sails and correct sail trim will all make you faster. Reduce pinching or sail too low upwind, surf the waves off the wind, wiggle through the waves upwind and your overall speed will be better.

All these go-fast assists will bump you up the rankings in many races. But when the wind is shifting (and isn’t it usually?), choosing the right tack for the current shift will often place you ahead of a boat who is going faster, but misses the shift.

For many Laser sailors, particularly those new to racing in an experienced, competitive fleet, learning to read the wind shifts (changing directions in gusts, around land formations or due to weather and sun conditions) is a key skill that can be frustrating to learn. A few thoughts on how to develop your competence through practice:

• If you learn best when you use an overall framework to make sense of details, then I suggest you read a book like Stuart Walker’s Positioning to create the theoretical foundation to underpin your experience. If you learn best through activity, accept that sailing the correct shift is crucial and skip this step until you have mastered some of the practical steps that follow.

• Go stand on the shore of a small body of water and keep tracking where the wind is coming from. Learning to quickly recognize the sensation of wind on your face, neck or ears and translating that into a specific direction that you can identify is a basic building block of the advanced skill of choosing a tack. Consciously state, “The breeze is from the direction of that tree.” Unless you can identify wind direction without hesitation, you can’t utilize wind shifts to maximum effect. Saying the details of the direction forces a specificity that helps.

• Develop a mental routine or checklist of where you want to focus your attention when you’re in your Laser. Practice mentally rolling through your checklist – e.g., course heading, heel angle, for/aft boat balance, trim settings and repeat (substitute with your routine). Until you routinely identify your heading, you aren’t likely to notice changes. – “I was aimed at that buoy, now I’m headed a few degrees lower.” “I was headed at a course that would allow me to clear that headland, now it’s an obstruction.” Most inexperienced sailors don’t get their focus out of the boat – they see sail luffing, sail not luffing, tell tail dropping, etc. The mental checklist encourages you to rotate your focus among important feedback areas and brings crucial things into your sailing awareness.

• Sail upwind while attempting to maintain focus on your heading relative to a chosen object on shore, a buoy or a compass heading. By consistently returning your attention to a particular object, you will develop discipline and sensitize yourself to your course heading. We eventually develop unconscious awareness of whatever we focus on. Those things we aren’t focused on become invisible until we bring them to our attention; hence minor wind shifts remain almost invisible to most new sailors.

• Until you really begin to experience the changes in shifts and feel the way shifts affect your course, racing is unhelpful. You will tend to slide back into your old unconscious habits and end up “practicing” the old ineffective pattern of behaviors.

• Set up a practice session with another Laser sailor. Sail upwind and call out to each other every time the wind shifts. Pay particular attention to how the shifts affect the relative position of each of you. This is the next aspect of using shifts that you need to feel clear about. If your friend is inside or outside the shift do they gain or lose relative to you? Can you tell a shift has occurred by the change in your relative position?

• If you skipped getting a theoretical understanding of how shifts can help you gain or lose ground on other boats, now is the time to go get that foundation. Start with the effect of distance between you and then be sure you can easily explain the effect of lifts and headers on your relative position.

• To develop mastery, try sitting at your desk or a table and use small boats and an arrow, which indicates the wind direction, to set up situations. Then manipulate the wind direction and the boats to exhibit how the wind will give you opportunities and challenges. This slow process of studying cases is a great way to help you develop the correct reactions.

• Once you have a great grasp of the basics you are ready to try tacking upwind with another boat and reacting to shifts in real time. Be cautious about starting this too soon. Practice the basics in situations where you can take your time until you have smooth, easy reactions without much thought. If you start too soon you will tend to slow your grasp of the basic skills, which you need to nail down before you can turn your attention to using wind shifts tactically and strategically.

Reading wind shifts well in the midst of racing is a weakness for many of us. It isn’t mysterious, it’s experience. But it also isn’t just time in the boat style of experience. We need to build our basic skills through slow, deliberate practice.