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Sailboat Characteristics For Light Air Sailing

Aug 22, 2007
Unlike most boat purchase advice, written by manufacturers and designed to persuade to one brand or another, the suggestions in this article are written from the perspective of a sailboat buyer and are drawn from the collective wisdom of my dozen or so sailboat purchases as well as conversations with many, many other sailboat buyers. This article will focus on applying the buying process to purchasing an appropriate vessel for light air sailing.

The Buying Process
We recommend a multi-step process to purchase a sailing vessel. Our emphasis was on assuring that purchases are based on a detailed description of how and where the vessel would be used and then identifying the best set of vessel characteristics for the specific type of sailing to be completed. Five vessel characteristics to be considered in the purchase of a Keel design, keel depth, sail plan, sail area and displacement. In this article, we apply those five characteristics to light air sailing areas.

Let's start by describing light air sailing areas. Light air areas are sailing areas that average 10 knots of wind or less. Moreover, winds over 15 knots will rarely be experienced either due to lack of wind or lack of desire to sail when stronger winds are present.

What areas would be considered light air areas? Most of of the US in Summer! Light air areas include the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, the Great Lakes, San Diego, the New Jersey Coast, and most inland lakes throughout the US. (Note- If your sailing season extends into late Fall, some of these areas might no longer be light air areas).

Vessel Characteristics For Light Air
To begin, find a vessel that best fits the usage in light air areas. Our primary consideration in light air areas will be to trade some stability and weight to gain speed and maneuverability, exactly how much depends upon our desired usage. Note that this does NOT mean sacrificing safety, stability is relative. What we mean is to opt for a lighter vessel rather than a vessel optimized for the trade wind belt.
Our first vessel characteristics are keel design and depth. While cruising in light air, we look for maneuverability and responsiveness more than stability (Again, this does NOT mean sacrificing safety, stability is a relative measure). Given this trade, a fin keel boat provides better maneuverability and quicker response at slower speeds than a full keel boat. So, for light air, a fin keels win over full keels.

In addition, cruisers should also lean toward a shoal draft keel to reduce weight (and gain access to more anchorages). Racers have a more difficult dilemma. While racing in light we will still prize the maneuverability of a fin keel, shoal draft keels don't perform as well up wind. Racers will need to balance upwind pointing ability against weight and downwind speed when selecting keel depths. Next to consider is sail area and sail plan. In light air, we will want a generous amount of sail area.

As we did with keel design, we will lean toward more sail area and sacrifice a little stability, again without sacrificing safety. Racers will clearly want the most sail area (SA/D over 20) while cruisers may opt for slightly less sail area (SA/D 17-20), but either way, assuring a generous sail plan is key to good boat speed in light air.

Equally important, we will want sail area high off the water where there is more wind. This means the sloop rig is the winner over both the multiple mast rigs (ketchs and yawls) and the cutter rig since the sloop rig raises the sail plan for a given amount of sail area.

Finally, we consider displacement (i.e. size). Heavier vessels accelerate slower and move slowly in light winds, so we will want a light vessel for light winds. The balance will be to assure that we preserve sufficient space to comfortably accommodate the typical number of passengers on a normal trip (don't forget to plan for space for safety gear, tools, spare parts and provisions). However, we will want to make the same compromises we did with sail area and keel design and get the space we need at minimum weight.

When sailing in light air, a primary consideration is assuring we have a boat that can move at a comfortable turn of speed and maintain maneuverability in the normal light air condition. While we never sacrifice safety, light air means reducing some stability (compared to an ocean going vessel) to gain performance. The clear winning design is a fin keel vessel with a sloop rigged sail plan. Displacement (i.e. size) will vary depending upon the average length of trip and number of passengers aboard and the keel depth may vary based on usage (e.g. cruising vs. racing).
About the Author
Capt Dave Bello is President of Fair Wind Sailing School, an ASA affiliate sailing school offering monohull and catamaran sailing charters and sailing lessons, in the Virgin Islands Chesapeake Bay and on Lake Erie.
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