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Purchasing A Sailboat For Heavy Air Conditions

Oct 10, 2007
This article describes the proper process to buy a sailboat. Unlike most boat purchase advice, written by manufacturers and designed to persuade the reader to purchase 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 the author's 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 heavy air sailing.

The Buying Process
We believe a multi-step process to purchase a sailing vessel is ideal. Our initial emphasis is on assuring that purchases are based on a detailed description of how and where the vessel will be used and then identifying the best set of vessel characteristics for the specific type of sailing to be completed. Critical vessel characteristics include: sail plan, rig design, keel shape, keel depth and displacement. In this article, we apply those characteristics to heavy air sailing areas.

Let's start by describing heavy air sailing areas. Heavy air areas are sailing areas that average 15 knots of wind or more. Moreover, wind speeds exceeding 20-25 knots are not uncommon. What areas would be considered heavy air areas?

Typically consistent winds in these speed ranges are driven by global weather and geological phenomenon. Some of the best known areas qualifying as heavy air areas would include the thermal winds of San Francisco Bay, the Caribbean trade winds from December through March and most latitudes below 40 degrees South.

Vessel Characteristics For Heavy Air
To begin, we assume you have already identified your usage in detail as we recommended in Part One. Next, its time to find a vessel that best fits the usage in heavy air areas. In heavy air areas we will not be concerned with powering up to the boat like we would be in light areas. Most of the time, we will easily reach hull speed and our primary concern will be assuring stability and steerage. To accomplish this, we want a flexible sail plan that assures the vessel can be controlled and safely sailed on all points of sail in the expected strong wind conditions.

The first vessel characteristic to consider is keel design. While cruising in heavy air, we look for stability and stiffness (resistance to heel) more than maneuverability and weight reduction. In these conditions, the full keels shine. The improved steering, resistance to turning and full keel length are all desirable characteristics provided by a full keel. In addition, full length keel allow for shallower drafts than fin keels (while maintaining similar resistance to heal), permitting access to more ports of call while still maximizing stability.

This is not to say that fin keel boats can not perform in heavy air, they can. Only to say that in heavy air the full keel boat can provide ease of steering and good stability without excessive draft.

The next two factors to consider are sail area and sail plan. The key to safely sailing in heavy air is to reduce the sail area to match the increasing wind speed while maintaining a balanced sail plan. In order to accomplish this, we want a very flexible sail plan with many configuration options. Now is the time for cutter rigs and multi-mast rigs such as ketches and yawls. The increased number of sails on these rigs allows for far more flexibility in sail area and sail placement and gives the sailor many more options to keep the sail plan balanced with less and less sail area.

A sloop rig simply can't provide all the configuration option available with these other rigs. Also, the largest drawback to these rigs is eliminated in heavy air. While cutters and multi-mast rigs have increased drag, this is not a concern in heavy air since we have more than enough wind to reach hull speed anyway. For consistent sailing in heavy air, cutter rigs and multi-mast rigs are the way to go.

Finally, we consider displacement (i.e. weight). Sailing vessels get stiffness, resistance to heel, from reducing sail area, hull design and many other factors. One factor is displacement. More displacement helps increase resistance to heel (for a given hull design), so it is desirable in heavy air where large wind forces will increase heeling forces dramatically over light air conditions. In addition, big winds, particularly on open water, create larger waves with more potential to slow or stop a vessel when going to weather. To keep moving, we want increased displacement so that there is more momentum to keep going through bigger waves.

With the right vessel, heavy air sailing can be safely and enjoyably accomplished. When sailing in heavy air, a primary consideration is assuring we have a vessel that remains stable and maneuverable as the wind force increases. This means matching (reducing) the sail area, while continuing to balance the boat, to the increased wind force. The best boats for these conditions are the ones that provide the most flexible sail plans. Multi mast rigs and cutter rigs are superior to sloop rigs for this purpose. A keel design that helps keep the boat steering straight through large wind forces and waves is also a help, so full length keels are preferred over fin keels. Finally, stiffness, the resistance to heel, and momentum to move through larger waves are critical, so more displacement is favored over light air conditions.
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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