||07-30-2008 07:18 PM
When Peter and I had gotten down to the last 12 months before we took off for our short cruising sabbatical I got quite serious about "learning" to sail for real. I thought that I should take a course and called an instructor who had been recommended to me. When he asked what area of sailing did I need the most help with, I replied "seeing the wind." He understood exactly what I meant, and his advice to me was that it was the hardest thing to teach. It required the most attention and lots of practice, and he wasn't sure that anybody could teach me better than I could teach myself, given a strong enough motivation. Although I was disappointed that there was no easy way to learn this, and a book wouldn't do, it was reassuring to hear that time and practice would get me there.
It's been my experience that different areas require different tactics for dealing with wind shifts, and different boats will require different tactics as well.
For example, off a mountainous island with a slot cut for an aircraft runway, or a deep valley, sailing across it will result in sudden winds howling through the slot that can lay a boat on its side. With experience, one can anticipate the sudden shift and acceleration of wind and be ready to ease the sheets and change the angle from a beam reach to either a broad or close reach to reduce the wind's force. Running before strong winds depowers them somewhat, but I don't like the risk of an accidental jibe, so I think that you would need to practice that tactic with your crew a lot before attempting it "in anger."
In general, easing the sheets is usually the first tactic in situations like that. Some places you can see the wind shift and acceleration on the water before it reaches the boat (or the boat reaches the wind) and you can be prepared to ease the sheets.
Racing sailors are probably better at this than the average cruising sailor because it is often the exploitation of these localized winds that can make the difference between a first place and an also-ran. Cruising sailors can hone their skills by seeking these places out and practicing the various tactics for easing pressure on the helm during daylight and fair weather. Spend time just sailing around looking at the wind on the water and learn to interpret the ripples on the water. Then turn your eyes to land to try to learn what topography causes the most trouble. It will stand you in good stead no matter where you find yourself.