Adjusting to shifty lake conditions

Published on July 5th, 2021

The 2021 Sunfish North American Championship on June 11-13 had 83 boats, making it the largest Sunfish fleet in memory. Sailed over three days on beautiful (yet tricky) Lake Norman, Conner Blouin (above) was best at mastering the shifty lake conditions through the 8-race series to win. In this report, he explains his approach to the race course:


When sailing in events, there is a natural inclination to try to predict how the wind is going to shift at every turn. This is also known as a pure wind strategy-based approach to racing. Depending on the venue, sailing with a pure wind strategy approach can produce good results.

However, it is always important to understand that in any sailing situation, you are dealing with mother nature. Bays and oceans may often have predictable patterns, but when you move to a lake venue, it is harder to apply this approach with consistency.

When I showed up for the practice day at Lake Norman, it was staggering not only how quickly the wind pressure changed from drifting to hiking, but also how different the wind was between boats 30 feet away from each other. This is very typical on small lakes and other venues where the wind is coming directly off the land.

The land patterns bend the wind in strange and unpredictable ways, and often prevent you from seeing the changes on the water until it is too late. When wind conditions are frustrating and unpredictable, you need to have the ability to switch from a wind strategy approach to a tactical approach.

A tactical approach takes into consideration your position compared to where other boats are on the course, while wind strategy focuses primarily on the next shift. This difference in approach reminds me of a common poker saying: “You can play the cards, or you can play the person across from you.”

Someone playing the cards will look at their hand, count cards, calculate odds, and make decisions based purely on percentages. This approach is remarkably similar to wind strategy. If you are exceptional at it, you will tilt the odds in your favor, but ultimately you are at the mercy of numbers.

The person playing the other opponents will remain mindful of their cards, but pay more attention to the other players: How many cards are they asking for? Are they raising or checking? How do they react to what they are drawing? I am not a poker player, but this seems more like the tactical approach to sailing.

You can never completely throw away the wind strategy approach, just like you can’t completely throw away odds in poker, but there are several tools you can add to your approach to sailing on the tactical side that will make you more consistent in lake sailing conditions.

Consistency is Key
The shiftier and more unpredictable a racecourse is, generally you can expect average scores to move higher. By contrast, if you are sailing on the ocean for 45-minute races, people will generally finish more predictably and consistently.

At this past event at Lake Norman, while my average score was low, every race there were new faces in the top five or top ten. It is also important to note that almost everyone had a discard race that was worthy of its name. I have found in these conditions that it is much more important to put your boat in a place where you know you will finish in the top five, as opposed to trying to win every race.

Starting in the Middle
It is harder to have accurate on-the-line starts in the middle of the line than it is on the ends of the line. It is also more difficult to win races consistently from the middle of the line. However, in unpredictable conditions, it is easier to finish consistently starting from the middle.

If you get a good line site and come off the line clean with speed in the middle, you have access to both sides of the course. If you start on an end, you are in many ways committed to that side. You may start in the lead a bunch of times and may even convert most of them into good finishes. However, one or two times ending up on the wrong side of the course early can cost you the regatta.

Those who sailed in Lake Norman for the North American’s will immediately recognize the races where the boat or pin was favored for the first minute of the race before it flipped on its head. Starting in the middle of the line takes practice but is a great weapon to have to combat shifty conditions.

Employing the Tactical Approach
Once you have started well, and are consistently in races, you need to have other weapons to survive the next 45-50 minutes of racing. Ironically, my approach to tactics starts with knowing if I am lifted/headed, looking for pressure, and having a side of the course that I would like to go to. All of these ideas are based in Wind Strategy.

To apply these tactically, you must balance all of these ideas in the context of where the fleet is relative to you and these other factors. In its most basic form, if you feel that the left side of the course is favored (more pressure, left shift, etc.), but 90% of the boats that are relevant to you at the time tack out and go right, you should position yourself to the left of the group instead of continuing the go left.

This way, if the wind shifts left as you predicted, you still win, but if it shifts right, or more right than left, you don’t lose much if anything. There are endless examples of how to employ this, but put simply, when you are unsure of what the wind is doing next, remain mindful of where the fleet is when deciding where to go on the racecourse.

Employing Wind Strategy
It is easy to focus on all the challenges and negatives of shifty and unpredictable wind conditions. There are a lot of losses you can take along the racecourse, but that means there are a lot of gains you can make as well. Depending on where you are in the fleet, your tactical strategy may work for moments, but will not net you the gains on the fleet you need if you are trying to make significant jumps between fleets.

If this is the case, you need to switch gears to a more complete focus on what the wind is doing and sailing the course as if there is no one else on it. Since I was in high school, I have heard David Mendleblatt speak to this. In my time sailing in multiple classes, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone better at this either.

When you are deeper in the pack, clear air and lanes are hard to come by, but people get bogged down trying to find them. Instead, within reason, focus on what the next shift is doing, and get on it regardless of your lane to connect to the next one.

This is much easier said than done, and you will not always get it right. However, you give yourself the best chance to turn races around in shifty conditions by focusing more purely on the shifts.

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