Step into the downwind passing lane

Published on October 19th, 2022

Professional sailor and coach Chris Snow reminds us that there’s no time to rest during the race:


Your quads burn, your lower back is tight and your hands are screaming at you to give them a break. The windward mark is in sight just ahead and with it a break from the hard work of sailing upwind. Hey, not so fast sailor.

If this is what’s running through your head at the end of a weather leg, I urge you to think again. Downwind sailing presents many opportunities to pass boats and to set yourself up to gain on the next upwind leg. The following article will give you some things to consider as you get ready to go downwind.

There are fewer shifts on the downwind leg:
When sailing upwind, we are sailing into or through the shifts. We look to position ourselves to take advantage of the next shift as it moves towards us. Upwind if we miss a shift there will often be many more opportunities to make up for that mistake.

Downwind, the wind, the apparent wind decreases. Now the shifts are going by us, but more slowly, as we sail with them. This places a bigger premium on the being the correct tack at all times. There are less chances to fix our mistakes. Downwind, there are effectively fewer shifts to take advantage of. This is why focusing mentally downwind leg is so important.

Clear air is king:
Just as upwind, it is important to be sailing in clear air as much as possible. The size of a boat’s wind shadow downwind is bigger than upwind due to the size of the spinnaker and the fact that the boat is mostly being propelled by drag-induced forces.

A good rule of thumb to use is that disturbed air from another boat carries eight times the height of that boat’s mast away from before it reforms itself into the steady wind stream. Always keep this in mind. The effect is bigger in light winds and a bit smaller in stronger wind. – Full report

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