Heavy wind gybing – fast and safe!

Gybing the boat in windier conditions is always going to be a bit of a challenge and there’s plenty of opportunity for mistakes which can slow you down and even be dangerous. With the right preparations and precaution taken you can significantly improve your chances of safe and fast gybes, even when the wind is above your normal level of comfort. This article is focusing entirely on the main sail aspect of the gybe, genoa and/or spinnaker gybing will be covered in another article.

Preparations

The key principle to bear in mind when gybing the main is to do it when the boat is going its fastest, i.e. during a surf or even planing (for a centerboard boat).

If at all possible, avoid gybing at the mark as it will mean you can’t pick the ideal timing of the gybe from a wind and boat speed perspective.

It will also give you much less time to sort things out after the gybe and will cause stress bringing on sheets etc. Much better is to have the gybe completed before reaching the next mark.

Assuming you decided tactically that now is the time for gybing start preparing, i.e.

  1. Crew taking their positions for the gybe, making sure no one is at risk of getting caught in the main sheet or hit by the boom.
  2. Center the traveler of the main sheet, and make sure the main sheet will run freely i.e. not caught on anything.
  3. Main trimmer start bringing on the sheet (if that’s the technique used, see sheeting techniques below)

Timing and executing the gybe!

This is where the experience and practice of the helmsman comes in, making sure the boat gybes when the pressure on the main is as low as possible. This is done by timing the gybe when doing maximum speed surfing down a wave or taking the opportunity in a temporary lull.

When the helmsman decides the time is right he bears away until the boat is sailing by the lee to the point where the sail “wants” to come over – that’s the time to grab hold of the sheet and throw the boom over (if the size of boat allows for it).

At the same time as the boom comes across the helmsman should steer back slightly – say 5-10 degrees to counteract the force of the main coming across. This is important and will prevent the boat from broaching/capsizing!

Main sheeting techniques

Basically there are two options of bringing the boom across when executing the gybe:

A – Grabbing the main sheet and manually throwing the boom across

pros and cons:

  • reduces the risk of not being able to release the main quickly enough after the gybe, hence less risk of broaching or capsizing
  • if the main trimmer doesn’t time it properly the gybe will be a fairly violent one with risks to the rigg and crew
  • there is a risk that the sheet will get caught on something during the gybe (when it’s slack) which could cause broaching or damage to boat or crew.
  • on really big boats this will not be an option

And here’s an example of some very well executed gybes on a Melges 32 in a fresh breeze:

B – Sheeting in (on a winch) and very quickly releasing once the boom has come across. When possible, depending on the main sheet system the main trimmer should be supported by other crew member pulling the “A frame” or similar to help bring on the sheet quickly.

pros and cons:

  • This method will reduce the distance the boom will come across in the gybe and hence reduce the momentum of the boom
  • The drawback is that the boat will be more difficult to steer and have much more tendency for broaching as there will be a side component of the generated force from the sail. Key to success is to bring on the sheet as fast as humanly possible in order to minimise the time in this less stable phase.
  • Unless the main trimmer releases the sheet quickly enough when the boom comes across the boat will almost certainly broach/capsize, however if the release goes smoothly this is probably the safest method in higher winds.

In a dinghy

In a dinghy it’s sometimes easier to go from reach to reach quickly rather than be running for a while, as the boat is much faster reaching. It can feel scary to begin with but try it and see that it works – you will gybe with minimum pressure in the main and much less risk of a round-up or capsize.

When it’s too risky – go for the safe option

Depending on boat type and crew skills there will come a point where the wind strenght just is too much for a safe gybe and the quicker and safer option will be to make a “granny rounding” i.e. tack instead of gybe.

Practice, practice

Gybing in heavy winds is something which really benefits from practicing so don’t be afraid and go out there and go for it, it’s really exciting and lots of fun when it works well!