Sailing just to windward of a lee shore

Aircraft pilots have a key motivation to avoid the ground unless they are landing.  Like pilots, sailors have a key motivation to avoid lee shores, unless those shores happen to be a dock that the sailor intends to land upon.

Sailing Near a Lee Shore

In a northerly, the Berkeley Pier can become a lee shore

Many of the problems and mistakes made by pilots flying at low altitude and sailors operating close to a lee shore occur because of a simple oversight;  They forget for a quick moment:  “Speed equals control.”

Recently a regional commercial jet crashed in Buffalo, NY and the post crash investigation determined something strange.  Apparently, the plane crashed mainly due to the failure of the pilot to keep his speed up despite warnings.  When a stall warning came on during landing approach, the pilot pulled back on the ‘stick’ to try to climb away from the ground.  What the pilot should have done was actually attempt to nose the plane closer to the ground for a moment to pick up speed and regain air flow over his foils (wings).  The reason the pilot made this mistake may never be known with certainty, but it is known that in these situations the correct response is often counter intuitive.  The pilot, despite his training, may have been psychologically hardwired to pull back on the controls despite his training to do otherwise.

The same psychological trick can happen in sailing.  Under sail, the control you have over the direction of the sailboat is, for the most part, a function of its speed..

More boat speed = More water flow over the rudder = More control of the boat’s direction

or simply…

More Boat Speed = More Control

If the boat  loses speed near hard objects, especially lee shores, the risk of  collision greatly increases (as does the level of anxiety.)  That’s why OCSC works hard on teaching all our students,  “Under sail, speed is your friend.”

The next question is: What can we do if we lose boat speed near a lee shore?  We need to do just what the pilot needed to do.  Head the boat toward danger to escape the danger.  In other words,  bear away from the wind (even if it gives up precious maneuvering space) while adjusting sails  so they are properly trimmed, to accelerate the boat.  It may seem imprudent to turn the boat downwind and toward the very rocks you are trying to avoid, but the alternative, heading upwind with the boat stalled (not moving forward), your rudder will have no effect and your boat will drift down on the rocks anyway.  This is a little counter intuitive and requires preparation and forethought to overcome your natural inclination to jam the tiller to leeward and ‘wish’ the boat to windward.

What you do after you’ve gained some speed is just as critical.  Once you have some speed back, you can turn back closer to the wind and away from the lee shore. However, you must avoid turning too much and putting the boat into irons and losing all the precious speed you just gained.  Bring the boat to a close reach, trim your sails properly, ensure you have kept your speed, then trim in and head up carefully until you are close hauled.

To summarize:

1. Under Sail, Speed is your friend.

2. If you lose speed, bear away to a beam or broad reach with proper sail trim until enough water flow is restored over your rudder

3. Once you have speed and can head back upwind, do so deliberately and continue to trim  your sails in as you turn up so you keep that hard earned speed.

The good news is that you can practice exactly these skills.  One of the coolest courses at OCSC is the Advanced Basic Cruising Course and it is a wonderful tool for drilling OCSC members on their close quarter sailing skills.. we give you the opportunity to sail in VERY tight quarters with full speed and give you multiple exercises to enhance your confidence in control of your J24’s speed and direction at all times under sail. This is just the confidence you need to make the right decision if you ever find yourself losing boat speed just to windward of a lee shore.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Thom Loftus

    Recently, during a 20 knot breeze coming from the northwest, I ran into some difficulty coming out of the center entrance at Berkeley Marina. I was as close hauled as I could be, sails trimmed in tight and plenty of boat speed with the engine running. I noticed that despite all, I was being blown into the lee shore. It was only my engine that got me out far enough to fall off without pointing into the shallows.
    I had opted for the center entrance in order to avoid the opposite lee shore of Skates Restaurant exiting the south entrance and then the additional lee shore of the breakwater after tacking into the bay.
    What does one do in this case? How close can one get to the kite park before running aground? What if falling off the wind is simply not an option. In a 20 knot breeze with big surf, the engine was the only thing that saved me. It didn’t matter how close hauled I was.

  2. Stuart Hunter


    Along with regaining speed by sailing down and sail trim, sail shape is helpful. The BC course book suggests sails stall and the boat loses speed, due to wind turbulence behind the sail, which gives the appearance of a full sail but with no “lift.” This can happen if the draft is too far back, or there is excess twist. Solutions: Move the draft forward using the halyard/cunningham, and/or reduce twist by applying boomvang. Lesson learned.

  3. Jose Antonio Samour

    Great article! At the end of the day, you want to remember: More Boat Speed = More Control

Comments are closed.