If you can predict which way the wind will shift you will have a big advantage out on the racecourse. Getting wind shifts right can make you look like a genius. However, the signs of upcoming wind shifts are easy to see if you look.
Most of these clues will happen far upwind of you. So if your eyesight isn’t good buy some contact lenses. If you’re eyesight’s fine all you need to do is start looking.
So, what exactly are we looking out for? I’m glad you asked…
7 Ways to Predict Wind Shifts
Boats Upwind Of You
Other boats are probably your best wind indicator. They’re better than burgees because they are effectively burgees dotted around the race course telling you what the wind it like up ahead.
When I’m leading a race I often feel like I’m sailing blind with no boats ahead of me to look at. However, even then you can sometimes use other boats to tell you the wind direction up ahead…
Perhaps there are behind you that are on a different leg?
Perhaps you aren’t the first fleet to start and you can see what’s happening for the boats in the fleet that started before you?
This is why other boats are such great indicators. Not only are they accurate but they are plentiful.
The most obvious indicator of an upcoming header is if many of the boats ahead of you have tacked without any other obvious reason to (such as an approaching lay line). This video addresses whether you should tack as soon as they do or wait for the header to hit you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO3lBIqyHVM&t=4s
Even if boats up ahead don’t tack you can still see what the wind direction is where they are. That is, if you know they are half decent and sailing on the wind. Assuming that, if boats ahead seem to be pointing higher than you then you should expect a lift. If boats ahead start pointing lower they’ve probably been headed.
If it’s not obvious whether boats ahead are headed or lifted then try noticing how much or their windward/ leeward side you can see. In a header you will start to see more of the leeward side of boats ahead and on the same tack. In a lift you’ll start to see more of their windward side.
Flags are another great indicator of wind shifts up ahead. If a flag is showing a different wind angle than it did previously or is different to the wind you are sailing in that indicates there will be a shift.
Look out for flags on buoys, committee boats and on the shore. Ones upwind of the course will be the most useful.
Smoke from bonfires or chimneys can also help you predict wind shifts. The smoke will blow in the direction of the wind therefore telling you the wind direction at the site of the smoke. If that angle is different to the wind you are sailing in then there may be a shift coming.
If there is a raincloud coming down one side of the course you can expect to be lifted on either side of the rain cloud. Also, rain clouds often bring with them more wind. An increase in wind strength tends to cause the wind direction to veer in the Northern Hemisphere (and back in the Southern Hemisphere).
If you can see cumulus clouds forming onshore in the afternoon of a hot day that could indicate a sea breeze which will likely bring a change in wind direction.
Look upwind at what type of clouds are approaching? Low-level clouds are typically associated with an oscillating breeze. Whereas, high-level clouds are associated with a persistent shift.
Before the race, sail up the beat to see whether any land features are consistently shifting the breeze. These are some of the ways land can affect the wind:
Funnelling- if there are two bits of land that the wind has to squeeze between then the wind will fan out when it comes through the gap. If you are to the left of the fanning out then expect a starboard lift. If to the right then expect a port lift.
Channelling- wind tends to follow the shoreline and therefore will shift in unison with it.
As we know, forecasts aren’t always very reliable. However, knowing the wind is forecast to shift around a certain time of day is useful to know. Look for what type of weather the forecast said would precede the shift- e.g. wind getting stronger, a change in cloud cover, rain.
For instance, if you see that the shift is preceded by rain and the rain comes an hour earlier than forecast then you should expect the shift to come an hour earlier too.
To Sum Up
As you can see, there are numerous ways of predicting wind shifts. Let us know if there are any methods that you use not mentioned in this article.
If this all seems a bit overwhelming to you try to take just one of the above and make use of it next time you are out sailing.
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