Reading the Wind on the Water when Sailing

Read wind shifts on water

This is a comprehensive guide to reading the wind on the water. It will cover the basics but also include more advanced tips.


“A proactive sailor will beat a reactive sailor”[bctt tweet=”“A sailor who can anticipate will outperform a sailor who only reacts.”” via=”no”]

The mark of a good sailor is that they are able to anticipate wind changes before they happen. Knowing the immediate future has a number of benefits:

  1. You can see which way the wind will shift next
  2. You can see which side of the course has more wind
  3. You can depower in advance of gusts

When a gust hits a novice sailor will be taken by surprise. They may know how to depower and keep the boat flat but by the time they notice the gust they’ll have already heeled over. This one second delay in reaction time can prove costly when it happens 100 times or so over the course of a race.

Conversely, an experienced sailor will notice the wind change in advance of it hitting them. If it’s a gust they will lean out further in advance of it (and be ready to extend further depending on the strength of the gust). They will have their mainsheet or main depowering control eased or ready to ease as soon as it hits.

So, you’re probably wondering how I can anticipate wind changes. As you can’t see the wind all you can do is see the effect it has on other things. One of the best ways to see what the wind is doing is to read the water upwind of you.

Why upwind? Well, there’s not much point looking downwind. That’s as futile as reading yesterday’s forecast to see what you should wear today. Unless you are sailing in a barmy venue where the wind shifts 180 degrees then you should be safe focusing your observations upwind of you. If you imagine the course like an analog clock with 12 o’clock as the median wind direction then most of the wind changes will come from between 10 o’clock and 2 ‘o’clock.

Ok, you’re looking upwind between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. So, what exactly are you looking for?

The simple answer… Ripples.

When the wind interacts with the water it creates ripples.

  • Where the wind is strong the ripples will be bigger and darker.
  • Where it is light the ripples will smaller and lighter.
  • Where there is no wind the water will look like a mirror.

Have a look at these images to see if you can spot the gusts & lighter patches…

Note: Gusts will be harder to see on choppy venues but you are still looking for the darker patches


How To Spot Gusts

At first you might struggle to see the wind changes ahead of you. Especially if they are subtle. But once you know they are there that gives you the confidence to get better at spotting them.

When you look at the water you’ll see there are different patches with different colours. Usually, the gusts will be darker but another way to spot them is to notice big circular or oval patches on the water. These patches will also move. Those will likely be gusts.

Polarized sunglasses can help make gusts appear more obvious so they could be worth a try. Also, if you usually wear glasses getting prescription sailing sunglasses will improve your vision which can only help when it comes to reading the wind on the water. Here’s a video on picking sailing sunglasses:



Ripples are harder to see the lower down you are so standing up may help. Also, if you can, walk to a viewing point where you can look down on your sailing venue. You should be able to see how the gusts travel across the water.

Reading the Wind on the Water Gusts

When you’re out on the water we want to be sailing in the maximum wind we can. More wind=more speed. So as you go up the beat you should aim to stay in the dark patches (gusts) and avoid the light patches (lulls).


How To Spot An Approaching Wind Shift


Spotting far off wind shifts

To spot far off wind shifts look upwind 40 degrees either side of the median wind direction. This is the area where most wind changes will come from.

Watch the 2 areas in the pink circles (the arrow denotes the median wind direction).

If there are dark ripples in the right circle then that suggests there is stronger wind coming on the right side of the course. As this new wind is coming from the right then you should expect the wind to shift right when you get to it (so there are two advantages to going right in this case).

Spotting wind shifts 2-10 boat lengths away

Once you know the average wind direction you will be able to see whether gusts approaching you are coming from right or left of that direction. If right then expect a right shift. If left then expect a left shift.

However, the edges of gusts are not always obvious so you need to be able to look at the individual ripples to decipher which way the wind will shift. This is where it gets a bit tricky. Some experts seem to be able to read the water ahead of them like reading signposts. However, it’s not so obvious to us mere mortals.

Though the experts seem to do everything perfectly they still get it wrong sometimes. They are just more right than wrong.

It is difficult to describe how by looking at the water you can tell whether the wind is about to lift or head. However, you will get better if you practice looking at the gusts ahead and deciding whether they are lifts of headers. Just get used to picking one or the other- even if you feel it is barely more than a guess. You will get it wrong- a lot. But through this experience, you will gradually get better at sensing the direction of the next gust. Even the experts aren’t perfect, they’re just more right than wrong.

Reading the wind on the water is a skill learnt over a lifetime.


Reading the wind on the water when sailing downwind

Some sailors are pretty good at looking for wind changes when sailing upwind but completely forget when sailing downwind.

Admittedly wind changes are less important to predict when sailing downwind. Partly because there are just less of them (as you are sailing with the wind you experience fewer wind changes).

However, the wind doesn’t suddenly start behaving when we round the windward mark. There are still wind shifts, gusts and lulls to look out for.

Shifts are less important as most classes don’t have to zig-zag downwind.

However, gusts are arguably more important when sailing downwind. As you sail with the wind when going downwind you stay in the gusts (or lulls) longer. Although it usually doesn’t make sense to bang out to the corners when sailing downwind you can still deviate slightly right or left of the course centreline (depending on which side the next gust is approaching from).

For example, if you see the next gust is coming down the right side of the course (looking downwind) then you may want to gybe onto starboard and/ or sail slightly higher than your standard downwind sailing angle so you reach the gust sooner. Once you are in the gust you can bear away so you stay in the gust longer.

Some sailors seem not to want to look behind them when sailing downwind- admittedly, I am one of their number. Perhaps this is because we are always taught to look where we are going. Or perhaps it goes back to school sports days where your parents instil in you not to look backwards at your competition.

Anyway, that’s enough psychological speculation for one day! What we do know is that most sailors don’t spend anywhere near enough time looking backwards when sailing downwind. So, when you’re next out on the water try spending at least 50% of the run looking upwind.


To Sum Up

If you got nothing else from this article than to spend more time looking around then I can consider my job well done. Just practice looking at the water (near and far) and notice the clues it’s giving you (even if they aren’t obvious). After a while you’ll be reading the wind on the water like a pro.


If you want to get better at forecasting wind changes then this article may be of interest: 7 Ways to Predict Wind Shifts – Sailing Strategy