Going to Windward | Sailing Blog - Technical Hints and Tips - Sailing Television

Going to Windward

Its been said that "Gentlemen don’t go to windward"

Well they do if they are hoping to get to the "Caribbean Windward Islands". I think the idea is that gentlemen can wait a day or two for more favourable winds and hence avoid the need to beat to windward. This strategy actually does work in many temperate climates where winds come from a variety of directions. But here in the tropics the winds are much more predictable and come almost always from the east. Days and days of east winds, generally varying from 12-15 knots to 15-20 knots, and slightly ENE in the winter and E-ESE in the summer. So the gentleman who hopes to sail from Saint Martin to Martinique will be quite close-hauled for most of the journey.

We just finished the upwind journey from Saint Martin to Martinique over the past 3 weeks.

"St Martin to Nevis (63 nm) - great sail close hauled! Average 6.8 knots."

"70 miles Nevis to Deshais, Guadeloupe (70 nm) - we do this 2.5 hours less than a nearby 44 foot sailboat !"

"Sail upwind Deshaies to Portsmouth, Dominica (45 nm) - 6.5-7 knots at 45% apparent in 18-24 apparent wind 1.5-2 meter swell"

"Upwind Dominica to St Pierre, Martinique (49 nm) - 6.3 knots - seas 2-2.5 meters, apparent winds 24-30 knots"

Wind Strength

If the wind is around 15 knots the seas will likely be less than 2 meters. This makes the whole thing more "Gentlemanly"... Our first three days the winds were 14-15 knots on average and the seas less than 2 meters. We were close hauled at 45% apparent but that is a very good point of sail for the Southerly with her 10-foot draft when the variable-draft keel is down (2’ 10" draft with the keel raised). We can point as high as 30 degrees but of course would slow down somewhat and would have more trouble in the big seas. So for us 45% is a fine angle. We had a romping good sail and passed all the other boats we saw out there. There are a number of factors here, and if you are on the margin on some of them then the day isn’t going to be nearly so enjoyable. Here are some of the factors that effect windward ability...


Our sails are just 3 years old and in excellent shape. Old baggy sails can’t point efficiently to windward and will slow you down considerably. We were using our mainsail with one reef in it. The fully-battened mainsail in good shape will almost certainly beat a furling mainsail when close hauled. We have a "self-tacking" jib just 100% and quite flat cut. It is an excellent sail and in good shape. It is just Dacron however - nothing exotic. So if you have more modern sails you might go better to windward, if you have older sails or are using a bigger genoa reefed down then you will have more difficulty pointing.


Not all boats are designed for close-hauled windward ability. Catamarans are commonly said to have more trouble going to windward and a number of our cruising friends on cats confirm this. The difficulty seems to be compounded in large seas as the two hulls hit the waves more often... But many monohulls are not that good going to windward. The depth of the keel helps, as does hull shape. A cruising boat with "shoal-draft" will not point as well as the same boat with a regular keel. In fact I think a modern cruising catamaran can perform as well to windward as most monohulls when not overloaded...


Regardless of boat design above, all boats will have more trouble performing to windward if they are overloaded. The problem with cruising boats is that it is very easy to overload them. A large stern arch bristling with solar panels, antennas, spare anchors, fishing gear, additional outboard motors etc, is a huge weight to have high and aft on a boat. Surfboards, jerry cans and more strapped to the lifelines are a big factor reducing stability and sailing ability. The designer didn’t plan for this and the performance will not match initial expectations! Catamarans are even more susceptible to this as they have a lot of interior space. It is a temptation to keep filling that space up, and as a cat gets lower in the water the bridge deck comes lower too. Then there are even more problems going to windward. I do not mean to point the finger at "cats". Looking around at the typical anchorage I think the cruising monohull is likely to be more overloaded than the average catamaran. So not to overload your cruising boat if you hope to achieve the performance you remember when you first got your boat - whether she is a catamaran or mono-maran :-)


Comparing our previous boats, our old Classic-37 "Two-Step" had a sailing waterline length of less than 30 feet. Distant Shores II has a waterline of almost 48 feet as she sails to windward. This means she pitches much less, absorbs the waves more easily and is drier as well. Not much you can do about this one, but be aware if passage planning that a smaller boat will have a rougher ride, especially to windward. I know that as we sailed these past 2 weeks we were enjoying the sail and sitting in the mostly-dry cockpit. Remembering Two-Step, as I looked at some of the larger waves coming at us I thought how much wetter and less comfortable we would have been on Two-Step.

The extra waterline length also means higher speed. As we averaged nearly 7 knots on the first 3 days we cut a couple hours off boats that were struggling to make 5.5-6 knots upwind. Its 71 miles between Nevis and Guadeloupe and we took 11 hours (average 6.5 knots). For boats that averaged just 1 knot less that would take 2 hours longer. That meant we didn’t have to get going in the dark, still making it in before dusk at the lovely harbour of Deshaies.

Reefed jib sailing in 20 knots to windward - notice (nearly) dry decks

Limits on Comfort

The last log entry is for the crossing from Dominica to Martinique. Seas were higher at 2-2.5 meters (7-8 feet), the wind was up with a forecast of 20-24. We certainly saw those seas and higher in the turbulent zones near the headlands. Apparent wind was 24-30. In these conditions I decided to just fly our tough 100% jib. We could have flown a double reefed main as well but I was worried about higher gusts near the high headlands. So we took it easier and slowed down a bit. As we passed the gusty headland leaving Dominica we had a few rolls in the jib to reef even further. With just the jib we stood up nicely and still sailed at a reasonable 6-6.5 knots. So knowing the limits for your sail configurations, and how comfortable you can be in bigger seas is a factor too. As we were closer to our "comfort-limit" on that last sail I wanted to take it easy on the boat and her crew. After all we were completing the last leg on our journey to the "windward islands" so hopefully can crack sheets and enjoy some reaching coming up!!
blog comments powered by Disqus