This is true heel-angle sailing. The breeze has built to the point where everyone’s fully hiked, and you’re easing the main or dropping the traveler to keep a constant angle of heel. The crew has essentially become ballast, and they are hiking as hard as they can. As long as the boat’s moving at a decent speed, you can head up as much as you need to keep the boat flat. In a big breeze, you might even luff a foot or two of the front of the jib when a big puff hits until you get sorted with easing the main, tightening the backstay or whatever you’re doing to depower. You’re going so fast and having so much power (too much) that sailing that high is fine.
A few years ago, when I was sailing my Etchells—just my third regatta after buying it—the breeze quickly increased, and we were overpowered. I headed up to keep the boat from heeling too much, bubbling the front 6 inches of the jib, and my main trimmer said, “Awesome mode! We’re flying!” And I was thinking, “What? I’m waiting for you guys to depower the boat so I can put the bow back down.” But I looked around, and we were higher and faster than everybody. We experimented with flattening the main and getting the bow down to stream the telltales, but it was not quite as good. That day we learned a new mode—that we could luff the jib in breeze and we’d go just fine. The main point here, though, is that in heel-angle sailing, the skipper should steer up to avoid heeling.
If it’s breezy but the water is flat, you can pinch a little more because there are no waves to slow the boat. If you’re sailing in waves and pressing on the telltales to go faster, constantly trying to accelerate, watch for flat spots. Every surfer will tell you that waves come in sets and in different shapes and sizes. Even on wavy and choppy days, there will be 5- to 15-meter circular spots that are pretty flat. Some sailors call them plateaus. If you enter a plateau and get a puff, try to feather or pinch. In general, you’ll probably be able to sail little higher than when in the bumps. Just before the waves return, drop the bow down, depower, and go for speed. In those conditions, you’re shifting back and forth between slightly bow down and true heel-angle sailing based on waves or flat spots.
The art of driving well comes after you understand everything we’ve been talking about, but then throw in the presence of shifts. Steering well suddenly becomes a moving target as you try to keep the boat at the perfect angle to the wind and coinciding perfect heel while the wind is shifting.
When that’s the case, here’s a good rule of thumb: If a puff is approaching from directly in front of you, it will most likely be a header. If it’s coming from your windward side over your shoulder, it’s most likely a lift. Knowing this can help you drive and trim the sails more accurately when they hit. The goals—maintaining a constant angle of heel and good speed—are the same, and if you can follow the shifts up and down while accomplishing that, you can really sail away from the fleet. For example, you get a nice-size puff that overpowers the boat. Normally during heel-angle sailing, you would head up to keep the heel the same. But if the puff is a header, you continue steering straight, the front of the jib bubbles, and everything works out fine. The shift helped you pinch without having to steer.
Conversely, again in a big breeze, you get a big puff, and it’s a lift. You understand that in overpowered conditions, a puff that’s also a lift is really going to knock you over. That’s because all of the sudden you are tight reaching, the opposite of pinching. It’s as if you bore away in a big puff, causing the boat to heel more. Rather than getting knocked over, good teams will “burp” the sails an extra amount right from the start, and the skipper will start heading up quickly and steer more than normal. That will help avoid the excess heel angle. At that moment, the main trimmer must ease the main a lot, and if the jib trimmer can ease the jib as well, or maybe the inhauler, even better.
On a J/70, for example, the jib trimmer might be inhauling the jib by bow-stringing the windward sheet on the high side, pulling the clew toward the mast. In that lift and puff, easing the windward sheet moves the jib trim-angle outboard, similar to easing the leeward sheet but better because the jib does not increase camber. It’s like dropping the main traveler—the whole sail barn-doors out while keeping the same shape and depowering the boat, and also opening the slot between the main and jib. Once back to a pinching angle, retrim the sails, and off you go having avoided excess heel.
In a blustery breeze, you can make big gains by balancing the concepts of sailing by the telltales and sailing by heel angle, knowing what your desired angle to the wind is and then factoring in lifts and headers along the way. The goal is to keep your boat in the best state possible, knowing that you’ll never be perfect all the time. As a skipper, when I head out for a race in shifty conditions, I think: “I’m going to try to keep my boat and sails at the perfect angle to the wind more than everyone else. And if I can do that a higher percentage of the time, I’ll probably be the fastest boat out there.” Keep in mind the two steering modes, and you can too.