Tips for Freshwater Lake Sailing

Whether no bigger than a puddle or as large as an inland sea, freshwater lake sailing has its own unique set of challenges and advantages for racing and cruising. In May, the 2023 J/24 US National Championships will be held on Lake George in New York’s gorgeous Adirondack Region. Ahead of the event, Quantum’s Carter White shares his thoughts on lake sailing. So whether you’ll be racing the event, or spending time on another inland body of water come spring and summer, read on.

I’ve learned important lessons about sailing inland lakes, particularly long, skinny ones like Lake George. Here are my top five tips for sailing your best at these tricky venues, whether you put them to use on Lake George in May or wherever you may go:

Parallel Shores: Know how the geography around the lake will impact your tactical decisions. For example, Lake George is a narrow lake, formed by glaciers leaving high mountainous shorelines. The sailing area is 1.4 NM wide and 1.75 NM long, with prevailing northerly winds after fronts go through and southerly winds before a front goes through. If the wind is light, you can sometimes experience an easterly but only rarely a strong westerly. With the prevailing winds flowing with the length of the lake, you will experience a parallel shore effect where the wind may be stronger on the left shore (looking upwind) than on the right. This is due to the Theory of Convergence and Divergence, where the wind veers right as it leaves the shore. On the left shore, the wind veers and converges with the wind on the shore, making it stronger and making the left side of the course advantageous, especially in medium wind.

Anticipate the Shift, and Sail in Pressure: In lighter wind, it’s important to sail toward the pressure and then stay in it. Pressure will typically make up for a less favorable angle to the mark because boats that aren’t in it will likely stop moving, and if you’re not moving, a favorable angle to the mark doesn’t matter much anyway. Once in that pressure, it is imperative to get on the lifted tack as soon as possible. Sailing the least amount of distance in the most amount of wind is key. Connecting the puffs is critical, so having a crew member (usually bow or mast position) look for and call out the next puff or two up the course upwind or behind you downwind will allow you to connect the dots from puff to puff.

Prepare to Sail Skewed Legs: A skewed leg happens when the wind is not coming from the mark, which can happen upwind or downwind. When the mark is off the angle of the wind by 10 degrees or more (sometimes on a shifty lake you could be dealing with a 25-degree variation or more), we call the course skewed, which means that one tack or one jibe will be a closer angle to the mark than the other. In the case of a skewed course, you want to sail on the closer tack or jibe as quickly as you can so you are directly upwind or downwind of the mark. This means you have sailed the skew and squared up the leg. If there is any lift or header, you will be able to sail a shorter distance than your competitors who are on the edges of the course. Think about being short of a layline and then getting a lift and being able to make the mark. You sailed a shorter distance than the boat that was already on layline because that same lift made it overstand the layline and it had to sail a greater distance. Another name for sailing the skew or squaring up the leg is ‘sailing the long leg first’.

Prepare for Crowds: Since the racecourse is often compressed on a lake with a limited sailing area, the mark roundings can get crowded. Often the course length is only one mile long and, with almost 50 boats, the first mark comes up quickly. Being prepared for crowded mark roundings and starting lines will help you survive the regatta. On the start line, a low-density area might work better than the favored end, since you can more easily start front row at the gun and then quickly get on the favored tack. Let’s say the pin is favored but the windward mark is skewed to the right. If you win the pin on starboard tack but then get caught not being able to tack onto port and cross the fleet, you will sail the short leg first and get stuck there longer than you want, possibly putting you over the layline. Also in that scenario, you will almost certainly be coming into the windward mark on port, near or over the port tack layline, and facing a wall of boats on starboard. The exception is if you were able to take advantage of the parallel shore effect and sail in more pressure and beat everyone to the windward mark. That’s possible, but not likely to happen often.

Lane Management: Finally, there is lane management. Again, with compressed sailing areas and boats close together, there are more times that you’ll have bad air from a nearby boat. Having a clear lane can do two things. First, it provides for cleaner air and, therefore, better boat speed. Second, the clear lane gives you options to tack or jibe when the wind shift comes or you need to change course to get to a patch of breeze quickly. When there is less space on the course there is a premium for finding your own patch of open water and clean air, which will help you progress further along the course than your competitors who are sailing near or on top of each other.

Now it’s time to apply Carter’s tips to your own racing or reach out to your local loft if you have further questions. Good luck to all the competitors attending the US Nationals and to anyone who is sailing on a long, narrow lake this year. We hope you find success with these tips!

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