Slow sailing is a Junior skill and an important one. The objective of slow sailing is to get to a fixed point in space (a dock, a man-overboard,
a buoy) with zero speed. The idea is to come in on a close reach course, where you have an accelerator and a brake.
With the mainsheet all the way out, the sail is depowered, and the brake is the wind and sea against the boat. Pulling in the mainsheet on the falls is the accelerator. You line yourself up on a close reach
course and sail to the target.
There are two skills involved:
1) lining yourself up on a close reach course to the target, and
2) slow sailing on that course to it.
Let's talk about hitting a buoy at zero speed, as it's the hardest of the maneuvers. When you dock, you usually have some room for error, as you don't have to get to a precise point on the dock. But wait, what about a busy Saturday where you have to thread the needle between the only two boats where there's any space between them to dock? If you can lightly touch a buoy on a slow-sail, you can do precision docking.
Here's the diagram:
You come in beam-to the wind, downwind of the buoy, and you turn upwind to find the close reach course to sail to the buoy and slow sail to it. But where do you turn upwind to do this?
A close reach course is about 60° off the true wind, but how do you determine that? If you're docking at the CSC docks, you see the windsocks (true wind), so you can estimate the course. Not so easy picking up a buoy. You have to test the wind (something our keelboat sailors do when they prepare to dock). Out away from the buoy, you can do one of two things:
1. Turn the boat into the wind to find where the true wind is, and then estimate a close reach 60° off of it. Slowly head upwind, and you're head to true wind at the point where the boom just crosses the center of the boat. It looks like this:
2. Find the close reach course directly by slowly turning upwind until you get a good strong luff in the sail (including the top of the sail), and you can power up by pulling in on the fall. This is the heading you need to sail to the buoy. The sail should be luffing away from (not touching) the shrouds.
The rest is judgement. Once you have the heading you have to steer to slow sail to the mark, you just have to find the turning point to do it. Estimate the point, and then test when you get there. Turn and point at the buoy and see if you have a brake and an accelerator - with the mainsheet all the way out, are you completely de-powered? Can you power up by pulling in on the falls? If both of these are true, Bob's your uncle, and you can just sail to the buoy. You should play with de-powering the sails (braking) to see how far you'll glide before you stop, as it's different each time. That's how far ahead of the target you de-power for the last time. In playing, don't slow down all the way to a stop, but keep some forward momentum (more on why later).
If you come in too hot (too fast), make a very quick turn into the wind just past the target to drain your excess speed. But stay in contact with the target. If you don't quite get there, power up for an instant before you come to a dead stop.
How to correct when you're not on a close reach course. When you make the turn to point at the buoy, you may have an accelerator and no brake or vice versa. If you have no brake, you're too far upwind, and you're coming at the target at a beam reach or lower. Think of it this way: is there any way to slowly sail downwind? You need to go down wind quickly and a lot and probe again. With this adjustment, you ought to be sailing upwind to your target:
If you have no accelerator, you're too far downwind from the target, and you simply can't sail the upwind course to it. You can only bear away, tack around, and try it again. Make sure you get far enough away from the target not to repeat the problem on the other tack:
Some problem areas and how to deal with them.
1. Leeway. You get lined up nicely, you hold the heading, but the boat just gets pushed sideways (toward the sea wall if docking). Make sure your centerboard is down. If the tide is low and you need to raise your centerboard, slow sailing may not work. Another problem is that the centerboard only works if there is water flowing around it. If you slow to a stop before reaching the target (dock or whatever) and then accelerate, you will be pushed sideways until you get some water flow around the centerboard. So you have to maintain forward momentum while slow sailing.
2. Steer the course. I've seen a lot of students get the boat aligned correctly (close reach) and then not steer the course they set. Line it up, check it out (accelerator, brake, and does it point to where
you want to go), and steer it.
3. Weirdness at the Dock. The winds shift, sometimes quite a bit, at the dock. So the perfect approach you started doesn't end up so perfect. Sometimes going around and doing it again is the best way to handle it. This is a good test of your skills: backwards sailing, tight turns and tacks, and steering in traffic. Not to mention quickly diagnosing and fixing when it isn't working.
4. You're oriented to the geography, not the wind. Don't get into that habit. Sure the wind comes mostly from the west, but not always. Even when it does, it can be from north-west to south-west. And winds from the north or from the south are not uncommon. Find the wind and the correct course every single time.
A piece of very good advice I got from a Rating Committee Member was to be as precise as you can every time you dock. Set a really small target on the dock and try to hit it, even if you have the entire
dock available. If you get into that habit and can do it, the skill will be there for you when you really need it. And if you get back to the dock and have a little extra time, do a few "touch and goes" on the dock - dock gently, don't hop off, back out, and go out and do it again. Perfect practice makes perfect.
I think 'maintain forward momentum' is the big one (once you get the concept of finding the right angle to the wind). I know I had (and still have) problems with this one, and is one of the bigger problems I see students have, in trying to sail as slow as possible and side-slipping too much, and now the mark I was pointed so nicely at is too far upwind and I can't get to it. Slow sailing is a method of sailing, not a speed. If you're slow sailing for a good distance, keep your speed up until you have to slow down/brake.
One tip I picked up in the recent slow sailing advanced dinghy lesson is to keep the boat flat. The centerboard is less effective in stopping leeway if it's at an angle in the water. I was single-handing in higher winds and was having a hard time keeping the boat flat, and was side slipping a great deal. Didn't realize what was wrong until discussing it on land afterwards.