Champagne Sailing – How We Harness the “Ahhhh” of Downwind Sailing

Ahhhh, the delight of gently and quickly gliding across the ocean with sails full and the wind and waves at your back. Such an image is the dream of most cruising sailors and what Mary Grace rightfully calls “champagne sailing.” 

Frank looks very relaxed as we sail downwind under Drifter and genoa.

In more technical sailing jargon, champagne sailing on the ocean is called “dead downwind” (DDW) or is the point of sail called “Running” because your boat is running with the wind. DDW sailing occurs when the true wind angle is between 150 port and150 starboard and sometimes in lighter winds DDW sailing or running happens between 140 and 140. 

Before I proceed, let’s define a few terms and abbreviations for all readers:

  1. True Wind Angle / TWA: True Wind Angle is the angular direction of the wind as measured from the centerline of the vessel with the bow being 0 degrees. Therefore the stern of the vessel is 180 degrees. The waves on top of the water are often a good indicator of the direction of the true wind 
  2. Apparent Wind Angle / AWA: Apparent Wind Angle is the resultant angle of the wind experienced by a moving object. AWA is also measured from the centerline of the vessel with the bow being 0 degrees. A flag flying from the top of the mast while a boat is moving is an good indicator of the apparent wind angle. 
  3. Rhumb line: In common sailing speak, the rhumb line is the path or imaginary line that connects the current position of the boat with the destination point. For the purpose of this writing, let’s assume that the rhumb line for TTR’s passage is directly aligned with the wind. In other words while sailing this passage the wind will be coming at TTR directly or close to the stern or 180 degree TWA.

So, why do we on TTR, as well as most cruisers, want to sail DDW and why am I writing a blog post about this one point of sail?

First, as many readers know, Mary Grace and I often sail TTR with only the two of us, including multi-overnight ocean passages. Even though Ticket to Ride is a performance catamaran and we enjoy her speed: during overnight passages comfort, safety, and sleep are priorities over maximum boat speed. 

Sunset sailing with the Drifter and Genoa deployed.

When sailing dead downwind, TTR and all cruising yachts will never go faster than the true wind and often only half the speed of the true wind. The world’s best racers would sail at wind angles around 130-140 to take advantage of generated apparent wind; however, to arrive at the DDW destination this racer will often have to gybe (turn) from port tack to starboard tack and back to stay sailing close to the rhumb line. 

Gybing back and forth involves sail handling and these gybes are more safely handled by two people; the result on TTR is that we awaken the off watch person to help adjust sails and we get less sleep. 

Sailing DDW along a rhumb line requires less sail handling which means increased crew safety, better sleep and easier meal preparation because of more comfortable boat motion due to waves approaching directly from the stern and decreased likelihood of seasickness (an issue Mary Grace faces).

Sailing dead downwind sounds like a total winner and leads to the second most common sailing question we get, especially from catamaran owners: “How do you sail downwind? What sails do you use?”

You probably already know the answer, “It depends.” 

There are a few factors that determine how on TTR we sail DDW; these factors are primarily true wind angle (TWA) and true wind speed (TWS). 

The tack of the Drifter is pulled to the starboard bow.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the factors that warrant the “It depends” answer to this common DDW question. We will start the discussion with the TWA variable for sailing DDW. On TTR and most catamarans as well as monohulls, deploying the mainsail (the sail in back of the mast) gives the vessel the option to sail almost any wind angle; therefore, as the wind direction changes (which it does often) the sailboat will have the optimal power and speed with the mainsail flying. 

However, when the TWA approaches 140 degrees or greater (meaning the wind angle moving toward directly stern) the mainsail blankets the wind from filling the sails forward of the mast (headsails) resulting in flogging sails, noise, and decreased boat speed. The answer to this mainsail wind blanketing problem on TTR is to pull the headsail over to the windward side of the boat, thus exposing more of the headsail to the wind. TTR’s large, lightweight and full cut sail that we affectionately call “the drifter,” is easily pulled to windward, allowing us to sail downwind to TWA’s of about 165 degrees. Therefore the “pull to windward technique” allows TTR to sail about 20 degrees more downwind (deeper) than when the drifter is deployed from the vessel’s centerline. 

A very comfortable downwind sail with the Drifter only in the centered location.

How does TWS (true wind speed) factor into this sailing technique?  

When the wind speed increases to about 22-23 knots, we re-center the Drifter and usually roll it up. The Drifter is a lightweight sail and we don’t want to harm it by flying in strong winds.

OK, now what is the plan if the true wind angle is greater than 160-165? Can you guess the answer? Yes, correct again, “It depends.” 

Certainly we can veer off of our rhumb line and maintain a TWA of less than 160-165 that will keep the sails full. But, what if we want to enjoy some of the champagne sailing discussed previously and sail DDW on rhumb line with TWA of 165-180?  

We contemplate our choices, discuss and look at the weather forecast and sea state; however, in TWA’s over 165 we will typically take the main down and deploy only headsails. 

Depending (that word seems to come up often) on True Wind Speed sometimes 2 headsails are flown (TWS 6-18), sometimes one large headsail is flown (TWS 15-20) or sometimes only the small headsail is flown (TWS 18-28).  Without the mainsail flying, the headsails fill very nicely, the boat is amazingly quiet, and the champagne sailing is happening. 

Flying the Drifter and the genoa without the mainsail.

Some might ask why we don’t sail wing on wind using the mainsail and genoa ie the mainsail on one side of the mast and genoa on the other.  When sailing at TWA greater than 165, we would rather take the mainsail down than risk an “accidental gybe” which is dangerous and often breaks lines, spars or sails. (An accidental gybe is when the main sail unintentionally and without control, switches from one tack to the other, resulting in a violent switch.)

What are the downsides of DDW, you ask. When sailing DDW, for our purposes, the true wind angle must stay between 150 port and 150 starboard. Therefore if the weather forecast shows significant wind direction changes or the vessel’s course is going to change significantly such as to avoid an island or remain in a marked channel, then taking the mainsail down and sailing with headsails only is problematic. So DDW sailing is best when we will be on the same wind angle/heading for a long time. 

One extra tip we use when sailing double headsails is to run the windward sheet through a snatch block attached to the top of our dagger board. Running the sheet out to the dagger board essentially acts as a spinnaker pole on Ticket to Ride. The added benefit is that in the event of sudden wind or sea state changes, the sail can still be furled without detaching the sheet from the snatch block. We must thank our friend Tommy Henshaw for thinking of this rigging trick which has been very helpful in keeping our sails well filled.

Working sheet is run through a snatch block attached to the dagger board. Thanks Tommy!

Many experienced sailors might ask about downwind sails I have not mentioned, “How about an asymmetric spinnaker, symmetric spinnaker or a para-sailor?” You are very correct to ask as these are very effective downwind sails. Mary Grace and I have chosen not to add any of these sails to Ticket to Ride’s sail inventory due to several factors with the primary factor being manageability. 

Especially on a boat of TTR’s size and with TTR’s mast height, these three sails become very large (220 sq meters or 2,368 sq feet) and are more appropriately handled by a crew of 6 or 8. These sails must be snuffed (put away) and lowered to the deck if the weather turns nasty. These large sails can be especially difficult to manage at night when vision is limited and the seas seem larger.  Also, the large size of these sails makes them difficult to store. Spinnaker or para-sailor sails would add speed to TTR’s downwind capabilities; however, the champagne goes away and greater vigilance is required. 

Sailing TTR downwind with the Drifter and no mainsail.

So, in summary, here are the DDW techniques we use on Ticket to Ride:

  1. Mainsail and drifter sail pulled to windward  
  2. Mainsail down, Drifter and Genoa only
  3. Mainsail down, Drifter only
  4. Mainsail down, Genoa only

We hope you enjoyed this blog and learned a bit from the information provided. Every sailor is different and prefers to sail his vessel in different configurations. There is no right or wrong configuration, only what is preferred, safe and comfortable for that boat and crew. 

If you have comments, questions or suggestions, we would love to hear them in the comments. We enjoy the feedback and learning from others.

As always, thank you for stopping by to read our blog. We would love to hear how you sail downwind on your boat and your thoughts about our sail use. If you want to hear from us more often, please visit us on Facebook or Instagram. Wishing you good health and fun adventures.

7 thoughts on “Champagne Sailing – How We Harness the “Ahhhh” of Downwind Sailing

  1. Good article on this topic
    Thanks for the info
    A technical aspect of sailing simply articulated

    Thanks Frank / Mary-Grace

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely explained, thanks Frank and Mary Grace. A similar article on using a staysail with a larger headsail as a cutter rig would be of interest too.


    1. Hey Joe, do you mean the staysail, our smallest sail for storm conditions? Or are you speaking of the spinnaker staysail we use sometimes when sailing our large headsails? Let me know, please.


      1. I was asking about your spinnaker staysail. Wasn’t sure if you had a sail made specifically for this purpose or you use your self tacking jib on the inner forestay.


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