Sailing The Chop

By Gordy Bowers

I classify waves by height, length, speed and shape.  Each separate sea state requires a different combination of your basic skill techniques — weight position movement, sail trim, and steering.  Below, the following wave and wind descriptions are discussed:

1.  Flat water: height 0 to 6 inches, wind 0 to 9 knots, and small ripples on the surface.

2.  Chop: height 6 to 12 inches, wind 10 to 16 knots.

3.  Waves: height 1 to 2.5 feet, wind 16 to 20 knots.

4.  Big waves: height 2.5 to 6 feet or more, wind 16 knots and up.

5.  Swell: old waves on the Great Lakes or ocean are no longer driven by existing wind.

6.  Slop: powerboat waves that approach from random directions.

For lake sailors, Chop is a problem on the leeward half of the leg. To study the waves closely before a race, I recommend stopping close to the starting area.  Put the boat on a beam reach with your sail luffing. Choppy waves are 6 to 12 inches high and 5 to 7 feet long.  This confused chop varies in direction, from 10 to 20 degrees, and height from 6 to 12 inches. Steep waves will often come in sets of two, three or four, followed by a very flat section that will build up to another set of big waves.

The degree a wave’s height and length will cause your boat to pitch, and to slow down, will depend on the length, weight, speed and bow shape of your boat.  Small, light boats like Optimist, Laser and 420 can pitch violently up and down in steep chop.  The MC, C and Melges 15 Scows, and Yngling keelboats, will pitch less but can be slowed noticeably.  E and A Scows are longer at waterline and heavier, so they will not pitch, but can be slowed by wave friction.

The fast sailor uses all sides of the largest waves. Sailors of small boats, like Opti, Laser, 420 and Melges 15, should study wave shape.  Think of them as hills with sloping edges on the front, back, right side and left side.  Then judge what wave height will slow your boat.

When looking at the face of the individual big wave ask yourself whether the width of the white crest is long or short?   If the white crest is coming right at you, attack by steering bow down 5 to 10 degrees, lean aft, hike out, ease the mainsail to maintain the correct heal angle, and cross the wave at an oblique angle.  If the main luffs excessively, ease the jib 1 or 2 inches, to quiet the main and rebalance helm pressure.  With speed and angle your boat will pitch less in the next one or two big waves. Making your boat your heel up 5 more degrees will let the rapidly moving white water pass with less resistance.

Once you see and understand the wave that will pitch your boat, you can steer to avoid or attack the big waves. Try to avoid the largest waves by heading up or down slightly, and leaning aft to lift the bow.

When going into rough sections you need to steer slightly away from the wind to keep speed. After the last big wave crest has passed, ease main to head down with less weather helm pressure and build speed.  However, in the following flat sections you can point higher, to make up for the lost height. Trim the mainsail harder, and set vang tension for the flat spots.  In the big wave sets, an overly flat main is slower.

Your “go fast” technique is to efficiently shift from speed mode to point mode, and back, as waves change, using your basics of weight movement, sail trim and steering. 

Go out, experiment, learn, and enjoy the Chop!

Wind Direction

By Gordy Bowers

Change of the wind strength will change your three speed control basics: weight, sail trim, and steering. 

Wind direction is next most important, because it affects your strategic decisions based on your course position and fleet position.

Start studying wind on shore by looking at the sky. Observe the shape and direction of the clouds. Paul Elvstrum, the first three time Finn class Olympic gold medalist, once said “change the sky and you change the wind”. Good advice! The low level cloud cover – cumulus, stratus and stratocumulus – are most important. Look to see what direction they are moving, compared to the wind direction on the water. Oftentimes, the wind at eight or nine in the morning, after a cold night, will shift to direction of the clouds when the temperature warms up between ten and twelve noon, during your morning race. Conversely, middle and upper cloud shape and movement usually indicate later changes in the weather. 

Once on the racecourse, it is time to get a feel for the range of wind strength and direction. Wind speeds are shown by ripples and waves, and compared by whether you are sitting in, or hiking full or part time. At close range, thirty to a hundred feet, look at the waves and notice whether the ripples are in line or angled across the waves’ grid pattern. Further out – from one hundred feet to two hundred yards – look at the leading edge of the puff. 

Upwind or downwind, I strongly recommend using side stay telltales or a masthead fly. They show you the next puff, or wind shift.

When beating within half a mile from shore, the short duration puffs have a semicircular leading edge. The middle axis will be shifty. But, the direction will also depend on whether you intersect the front, middle, or back edge. The leading edge usually will have no change, or a slight header. The back edge can be a big lift. Connect the puffs to work the back edge when sailing upwind.

At about a half mile and farther from shore, the long puffs are much larger, and last longer. They usually have straight leading edges. In long puffs, the wind is steadier, and will shift less at the edges. Even further from shore, the wind strength difference from puff to lull is much less, which makes it more difficult to read direction. The best strategy is to sail to next big puff, and to be on the long tack or gybe toward the next mark. Sail toward the “dark water”. 

As a young racer, I noticed Buddy Melges, the Midwest scow builder, champion and Olympic gold medalist, was always out on the water early before races, getting a feel for the wind of the day.

The How & Why of Sailing

By Gordy Bowers

I believe the how and why of sailing should be taught using the following concepts in order:

  1. Wind strength and direction
  2. Course heading angle and apparent wind
  3. Helm pressure: balance and imbalance
  4. Sail trim and shape
  5. Sailor form and movement


All sailors want to see and feel the wind like the Seagull, the Hawk and the Pelican.

The first step is wind strength awareness. Start by looking closely at the small ripple marks that look like fish scales made by wind pushing on the water surface. If they are close together there is more wind. When further apart, less wind. In winds of one to six miles per hour the water surface is flat with ripples about 1/8 inch high. There may be smooth sections that have less wind. Weight will be to leeward to keep hull wetted surface low and shape your sails.

As the wind velocity increases to from six to twelve knots (medium winds) small waves and chop up to one foot high will appear. There may also be some white caps. Between ten and twelve miles per hour sailing upwind close hauled you will begin hiking to maintain the correct heel angle for your class of boat.

 At twelve to eighteen (medium-heavy air) waves become higher—one to two feet and longer. The frequency and width of the white caps also increases. Over twelve knots most boats become overpowered so hiking alone will not maintain correct heel angle. Become more aware of wind pressure on your face —increasing, decreasing or steady.

As the wind increases over eighteen the waves become even higher depending on how far you are from the windward shore. On Lake Minnetonka with a maximum fetch of three miles waves will max out at about two to three feet high. On Lake Michigan when the wind comes onshore from a long distance  waves can be five feet high or more. 

Again, the ripples will always be on the wave surface. The more wind the more dense will be the ripples. When winds are medium to heavy you have to anticipate the gusts, flatten sail and ease the main and/or jib sheet.  Steering should be more aggressive as you react to wind and waves. 

When sailing upwind I look for patterns at three different levels. At fifteen feet to fifty yards out I am narrowly focused on the ripples and waves coming at the boat. At this distance at least five seconds are  needed to react with helm, sheet and weight movement. Second, from fifty up to  four hundred yards I will be observing the leading edge of the puffs for speed, shape and direction.Thirdly, beyond four hundred yards is the long range forecast distance where you should look for small light and dark differences through a ninety degree range – left, middle and right. The best racers stand up before the start to get a better view of the puffs and lulls. 

The  distances are shortened down wind because your boat is sailing away from the wind. Also, the puffs and lulls feel less intense because your apparent wind is less. You must look aft more often to see the new wind coming.

Practice looking so you see the wind like the birds.

Give the Gift of Sailing

Looking to give the gift of sailing this holiday season? Purchase a class online through LMSS and then click on image below to download and print a gift certificate for the lucky recipient!

We extend our very best wishes for a happy holiday season!

Sign Up for LMSS Text Alerts

Once again this summer, LMSS will offer text alerts should we need to contact you in a timely manner (e.g. time-sensitive info, weather updates or cancellations).

To subscribe, text 22999 with the following keyword as the message: 

  • Keyword: LMSSCAMP for all daytime Recreational Camps: ages 7-9, 10-12
  • Keyword: LMSSRACE for Opti, Laser and X-Boat Learn to Race & Race Teams
  • Keyword: LMSS for evening Sail with LMSS and Keelboat Lessons

LMSS Safety Policy Update

As we await governance on the upcoming summer sailing season, we want to keep you informed of any updates regarding our programs and how we plan to adapt operations at LMSS this summer. LMSS has redesigned all of our activities with a focus on structured social distancing, hygiene and sanitization, and personal protection. As always, the safety of our sailors, staff and community remains our top priority. In addition, we have partnered with the Minnetonka Yacht Club (MYC) to limit the number of people on Lighthouse Island.

We’ve drafted an LMSS Updated Safety Policy, based on recommendations from local and national government authorities, and our peer associations and partners. This summer, our sailing community will be seeing changes including:

  • Six-foot radius delineation created for shuttle docks, pontoon shuttles and all on-island activities including chalk talk instruction
  • Minimized touch points on all LMSS facilities including dock areas, transportation, equipment and surfaces
  • Hand washing and hand sanitizing stations added at shuttle pick-up and drop-off points as well as throughout the island
  • Buff or similar facial protection required for indoor common spaces and anytime a sailor is within a six-foot radius of another person
  • Further advanced notice of class cancellation due to impending inclement weather
  • Advanced training for all LMSS staff on CDC and Minnesota Department of Health guidelines as well as LMSS COVID-safe coaching requirements

With all the above mitigations in place, each sailor, parent and instructor play a critical role. Please review our LMSS Updated Safety Policy, which will continuously be reinforced and shared with participants for adherence prior to the start of each session.

Registration is still open! Thanks to all who have committed to keeping your registration intact at this time. We have not yet canceled or modified any sessions at this time, and will alert you if and when that happens in the weeks prior to affected dates (see our updated refund policy). To review options and register, please visit our home page.

We hope to see you soon!

Learn to Race + Race Teams Q&A Sessions

LMSS has a long history of providing top end racing instruction and performance for our sailors who are looking to achieve their goals and compete on local, regional and national levels. 

What’s next for your sailor? Our program is organized into three progressive tracks, each one building upon the track before it: Recreational Sailing, Learn to Race, and LMSS Race Teams. Sailors are encouraged to advance through these tracks as their skills improve.

Are you ready to take the next step and give racing a try? Join us to learn more about LMSS Race Teams: 

  • Stop by the Caribou Coffee on Minnetonka Boulevard and 101 either Wednesday, Feb 19 or Thursday, Feb 20 from 3:30-5:30 PM either day, as your schedule permits
  • Coaches will be available to answer questions and provide information on expectations, schedules, travel opportunities, registration and more
  • New sailors and families welcome!

If you are unable to attend, and are interested in joining LMSS Learn to Race, or a Race Team, or have questions regarding placement please contact us.

TCYS Winter Climbing Meetup

Join the Twin Cities Youth Sailing crew at the Minneapolis Bouldering Project for a rock climbing adventure!

  • Saturday, February 29, 2020, 12 PM – 2 PM
  • All TCYS affiliated sailors, parents, and coaches are invited
  • $12 youth day passes, $16 adult day passes. First time climbers get free shoe rental; otherwise, $4 shoe rental
  • All climbers under the age of 14 must be chaperoned by an adult while climbing
  • Relax between climbs at our TCYS designated hangout space

Climbers and chaperones must fill out a waiver of liability prior to arrival.

New to climbing? Receive instruction from a TCYS sponsored climbing instructor!

Email Alec McKee with any questions. Happy Climbing!

Scholarship Application Now Open

The Woody Jewett Scholarship Fund is now available. The resounding purpose of this fund is to make it possible for more youth to pursue competitive sailing by offsetting the cost of lessons for kids and families as they progress from novice sailors to more advanced racing. Scholarships are available on an individual and group basis. See application for additional details.

Scholarship application deadline is February 15. Scholarships are limited and will be awarded based on need and availability. Partial scholarship funds will be applied to LMSS tuition for a class or group fee, and are not applicable to equipment, gear or travel fees. For more information and to apply, visit

Summer 2020 Regatta Schedule

Mark your calendars! The Twin Cities Youth Sailing (TCYS) 2020 schedule is official:

June 19 – Manitou Days, White Bear Sailing School
June 26 – River Run, Saint Croix Sailing School
July 17 – City of Lakes, Minneapolis Sailing Center
July 24 – Mike Plant Regatta, Wayzata Sailing
August 7 – Brad Robinson Victory Regatta, Lake Minnetonka Sailing School

Additional summer regattas worth noting:

July 11-12 – US Sailing Area K Qualifier, Bemis & Smythe, Muskegon, MI
July 13-17 – 420 North Americans, Grosse Pointe, MI
July 6-7 – GLSS Dinghyfest, Lake Geneva, WI
July 29-31 – ILYA X Inland Championship, Lake Geneva, WI
July 31 – Shino Team Race, TCYS Series *TBD, Wayzata Sailing
August 2-4 – ILYA Opti Inland Championship, Lake Beulah, WI
Aug TBD – Opti Red, White, Blue Chip, Lac La Belle, WI