Going faster than the wind sounds like some sort of pretty metaphor, right? Like something attainable in a dream, but not in reality, and especially not on your sailboat. You know sailboats can go pretty fast, but faster than the wind? Is it really possible?
Sailboats can indeed go faster than the wind in what’s known as high-performance sailing. When sailing, the boat relies on both true and apparent winds as well as lift to go faster than the wind.
Wait, what is apparent wind? How about true wind? For more on that as well as a scientific breakdown of how a sailboat can outpace the wind, we encourage you to keep reading. We’ll talk about all this and more ahead!
Understanding the Types of Wind
In the intro paragraph, we talked about how sailboats use true wind and apparent wind to reach a speed faster than both. Before we can get into how this is possible, we want to make sure you have a clear grasp on what both true wind and apparent wind are.
Let’s talk more about these wind types now.
We’ll start with true wind. As the name suggests, true wind is the actual wind blowing outside right now. If you were to step out of your home or office and feel the breeze rustle your hair and clothes, that’s true wind. You don’t have to move to feel it, and that’s the most important characteristic of true wind.
When your sailboat sits still on the water and you feel wind coming from a certain direction and at a specific speed, this is true wind. True wind can influence your true wind direction and true wind speed. Both the true wind direction and speed can and do change as you begin your sailing trip.
For example, when you’re stationary, the true wind speed and direction may be fairly low. By moving your sailboat across the water, it gets windier. Thus, the true wind speed and direction go up as a result. Obstacles like headlands, other boats, and rocks can lower the true speed and direction. If you’re riding in clear waters, it’s possible to increase both again.
You should also acquaint yourself with a term known as the true wind angle. By taking your true wind direction and calculating the space between that and the heading of your sailboat at an angle, you get the true wind angle.
Do you remember what we said the most important characteristic of true wind is? It’s that with true wind, the wind you feel is when you’re stationary or not moving. Knowing that, we can move on to talking about apparent wind.
Have you ridden a bike recently? If not, then surely you remember what it feels like. As you begin pedaling down the street, you feel a blast of wind, right? It may be easy to assume this is just true wind but at a higher velocity because, well, you’re going faster. Therefore, wouldn’t the true wind direction and speed increase as well?
That’s a good thought, but the wind you feel when you’re in quick motion like this is not true wind at all. It’s actually a second type of wind known as apparent wind. Unlike true wind, which is still present even when you’re not moving, apparent wind only occurs when you’re in motion. That’s the main difference between the two wind types.
Like with true wind, you can have an apparent wind direction and an apparent wind speed. Most of the time, the true wind speed and apparent wind speed will be quite different from one another. This is because of your true wind angle, which is roughly 30 degrees when you’re sailing in your boat. Also, how fast you’re going can alter the true wind speed and apparent wind speed, of course.
By using wind instruments, it’s easy to determine things like the apparent wind angle, true wind angle, apparent wind speed, and more measurements without having to do a lot of heavy calculations yourself. This can help you plan a course more accurately.
How Does a Sailboat Go Faster Than the Wind?
Now that you know the differences between true wind and apparent wind, we can talk about how these wind forces can make a sailboat go that much faster. So fast, in fact, that the boat even outpaces the wind.
The wind force that moves your sailboat along in the water, at least initially, is true wind. That’s because you can be stationary and feel true wind, but you have to be in motion for apparent wind to kick in.
Depending on your angle, it’s possible that your sailboat matches the speed of the wind but doesn’t go faster than it. You’d have to be completely perpendicular with your boat while getting a rear push from the true wind and keeping your sails flat. This flatness prevents the apparent wind from pushing you along and helping you gain too much speed.
That’s why you should follow the true wind angle, especially when you wish to enter a port entry or passageway. For other type of sailing plans, it’s better to use the apparent wind speed and apparent wind angle. This doesn’t mean to ignore the true wind direction or the true wind speed, so keep track of this as well.
As you sail this way, you get both dragging and pushing due to the wind forces. This dragging may sound like it would slow you down, but that’s not what happens. Instead, it’s lift that causes this dragging.
When a plane achieves lift, it gains height. Since sailboats don’t fly, when they gain lift, the same thing doesn’t happen. Well, it sort of does, but instead of flying through the sky, the boat is almost flying through the water at a sideways angle.
You can feel lift for yourself in your sailboat the next time you operate it. You only have to sit in the captain’s chair and move your arm out of your driver’s window. Make sure your hand faces closest to you and your arm stays at an angle of 90 degrees from your elbow.
Stay like this for a moment, really experiencing what it feels like. Next, you want to move your hand so your palm faces out towards to the wind. Your arm traveled with your palm too, didn’t it? Even though you only moved your hand and not your arm. Yes, it did, and that is lift’s forces in action.
Using the wind terms we presented in the last section, if apparent wind circles a sail from the outside, you get lift. It’s important that this happens on the outside of the sail, as the inside of the sail has something totally different going on with it. There, the air goes more gradually across the sail, changing pressure. Since the pressure of the air outside of the sail exceeds that of the pressure inside the sail, lift occurs.
With lift, you can now go faster than the wind on your sailboat!
What Does It Feel Like to Go Faster Than the Wind?
Let’s say you apply everything you just learned about true wind, apparent wind, angles, and lift the next time you go sailing. Through the information you read here, you manage to go faster than the wind. Well, at least you think you did.
How can you be sure you’re actually traveling at such a fast pace that you’re outracing the wind? What does it feel like?
It depends on which sailor you ask. If you’re new to the world of sailing, then you might not have much of a feel for drag or lift as it occurs. You need to be intimately familiar with your sailboat inside and out to know when something different is happening.
Those more seasoned sailors have reported that there’s a slight drag and pushing akin to jostling that they feel when they travel faster than the wind. That’s really about it, though. You’re not going to enter this hyperspace dimension by outpacing the wind. Some sailors might do it without even really noticing.
That doesn’t make it any less of a very cool accomplishment, but it’s not like every sailor can distinctly feel the difference between going slower than the wind or faster.
Which Boats Have Gone Faster Than the Wind?
While it’s possible for most well-built sailboats to potentially race faster than the wind, as we said, sailors don’t always know when or if it happened. The following boats had no doubt about their speed, as they broke records for their accomplishments.
The AC72 is short for America’s Cup 72 Class. While technically it’s a wingsail catamaran instead of a sailboat, it’s still completely awe-inspiring. The AC72 has a crew of 11 people, a maximum draught of 14 feet or 4.4 meters, a 45.9-inch or 14-meter beam, and a waterline length of 72.2 feet or 22 meters. The overall length of the boat is 86 feet or 26.2 meters, and the entire thing weighs 13,000 pounds.
In 2013, the AC72 was raced by the Emirates Team New Zealand and was able to achieve a speed of 44.1 knots or 50.8 miles per hour (MPH). The team relied on a wind blowing at 15.6 knots or 18 MPH to do it. This broke speed records for the AC72.
Vestas Sailrocket 2
Another incredible vessel that went faster than the wind is the Vestas Sailrocket 2. This is a yacht that was able to reach about 80 MPH back in 2012. The boat was raced in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Surprisingly, the true wind that day was only 30 MPH.
The Vestas Sailrocket 2 was already in its second iteration by then, having been improved upon compared to the original. That one had raced along at 52.22 knots back in 2008, but that was an unofficial speed. Also, the Sailrocket crashed not too long after.
To avoid past mistakes, the Vestas Sailrocket 2 practiced several times before reaching its amazing speed. The achievements of the boat are kept in records from the World Sailing Speed Record Council.
Sailboats and many other vessels with sails can go faster than the wind. To do so, they need to create lift, which they can only achieve through a combination of true wind, apparent wind, and some good sailing angles. If you’re interested in achieving the same feat yourself, now you know what to do. All the best and happy sailing!