The Banshee in the Big Air

by Bill Haile, Banshee Class Secretary
June 1997

While it is well known that the beautiful Banshee is over canvassed, there are still ways to tame the boat when the wind is strong and the waves are tall. For the Banshee, with 88 ft2 of sail, strong winds begin at about 15 knots. How the skipper handles it is mostly a matter of perspective.

In light and medium air, the racing sailor strives for boat speed at every chance. But, when the wind increases, he must realize there is plenty of force for propulsion and then turn his attention to control. Control means making the boat go where you want it to safely with the skipper in charge. Control means not letting nature’s elements overpower you. So, this short article is all about control in high wind. Boat speed will take care of itself.

It is assumed that the boat is properly rigged for heavy air sailing by adding modifications to the standard Banshee new boat minimum. Mods usually include a main sheet swivel jam cleat and traveler for sail control, at least one suction bailer placed near the dagger board trunk, the vang and downhaul leads are easily adjustable from either side of the cockpit, the front of the dagger board trunk is filled with a removable board to eliminate upsurging water, and the rudder is securely attached to the boat either by a clip or shock cord so it can’t fall off. Some skippers even add spiral tape around the tiller extension so their hand won’t slip. Other mods are mostly for show. Plan on a capsize and leave nothing unsecured in the boat.

Of course, at all times, carry the necessary safety gear. The Banshee Class minimum is a life jacket (PFD) and 15 feet of tow line which doubles as a painter.

Upwind in Heavy Air

First, examine the easiest point of heavy air sailing — close hauled. The idea here is to hike the Banshee as much as you can, and then feather your way up wind using the rudder to keep the boat upright. The sail is constantly luffing as you walk the tightrope, carefully balanced between capsize to leeward or to windward. For extra boat speed, bear off slightly and foot.

The Banshee sails best close hauled when healed between 150 and 200, so try to maintain this comfortable zone. When hit by a puff or a lift, quickly turn upwind a few degrees to hold the optimum heal angle. When hit by a lull or a header, quickly bear off a few degrees.

Most sailing instructors teach the “sheet - hike - steer” method of upwind control. But Banshee is different. Here it is “steer - sheet - hike”. Because of the nice big rudder, the boat is very quick to steer and this must be used to advantage. Next, trim the sheet which is slower because of the large forces involved. Finally, hike harder to help bring the boat back onto its comfortable heel. Sometimes these are done simultaneously.

The traveler must be out about half way. (In really severe conditions and in high ocean swells, put the traveler out all the way and bear off a few degrees.) Then, sheet in hard to bend the mast and flatten the sail. The Cunningham downhaul must be very tight. My 8:1 Cunningham is adjusted several time a minute and sometimes requires full effort to tighten it. The outhaul is set so that the maximum draft from sail to the edge of the boom is about 7 inches, the same distance from my thumb to the tip of my pointer finger. Set it and forget it.

The skipper’s weight should be outboard and angled forward of the thwart to keep the stern up — unless waves are really big, then move aft 6 to 12 inches to keep from bow from penetrating under a wave. Use gentle finger tip control on the tiller extension.

When the hiking becomes difficult, cross your legs, left over right, then right over left, then hook your toe under the main sheet base, and finally tack to a new course. Anything to ease the muscle strain. You can cleat the main sheet, but keep tension on the sheet. This is to allow for quick release and also to help relieve the hiking loads on your aching legs.

When tacking, always uncleat the main sheet. This is good advice in all wind conditions, even in light air when a “roll tack” is fun. Plan when to tack in big waves so you don’t get caught right in the face of a big one.

The boat will take on a lot of water from the pounding and the spray, and the speed may not be enough to use the suction bailer. You may have to wait for a reach to clear the water out of the cockpit. The more water you carry, the slower and less stable is the boat.

Smaller sailors should now worry. While heavier skippers can go faster upwind, lighter ones will catch them on other points of sail. Technique, balance and control are the keys. I have seen high school girls sail past 200 lb guys in a stiff wind in the 1985 Nationals. The girls were smiling. For years the Banshee national champion was 160 lb John Navas who beat everyone upwind.

Sometimes when close hauled in 25-30 knot winds, the windage (drag) is so high the boat seems to stand still and only the skipper is working. When this happens, bear off slightly and move aft for more boat speed.

In summary, for close hauled sailing in high wind and waves, get the sail flat, hike as hard as you can, luff the sail and feather with the tiller to keep a comfortable angle of heel. Stay in control.

The Heavy Air Reach

The fun begins with the wild, screaming reach. Very slight tiller movements cause violent course changes, so be gentle. Light weight skippers are especially quick to plane the Banshee if they do it right.

First, relax the outhaul so the distance between the boom and sail is about 9 inches, the distance from my thumb to my outstretched pinky. Then, relax the down haul, but not much. Remember, if you capsize, the only direct link between the mast and the hull is the down haul. The traveler must be fully extended, all the way to the side tank, and the main pulled in tight. The boom vang is tight, having been snugged during the upwind leg. The skipper slides aft to get the bow up and the boat weight on the flat, planing aft part of the hull. In extreme conditions, hike out over the stern. The dagger board must be half way up and angled forward to move the center-of-effort aft.

To get the plane started, hike hard and pump in rhythm with the waves. Then hang on and ride. Whoops and shouts are optional. Lighter weight is a definite advantage here. Some smaller skippers head up to flatten the boat to begin the plane, then bear off and ride it. They have to be strong to work the main sheet which should not be cleated. Other sailors bear off to start the plane. What you do is a matter of personal style and technique. Just stay in control and let the boat run.

Sometimes, on a beautiful broad reach, the boat just heels and won’t plane. When this happens, flatten the sail, head up slightly, move aft and pump a hike to jerk the boat onto the flat planing position.

I have planed across the face of a Pacific swell when by body was nearly six feet above the wave trough and the boat was covered in foam and spray. I rode that wave right up to the next racing mark, about ½ mile, and felt like a man on a torpedo.

The Heavy Air Run and Death

All single sail boats are unstable on the run and Banshee is one of the worst. Careful balance and quick reflexes will usually keep you away from the dreaded “death roll”.

Here, move aft in the cockpit and kneel with a knee at each side tank — ready to shift weight to either port or starboard. Moving aft gets the stable flat stern in the water and the rounded unstable bow section up. Some skippers even cut about 6" off of the tiller to allow them to move further aft. The tiller is right in the middle of your back. Steer to keep the boat under the mast. That means, head up when rolling to weather and bear off when rolling to the lee.

The board should be up to allow the boat to slip and reduce healing moment. Traveler is all the way out. The vang has been adjusted earlier. It must be very tight to hold the boom down. A rising boom is a sure sign of instability. You can adjust the vang when close hauled to just remove all slack from the line. Its easy with controls on each side of the cockpit. Mine runs to cleats mounted under the thwart. The Cunningham must be slackened, but not loose.

Most Banshee skippers try to keep steady air flow over he sail by not letting the boom out very far. The tip of the boom should not go forward of the thwart when the wind is strong. To guarantee this, tie a knot in the main sheet to limit its length.

Sooner or later the horror of a gybe must be faced. In really strong wind, you can “chicken gybe” by heading up and tacking through 270 degrees. Otherwise, always, without exception, do an “S-gybe”. This means your line through the water will resemble an S. Carefully bear off and sheet in to begin the gybe and ease the loads on the main sheet. The boom will eventually gybe quickly across the boat. Duck, and just as quick, steer in the opposite direction to counterbalance the violent motion of the boom and sail. Then, turn back on the intended course and get everything under control. If (when) the death roll threatens, do everything possible to head up and keep from capsizing to weather.

Sometimes, on a wet run in big waves you just can’t, or won’t, bear off for fear of the death roll. When this happens, decide to try anyway, S-turn, and quickly proceed thru the gybe and onto a new broad reach to stabilize the boat. Then carefully bear off on the new run.

I have gybed in waves so big the poor little Banshee ran under the back of a large wave and came up full of water, like a bath tub. But, the boat remained stable and under control. Soon afterward, I rolled over on the gunwale on purpose to empty the cockpit.

Heavy Odds and Ends

Remember, in heavy air and really big waves, the Banshee is a very seaworthy boat with a hull designed for coping with white caps. But, it is small and sensitive. So, balance, coordination and control are needed — especially control.

I have sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in strong wind and hugh choppy seas. It was a real workout, but what exhilaration, and no capsizes.