December 1, 2007 Physicists know the secrets of sailing that many novice sailors do not. A boat does not go fastest when the wind blows from directly behind it, but when the wind comes from the side. With the sails at the correct angle, the force of the wind stays constant, and can allow the boat speed to exceed wind speed. The fastest possible speed of a boat is called the hull speed, which relates to the amount of water the boat displaces.
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If the cold winter months have you dreaming of sand, surf, and wind blowing through your hair, now may be the time to plan a sailing vacation.
“It’s an excuse to get out on the water, somehow there’s just this natural attraction we have for water,” Bryon Anderson, Ph.D., Nuclear Physicist at Kent State University, said.
A clear day and a breeze is all Dr. Anderson needs to do what he loves most -- sail.
But, Dr. Anderson isn’t just an avid sailor, he’s also a nuclear physicist, who knows how applying a few basic principles of science helps make sailing easier.
Many newbie sailors want to know how to sail faster. A common mistake is sailing straight down wind, but when the wind is directly behind the boat, it will never sail faster than the speed of the wind.
“The fastest direction to sail is with the wind coming from the side,” Dr. Anderson said.
With the wind coming from the side and the sails turned at about a 45-degree angle, the force from the wind stays constant -- no matter what the speed of the boat is. This is the fastest way to sail.
“Very light, very quick sailboats can actually sail up to two times faster than the wind speed with the wind coming from the side,” Dr. Anderson said.
But even fast sailboats have a top speed, called hull speed. As a boat moves, it generates patterns of waves that get longer in length until just one long wave is left along side of the boat. This long wave limits how fast the boat can travel.
“The boat is literally sailing uphill, and it gets very difficult to increase the speed,” Dr. Anderson said. Sailing uphill may sound challenging, but having a better understanding of why it happens may help make your next sailing trip a breeze.
BACKGROUND: Knowing a basic science concept can help make you a better sailor, according to Bryon Anderson, a physics professor at Kent State University.
SAILING ABCS: The fundamental principle of sailing is quite simple: the sails catch part of the wind, send that energy down to the hull, and this drives the vessel forward. But in practice, it’s far more complex a process. Effective sailing is all about how well the sailor balances three basic forces that act on a sailboat as it moves forward. First there is the driving force, caused by the wind flowing across the sail; constant trimming of the sails is required to maintain the small angle to the wind and make the best use of this force. Working against the driving force are the sideways force and the heeling force. The key is to find the ideal trim for the sails to maximize the driving force while minimizing the sideways and heeling forces. The best way to do this is to let the sail out so it flaps in the wind, then pull it back in until it only just stops to flap and generate the perfect drive.
FORCES FACE OFF: The sideways force results because the wind pressing into the sail doesn’t just spread in the forward direction, but also off to the side; the faster the boat is moving, the smaller the sideways force. The same force that the wind presses into the sale also gives rise to the heeling force, acting upon the hull to heel the boat. The boat’s keel and the weight of the load serve to counter the heeling force and prevent the boat from capsizing, especially during challenging upwind maneuvers.
OUTRACING THE WIND: Lots of boats can sail faster than the wind ---especially 18-foot skiffs. Ask a sailor how, and he'll say that these boats are so fast that they make their own wind. This is true. But ask a physicist, and she'll say that it's just a question of vectors and relative velocities. Downwind is easy. If the wind is 10 knots, and the boat makes 6 knots in the same direction, then the crew feels a wind of 4 knots coming over the stern of the boat. The true wind equals the speed of the boat plus the relative wind. As the boat speed approaches the wind speed, the relative wind drops towards zero and so there is no force on the sail. So you can't go faster than the wind. When the wind is at an angle, we have to add vectors representing these velocities. The faster that the boat goes, the greater the relative wind, the more force there is on the sails, so the greater the force dragging the boat forwards. So the boat accelerates until the drag from the water balances the forward component of the force from the sails. In a fast boat, there's no point going straight downwind: you can never go faster than the wind. So you travel at an angle.