Mark roundings always seem to be a frenzy. They bring the whole fleet together into one small area, and this means there's usually a lot to gain or lose. You can probably remember, with great satisfaction, at least a few times when you slipped inside a big pack at a leeward mark. And I'm sure you'd like to forget a few other times when you were caught in the pack and let everyone round the mark inside of you.
Rounding marks is an art that requires a learning attitude and a lot of experience to perfect. Fortunately, the mistakes you make along the way will help you get better and better at turning tight mark rounding situations into race-winning opportunities. Here are some moves from my own racing notebook:
At reaching and leeward marks
The Last-Minute Twist. One of the most important parts of any mark rounding is gaining or breaking that critical overlap as you approach the two-boatlength circle. If another boat is close behind, there are several ways to prevent her from getting an inside overlap. The simplest and most effective is to make a substantial course change away from her just before you get to two boatlengths. Remember that you have to break the overlap before you get to the two-boatlength circle. Once you've reached the circle, hail "No room" and go back to your original course for the mark.
One move that's effective when you have a leeward boat stubbornly holding onto an inside overlap is to slide down as close as you can on top of her so the effect of your bad air is maximized. Another trick is to slow down and let that boat sail into your wind shadow. If your timing is right (several boatlengths before the mark), you can arrange it so the other boat will slow and you will surge ahead just before you get to the two-boatlength circle.
Surfing Style. The stern waves created by a boat ahead present both good and bad news as far as getting an overlap from astern is concerned. The good news is that you can often catch up to a boat ahead by riding up her stern wave diagonally toward her transom. However, it's usually very difficult to get over the final wave just off her transom. Often your best bet for an overlap is to slide farther to leeward and try to break through the wave where it's not so big.
Getting mark-room on boats ahead. If you're coming into a mark behind a pack of boats, watch carefully where the outside boats begin their turn to go around the mark. Often the boats on the outside of a pack will turn for the mark when they're still wide of the zone. When this happens, you often gain an inside overlap on them and are entitled to mark-room. If this happens, yell loudly to the boats that you're overlapped with, since they usually aren't planning to give room to you.
Using a Lookout. If you're on a bigger boat that can tolerate a little weight in the ends and there is any doubt about whether you have an overlap or are overlapped, have a crewmember ready to run to the bow or stern and sight abeam. It's much easier for someone on the bow to call an overlap than for a skipper, who's steering in the middle of the boat. In addition, if the incident ever finds its way into the protest room, many juries will be impressed if you've made an effort to do this.
The Conservative Approach. Whenever an overlap is in question, the onus of proof is on the boat that claims to have gained the advantage at the last minute. For example, if you're clear astern and you get an overlap just before the boat ahead gets to the two-boatlength circle, you'll have to prove this should the matter be brought to a hearing. Therefore, no matter how right you think you are, don't force your way inside if the other boat isn't inclined to give you room. Instead, swing wide, take her stern, and protest if necessary. Granted it will be hard to win such a protest unless you have good witnesses, but if you muscle your way inside, it will be at least as hard to avoid being thrown out.
One of the most important considerations as you approach a mark is establishing your position relative to the other boat when you are still several boatlengths away. A conversation might run as follows:
You: I have an inside overlap.
Them: You can't call for room yet. We're not at two boatlengths.
You: I know that. I just wanted to point out that I have an overlap now. Do you agree?
Them: I guess so.
Once you get the other boat to agree that there is an overlap, then the onus will be on her if she claims to break it before the two-boatlength circle.
Hailing Not Required. One of the most common misconceptions about mark roundings is that the inside boat is required to hail for buoy room. I was judging at one protest hearing where an outside boat had forced an inside boat to crash into the leeward mark head-on. When asked why he had failed to provide room, the skipper of the outside boat admitted that there was an overlap, but said that he hadn't heard even a peep from the other boat. You can probably guess what action the jury took.
A hail is not mandatory when two boats are rounding or passing a mark. The rule says simply that if there's a boat inside of you, you have to give mark-room -- it doesn't make this obligation conditional on a hail. However, a hail can be helpful in establishing your rights if you're gaining or breaking an overlap, or if an outside boat isn't giving you enough mark-room. So it's usually a good idea to be vocal.
The Early Takedown. Once you get to the zone, the fight to gain or break an overlap is definitely over, and it's time to start going around the mark. In the first race of the 1985 Congressional Cup, we were just ahead of John Kolius as we approached the leeward mark with only one short windward leg to go. We were so obsessed with not letting him get an inside overlap, however, that our takedown was late and our chute wrapped around the shrouds as we hardened up. Kolius, meanwhile, had taken down earlier, swung wide, and rounded inside of us. We sure learned our lesson: If in doubt, take your spinnaker down early. The amount you can gain by keeping it up a little longer is usually not worth the chance of screwing things up.
When Slow is Fast. Remember, you should pass close enough to reaching and leeward marks to reach out and touch them. It almost never pays to be any farther away. Doing this means you will often have to kill some of your speed so you can round right on the transom of the boat ahead. There's nothing that says you have to keep driving around at full throttle all the time, and this is often a perfect chance to practice slowing down Perhaps the best technique to use is our favorite brake, the rudder, to oversteer back and forth.
The Buzzard Approach. When you're slowing down and waiting to round behind another boat, don't put your mind on hold as well. There's always a chance that the boat ahead will make a wide rounding and give you a chance to sneak inside. You have to adopt a buzzard's mentality and position yourself so you're always ready to grab any scraps the other boats may throw your way.
The Squeeze Play: Of course, you have to watch out for all the buzzards behind you. It can be a major inconvenience if a boat astern thinks that just because you swing a little wide there will be room for her to squeeze between you and the mark. A simple, "There's no way in the world you'll ever fit in there!" is usually good preventive medicine if it's done early enough.
Jammin': If you round a leeward mark right ahead of someone, consider pinching up immediately to be sure that the other boat won't get clear air on your hip. Just make sure that you don't head up so much that you stop dead and let the boats behind roll through you to leeward. This can work at the jibe mark as well, especially if the second reach is tight. Have your spinnaker trimmer keep the new guy tight and luff the sheet while you head up hard to establish a windward position. (Luffing the spinnaker also makes it easier to get the pole on.)
At windward marks
The Tempting Port-Tack Approach. A port-tack approach to the windward mark is a foolish idea. Right? Well, not always. Assuming that you're rounding the mark to port, the odds are pretty good that most of the fleet will end up fighting for a spot on the starboard layline. Approaching the mark on port tack can be a great way to avoid lots of dirty air, disturbed water, and bad attitudes.
There's only one slight snag, and that has to do with who has the right of way. When boats are approaching a windward mark on opposite tacks, port tackers must stay clear of starboard tackers; the mark-room rule doesn't apply, and there's no guarantee that there will be a hole ready and waiting. So a boat on port is definitely taking a chance.
Some sailors don't feel this risk is worth it and choose to fight the starboard-tack battle. However, if you're a port-tack approacher at heart, or if you just happen to find yourself there once in a while, I have one suggestion: Instead of sailing into the mark right on the port layline, come in at least four boatlengths to leeward of it. This way you won’t have to tack inside the zone, and you’ll stay farther away from boats that are already on the reach.
"Closing the Door." If you're on port and trying to squeeze in ahead of a starboard tacker, watch out for a defensive move that I call "closing the door." As the two boats approach each other, it's common for the starboard-tack boat to bear off toward you (even to the point where she's headed below the mark) and ease her sheets slightly. Now, in order for you to tack underneath her, you'll have to do it sooner and farther away from the starboard layline than you really want. As soon as you begin to tack, the starboard-tack boat will head back up toward the mark. If she executes this move correctly, she'll just make the mark and you'll end up below the layline -- with a lot of regrets.
Remember that if you're the starboard-tacker trying to close the door, your alteration of course toward the port tacker must be done far enough away from her so that you give her room to keep clear.
The Value of an Inside Overlap. When two boats are approaching a windward mark on the same tack, then the mark-room rule applies between them just as it does at reaching and leeward marks. However, it's usually much less critical to get mark room at a windward mark.
Let's say you're approaching a mark on the starboard layline. You're going pretty fast, and just before you get to the zone, you gain an inside overlap on a boat ahead of you. You're excited because now you're entitled to room, but the big question is, do you really want room? If the next leg is a reach, you don't want to be stuck below another boat without the option to set your spinnaker in clear air or go high if necessary. If the next leg is a run, then being on the inside might be helpful, especially if you've decided that you want to jibe right away.
Two Boats on Port. If you're making a normal port-tack approach and there's a boat overlapped to windward of you, the rules say you must give her room to tack around the mark. If this other boat is clear astern on your weather quarter, then you don't have to give her room, but you must be careful when tacking for the mark. If you don't think you can tack in front of her without tacking too close, your best move may be to luff up toward the mark. This will force her to bear off across your stern, at which point you can begin your tack.
Spinnaker Pole Strategy. There are only a few times when you can be too prepared in a sailboat race, and getting your spinnaker pole up is one of those times -- at least on dinghies and smaller one-designs. When your crew moves to put up the pole you will most likely lose speed, pointing, and maneuverability, not to mention concentration. Unless you're sure you'll still fetch the mark without all these, wait.
There are other reasons why it may be better to save your pole for later. If you're going onto a reach, it's often a good idea to sail high without your spinnaker for a minute or two. This is a perfect time to put up the pole. If you're going onto a run, it's very easy to set the pole as the chute is going up. Again, this applies to small boats; on larger boats, deciding when to set up the pole depends on a number of other factors.
In order to avoid big losses, you sometimes have to be overly conservative. When you see half the fleet hitting the mark or jibing around below it, sail well past the layline. When you think you can make it, go a little farther. It's certainly better to sail a boatlength or two extra now than to hit the mark and lose 10 boatlengths.