David Dsilo2


Dave Dellenbaugh Sailing

David Dellenbaugh is a champion helmsman, tactician, author, coach, rules expert and seminar leader who has spent his career helping sailors sail faster and smarter.Here are the learning resources that he has created to help you improve your racing skills.

Beginning to Race

Racing sailboats is a mental chess game. It's a challenge that is hard to turn down; a way to measure your own abilities and how much you have learned. Racing will definitely improve your sailing skills.  Sooner or later anyone who is really keen about the sport will want to get beside another boat and give it their best.  

The first sailboat race was sailed many years ago. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, however, almost all sailing boats carried either cargo or arms. During the latter part of that century, boats became privately owned and the sport of yacht racing grew quickly. It was, in fact, ten years before the start of the Civil War that the schooner America sailed around the Isle of Wight and won the Hundred Guineas Cup, better known as the America's Cup.     

Competitive sailing has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. The 1987 America's Cup, for example, was watched all over the world by millions of viewers. And it is estimated that nearly half a million people currently race sailboats in the United States alone.      

The sport of yacht racing is organized worldwide by a body called the International Sailing Federation (ISAF). Each country has its own sailing authority as well. In the U.S., for example, the U.S. Sailing Association oversees most of the racing that takes place.

Types of Racing

Depending on the type of boat you sail and where you live, there are a number of different ways that boats compete against each other.

One-Design -- Almost all racing in smaller boats is what's called "one-design", and it takes place at yacht clubs or other sailing centers. In this type of racing, all the boats are (theoretically) the same, so the first one across the finish line is the winner. Each class has rules to control the equality of the boats.  The fun and challenge of one-design racing is that winning in equal boats requires skill, not more money or a fancier design.

Handicap -- To race boats of different sizes and designs together there are several different handicap systems.  Boats are given ratings determined by measurements of hull and sails, by their predicted speed or by past performance.  A faster-rated boat gives a specific amount of time per mile to a slower boat.  With a known course length, the time each boat takes to sail the course is recorded, and the corrected time is calculated by adding the time allowances to determine an overall winner. In handicap racing, the last boat across the finish line might win the race.       Various handicap systems have been developed to best meet the needs of different types of sailboats including grand prix ocean racers, older racing boats, cruising/family boats and one-design boats of different classes.  The Portsmouth Handicap System allows different one-designs to race against each other and is the only system you'd ever use for a small boat.

The Typical Race

Every race and series is governed by the international racing rules, by class rules (if applicable) and by written sailing instructions that are drawn up specially for the event.  The rules describe the signals and procedures that the race committee will use to run the races.  The class rules specify any measurement requirements and may require certain safety equipment to be carried.  The sailing instructions give you the specifics of your race or series including the schedule of events and races, the racing area, the course configuration, what the marks will look like, time limits, safety considerations, etc.  Often at the beginning of a regatta there will be a "skippers meeting" to provide additional information and answer questions.      

Before your start, the race committee will post the course and set up a starting line, usually between a flag on their boat and a buoy.  Visual and sound signals are used to count down the time to the start, beginning with a "warning" signal (usually 5 minutes before the start), followed by the "preparatory" signal (four minutes to the start) and then the starting signal.     

The typical smallboat course goes around a series of buoys, the first of which is directly upwind from the starting line. This is called the "windward" mark, and it forces the competitors to start to windward and tack up the first leg, creating close racing.  Depending on the type of course you are sailing, the next mark will be either a "jibe" mark or a "leeward" mark.  If you go to the jibe mark, you will reach out to the mark, jibe around it, then reach down to the leeward mark.  If you go straight to the leeward mark from the windward mark, you will bear off onto a run.  After the leeward mark, you will beat back to windward.

Ingredients of Success

In order to be successful at racing, a sailor must have a wide range of skills. Consider the America's Cup, for example. In a serious campaign, the actual sailing is only a small part of the program, perhaps as little as 10-20%. The rest is spent raising money, designing and building the boat, getting in shape, repairing the boat and so on. A lot of people have pointed out that Dennis Conner is not the world's best helmsman; however, he is right up there when it comes to planning and executing America's Cup campaigns.      

There are basically five areas where the typical sailor must concentrate in order to improve her or his racing performance: Preparation, Boathandling, Boatspeed, Strategy and Tactics.

Preparation -- Preparation includes everything you must do before your race committee blows the first gun. Among the most important elements of preparation is making sure your boat will hold together. I can't count the number of times I've seen a race lost because of a breakdown.  All your blocks, lines, cotter pins, etc. should be checked to ensure that they are in good working order.  Regular maintenance, cleaning and replacement of worn parts is essential.      

Careful preparation of your underwater surfaces is also very important.  The hull, centerboard and rudder should be clean, smooth and fair.  Fill in nicks and gouges so you minimize disturbances in the water flow.

Organization -- Organization is an all-encompassing term that is integral in sailboat racing.  How will we get the boat there?  Do we have all the pieces?  Spare parts?  Tools?  When do we have to be ready to sail?  Where will we stay?  Who's in charge of the food?  Do we have our lifejackets?  sails?  paddle?  In my sailing I use several checklists to make sure I don't forget anything.  This lets me concentrate more on the actual racing. 

Boathandling -- Boathandling refers to how the skipper and crew handle their boat in maneuvers like tacks, jibes, mark roundings, spinnaker work, etc.  Large gains  (and losses) can be made during these maneuvers and again, practice is the key.       

The various boathandling maneuvers should become second nature so that you can concentrate on the race around you. Imagine rounding the windward mark in first place with the rest of the fleet right on your heels.  POP!  Your crew expertly sets the spinnaker, it fills and off you go on a plane, leaving the fleet in your wake to battle for second.  Without the ability to execute this perfect set, you would have a lot of company for the remainder of the race.      

Crew training should be a big part of pre-race preparation, since it is usually too hectic in the middle of a race to discuss calmly the best way to take down the spinnaker.  Set up times when you won't be racing where you can concentrate on practicing new maneuvers and smoothing out any boathandling areas that have given you trouble in recent races. 

Boatspeed -- As you get more racing experience, you may notice that  the top sailors not only get good starts and have good boathandling, etc. they are also just plain fast.  This boatspeed comes from a combination of variables such as rig tuning, sail trim, steering technique, boat preparation, etc.

Rig tuning refers to the position of your mast and the tension of the shrouds and backstay. These factors control mast bend and, in turn, affect the shape and efficiency of the sails.  Subtle changes in sail trim controls such as sheets, leads, outhaul, cunningham and vang will also optimize your sails for the conditions.       The ability to steer a boat well, especially in wavy or choppy conditions, is one of the secrets to good speed and also takes much practice.  Knowing when and how much to head up or off to avoid a wave, or how to trim the sails when you can't avoid a wave is a fine art.  Other factors affecting boat speed include the fairness of the hull and foils (no weeds or barnacles here!), minimizing windage (especially in the rigging), and sailing in clear, undisturbed air (away from other boats).       

Don't worry if this seems overly complicated at first.  You can always get general guidelines for tuning your rig and trimming your sails from class members, sailmakers or magazine articles.  As you become more familiar with your boat and are more competitive in your racing, you can begin to experiment with boatspeed variables on your own.

Strategy -- Strategy is your plan for how to get around the race course as fast as possible. When formulating a strategy, you have to consider wind, current and sea conditions.  For example, you want to figure out if there is a pattern in the wind.  Is it shifting back and forth (oscillating) or is it gradually shifting in one direction (persistent)?  Where is the most wind?  What is the weather (and wind) forecast?      

Current can also play an important role in your strategy.  Sailing in the S.O.R.C. (Southern Ocean Racing Conference) off the east coast of Florida, it can often be advantageous to sail a much longer course to get out to the Gulf Stream which may be pushing you northward at up to four knots!  Knowing the direction and strength of the current on all parts of the course is valuable information.

Sea conditions are often an overlooked aspect of strategy.  Does one side of the course have smoother water?  Does rougher water indicate more favorable current, a longer fetch for the seas to build up, or shallower water?  Part of your preparation before a race is to accumulate this information so you will have a game plan to follow once the race has begun.

Tactics -- Tactics are the tools you have for executing your strategy in a fleet of boats. The object is not to let other boats get in the way of your plan. Some of the questions you must deal with continually are: How do you position yourself relative to the other boats?  Can you control where your closest competitors go or prevent them from getting toward the favored side?  How can you minimize your risks?  What rules take effect when boats come together?

There are books and articles galore on tactics, but the best experience is lots of racing and observation.  You will gradually build up your own repertoire of tactical moves for each situation that arises.

Rules of thumb for racing

No matter what kind of racing you do, here are a few rules of thumb that we suggest.

  1. Get out to the starting area early -- at least an hour before your start if possible. Use your time to:
    • accumulate information on the wind current, and sea conditions 
    • check on your sail trim and tuning, possibly by sailing upwind with another boat
    • check on the course, locating the marks if possible be sure everyone knows their assignments on the boat
    • warm up with some tacks and jibes  
    • figure out which end of the starting line is favored
  2. At the starting gun, you should be on the line, moving with clear air. This is the most important thing, especially when you are just starting to race.
  3. Sail in clear air:  In order to sail at full speed, your wind must be undisturbed by other boats. Every boat has a wind shadow of "bad air" that extends several boatlengths to leeward and astern. If you are in bad air, you need to clear it by tacking or reaching off slightly.
  4. Stay away from the laylines:  The laylines are the imaginary lines that lead to the weather mark on port and starboard tacks.  Don't get to either layline too early.  The reason is that if you sail beyond the layline, you have "overlayed" the mark and wasted distance.  Also, you will lose distance to the competition if the wind shifts in either direction.  And if you are on the layline when another boat tacks in your air, you'll have to sail all the way to the mark in bad air.
  5. Stick to the rhumblines:  The rhumbline is the straight-line course between two marks. On a reach or run, the rhumbline is the shortest distance between two marks, and it is fastest to follow this course whenever possible.
  6. Cover when you're ahead:  When you want to protect your lead, position your boat so you are between your competition and the next mark. This minimizes their chances of catching you.
  7. Find the "upwind groove":  You'll know when your boat is going fast upwind because it will feel right. The boat seems balanced and is easy to steer, usually with a slight weather helm. This is called being in the "groove."
  8. Avoid collisions:  Even when you have the right of way, one of the basic concepts of racing is to avoid collisions.  Too much damage can be done and it will ruin the fun for all involved; besides, getting tangled up with other boats will slow you down.
  9. Watch the good guys:  No matter what else you do, keep an eye on the sailors who are very experienced. This will teach you more than anything else. If possible, get a crewing job with a good sailor. This is the best way to learn quickly.
  10. Keep a notebook:  After every race, write down what you learned about boathandling, tactics, windshifts, tuning and sail trim.  Make notes of things you did well and things you need to work on, and review these with your crew.

Critical Parts of the Race

There are certain parts of most races that require a little extra concentration:

The Start

    1. Determine the favored end:  Unless the starting line is set exactly perpendicular to the wind, one end will be further upwind and therefore will give a boat starting at that end an advantage.;
    2. Use a range:  To determine how close you are to the line at the start, get a line sight (or "range") prior to the start by lining up both ends of the starting line with an object on shore. When in the middle of the line, you know that you are right on the starting line when one end of the line and your range line up.
    3. Objectives at the start:
      • Be near the line but not over at the starting signal.
      • Have clear air and be moving fast
      • Start near the favored end
      • Be able to follow your strategy for the first leg.  If you saw more wind on the right side of the course, for example, don't start at the left end of the line.
    4. Danger areas at the start:    
      1. Big crowds at the favored end.  If you see a pack of boats hovering near the favored end, start down the line a little to avoid the traffic jam.
      2. Don't be over early.  If you are over the line early, you must return behind the line while staying clear of other boats.

Windward Legs -- Follow the strategy that you formulated before the start. Keep your air clear and work on boatspeed. Use other boats as guides for speed and windshifts. It seldom pays to sail way out to one side of the course.

Leeward Legs -- Keep your air clear of the boats behind you and pick a sailing angle that maximizes your VMG (velocity made good).  Sometimes you can gain by sailing at a higher angle, going a faster speed over a longer distance, especially in light air. Toward the end of the leg, position yourself so you will be inside at the leeward mark.

Mark Roundings -- Going around a mark is usually exciting because all the boats come together and try to jam into the same little spot.  Boathandling skills and rules knowledge are very important here. In general, you should always round the mark close enough so you can reach out and touch it.


    1. Determine the favored end:  Unless the finish line is exactly perpendicular to the wind, you should always finish at one end.
      • when finishing upwind, the end that is further downwind is favored 
      • when finishing downwind, the end that is further upwind is favored
    2. "Shoot" the line:  In close finishes, the quickest way to finish is to go head to wind ("shoot") just before you reach the line, so you cross it on a perpendicular heading with full momentum.

 Sportsmanship and Rules

There's one more important area that you should understand before you go out there and start racing.  This has to do with the racing rules. The yacht racing rules have developed over the years not only to help avoid collisions,  but also to make racing fair.  Like any sport, rules are necessary to establish a common ground of understanding and keep the "game" under control.  Imagine football without referees!      

Sailing is one of the few sports where competitors themselves enforce the rules, so whenever you feel that a rule has been violated, your response should be to protest.  If the offending boat does not accept a penalty, then the matter is presented to a protest committee after racing is done.  This is a bit like a court hearing with both sides presenting their case and the protest committee (or jury) applying the appropriate "laws." The basic racing rules are fairly easy to understand. Whenever two boats converge on the race course, they are related in one of four ways:

        1. On opposite tacks  Boat on port tack must keep clear of boat on starboard tack.
        2. On the same tack - overlapped   Windward boat must keep clear of leeward boat.
        3. On the same tack - not overlapped  Boat that is clear astern must keep clear of boat that is clear ahead.
        4. One or both boats changing tack or jibe  Boat that is tacking or jibing must stay clear of a boat on a tack.
These basic rules will handle most simple situations between two boats. Remember that the right-of-way boat must hold her course so other boats can keep clear. When you are ready for more complicated rules, get hold of the IYRU rulebook. Do everything possible to increase your understanding of the rules -- read books and articles, watch a rules videotape, and ask other sailors or judges about specific incidents.  It is in everyone's best interest to educate oneself and other sailors to keep the sport fair and fun.       This chapter has obviously only covered a bare minimum of what goes into successful sailboat racing. If you have been bitten by the bug, you'll want to get hold of many other, more in-depth, instructional resources. And you'll want to get a lot of on-the-water experience.