Racing marks are turning points where all the boats in your fleet try to squeeze into one small spot. For this reason, mark roundings often produce large traffic jams, and the potential for gain or loss is great. With a bit of tactical knowledge, you can sail smarter than the others and, hopefully, turn most potential losses into gains.
Definition -- The rulebook defines a mark as any object that the sailing instructions say you must pass or round on a required side. This includes the ends of the starting and finishing lines, all the turning marks, government buoys that must be regarded, and so on. Whenever you are approaching a "mark," all the mark-rounding rules come into play, and these will have a large influence on your tactics.
When You're Ahead
At the weather mark, the biggest gains and losses are usually made just before you get there. So it pays to be very "smart" in your approach. A bit of tactical expertise will often improve your position relative to the competition and set yourself up well for the next leg
Unless you are converging with a boat on the opposite tack, the regular mark-room rules apply. This means that when two boats are approaching on the starboard layline, the leeward boat can get mark-room. The windward boat may be able to prevent this by reaching down and clamping on a tight cover. The idea is to give the leeward boat enough bad air so she falls astern before you get to the mark.
Frequently, a boat that's on the starboard layline (S) will converge with a port tacker (P) near the mark. P would usually like to tack on S's lee bow and beat her around the mark. To prevent this, S can often bear off a few degrees before she gets within two boatlengths of P. This effectively "closes the door" and forces P to take S's stern.
Starboard roundings -- A starboard rounding at the windward mark can get pretty messy, and that's why most race committees avoid this kind of course. If you find yourself on a starboard course, try to approach the windward mark on starboard tack. A port-tack boat is at a big disadvantage here, not only because starboard boats have the right of way, but because they can alter course as they round the mark.
To jibe or not to jibe -- When you come around the windward mark onto a run, the big question is whether you should do a bearaway set or a jibe set. This choice should be based on a combination of strategic and tactical factors. If port tack is favored on the run, or if you are in a right-hand shift as you come around the mark, a jibe set may be your best bet. This will also get you to the inside and is the best way to maintain clear air if there is a big group of boats behind.
A bearaway set, on the other hand, is the more conservative choice. It's much easier to maintain boatspeed during this set because you don't have to turn as sharply and the spinnaker set is not so complicated. You also stay on starboard tack, which gives you rights over half the boats still beating to windward. So unless you are sure that a jibe set is the right move, go with the tried-and-true bearaway.
1) If possible, give yourself at least a few boatlengths on starboard tack before the mark so you will have time to get your spinnaker ready for the next leg.
2) Use your sails and crew weight to help the boat turn and bear off around the mark.
3) Remember that you have the right to turn onto a proper course to the next mark, even if this suddenly puts you on a collision course with non-right-of-way boats still on the beat.
The Jibe Mark
Rounding a jibe mark is usually a bit more straightforward than either a windward or leeward mark. However, there are a few tactical moves worth considering:
Getting or breaking an overlap -- When approaching a jibe mark, the leeward boat has an advantage because she will be inside at the mark. The key is maintaining that overlap until the two-boatlength circle. The windward boat can often break a small overlap by heading up just before the circle.
Jibe before the mark -- Like other roundings, the ideal course around a jibe mark is to swing wide and then cut close. The best way to do this is to complete your jibe (get the pole on the mast) before your bow gets to the mark. That way you can head up higher as soon as you get around. This will often let you sail over the top of other boats that have slipped low because of trouble with their spinnakers.
The "S" turn -- In heavy air, you have to modify your jibe slightly so that you steer a shallow "S" course. This keeps the boat from heeling too far to leeward just after the boom comes across.
The Leeward Mark
The primary goal for leeward mark roundings is to put yourself in a good position for starting the next beat. Obviously, your first choice is to round ahead of all the nearby boats, so you will have clear air. That's why it's worth fighting for an inside position as you approach the mark.
The ideal rounding -- Whenever possible, make a classic rounding where you swing wide on the near side and cut close on the far side. The object is to be on a closehauled course before your bow gets to the mark. This way you will not lose any distance to leeward as you start the beat.
If there is a boat close behind as you go around the mark, you may want to "stuff" slightly as you round. Pinch up above closehauled for about a boatlength to make sure your competitor cannot get clear air behind you. This will also keep open your option to tack. Be careful, however, of slowing too much and letting the other boat punch through to leeward.
If you are on the outside as you approach the leeward mark, swing wide to make an ideal (tactical) rounding. The object is to be slightly to windward of the other boat's transom as you go around the mark. One advantage you have is that the inside boat cannot make a tactical rounding -- she must take no more room than is required for a "seamanlike" rounding.
Planning Ahead -- One of the toughest situations in any race is when you come around the leeward mark right behind another boat. Your crew is usually scrambling around the boat, your boatspeed is minimal and you're in bad air. Now what should you do?
A good leeward mark rounding begins when you start thinking about your strategic plan for the upcoming beat. Has the wind been shifting? Where is the most velocity? Which side was favored on the first beat? You shuld answer all these questions and settle on a strategy well before you get to the leeward mark.
Once you have a strategy, you must execute your mark-rounding tactics in order to implement that strategy. You basically have three choices when there is a boat right ahead of you:
OPTION 1 -- Tack right around the mark: This is obviously a good tactic when you think the left side is favored. It's also a good way to get clear air quickly. However, there are two disadvantages. First, you must tack when you are going slowly and still recovering from the rounding. Second, you are tacking right into the bad air and/or water of the fleet behind. If possible, hold on for a few boatlengths before tacking to minimize interference from other boats.
OPTION 2 -- Continue on the hip of the boat ahead: If the boat ahead goes a little wide and you have a good rounding, you may be able to hold on in clear air. This is a good option because you don't give up any distance and you can continue right while maintaining the option to go left.
OPTION 3 -- Reach off for clear air to leeward: When the right side is heavily favored, the best way to get clear air may be to reach off below the boat ahead. This is much better than trying to pinch above his bad air. One of the times when this tactic works best is in light air when you are on the outside of a pack. Hold your spinnaker until the last moment and reach around with your air clear in front of the other boats. Of course, this tactic means you must sacrifice a good bit of distance to windward, so don't use it unless the strategic benefits will make up for this loss.
As a famous old salt once said, "The race isn't over until it's over." One of the most demoralizing ways to end a race is to lose a close battle right at the finish line. When you work hard the whole race, you have to keep sailing smart all the way to the finish in order to assure your position. Here are some suggestions:
Upwind -- At an upwind finish, the favored end of the finish line is the end that's farther to leeward -- on the lower ladder rung. This is the opposite end that would be favored if this line were being used for starting. Note in this diagram that the white boat crosses ahead of the black boat, but the black boat gets to the finish line first because he goes for the favored pin end.
At almost every finish line, one end or the other is favored. Just as with the starting line, it's almost impossible to have a perfectly square line. That's why you should almost always finish right at one end. The farther you are from the favored end, the more distance and time you are giving up.
If you're not sure which end is favored, there are several things you can do:
1) Try to look at the finish line (if it is set) when you sail by it on other legs of the course.
2) Watch the boats ahead and see where they finish. Especially when two boats are close together, the chances are good that they will finish near the favored end.
3) Finish on the tack most nearly perpendicular to the finish line. If boats are finishing on port, the starboard end is favored, and vice versa.
4) Postpone your decision by staying inside the triangle that's between the laylines to each end. This way you will be able to get as close as possible to the line without overstanding either end. When you get to the intersection of the two laylines, simply head for the end that is closer.
Once you know which end is favored, think of that end as a weather mark with its two laylines. Ignore the other end of the line and its laylines to simplify matters. Of course, it's best to make your final approach on starboard tack, as that will give you right-of-way over nearby boats.
"Shooting" the line -- If you have a close finish with another boat(s), you should always shoot the line so you cross it perpendicularly. Begin shooting when you are one or two boatlengths to leeward of the line; this distance will vary depending on the ability of your particular boat to maintain its momentum in the existing wind and sea conditions.
Since you usually want to finish at one end of the line, you should shoot the line as close to this end as possible for close finishes. To do this, approach the line on a course that's one or two boatlengths to leeward of the layline to the favored end. This will allow you room to shoot the line and finish right at that end.
Downwind -- When you are finishing on a run, you follow most of the same principles for finishing on a beat. The favored end is now the one that's farther upwind -- on the higher ladder rung. Finish right at this end, and remember to "shoot," by bearing off perpendicular to the line, just before you get there.