Cross 'em when you can
Dr. Stuart Walker suggests two great rules of thumb when sailing upwind (or downwind) in an oscillating breeze. The first is that when you become able to tack and cross ahead of other boats, you should do so. If you don’t consolidate your gain in a favorable windshift, you will lose when the wind shifts back the other way. In the diagram, Boat B gets headed (position 2) and that puts her ahead of Boat A, so she tacks (position 3) to cross ahead of A.
A corollary to this principle is, “Don’t let other boats cross you.” When A sees B tack and realizes that B will cross ahead of her, A tacks to leeward and ahead of B (position 4). This way A will beat B to the next shift. You almost never want to cross behind a boat that is sailing on a lift in an oscilating breeze.
Get an ‘approach’ line sight
A 'line sight' is an invaluable tool for knowing where you are on the starting line. But if you get a line sight that goes straight along the line (from the committee boat to the pin), it may not be very helpful because in order to use the sight you must be exactly on the starting line. You won't be able to see this sight before the start (since you approach the start from below the line) and if you do see it, this means you are right on (or over!) the line. That will not help you approach the start.
A better line sight is one you get from below the committee boat. I call this an “approach” (or ‘safety’) line sight because when you have this lined up with the pin as you approach the start, you know you are on the safe side of the line. If you are two lengths below the RC boat when you get this sight, you will be one length below the line when you're in the middle of the line and the sight is lined up with the pin.
At every start I also try to get a sight with the two ends lined up exactly, but an ‘approach" sight is usually much more useful when I’m below the line.
Hailing for Mark - Room is Not Required
Rule 18 (Mark-Room) begins to apply between two boats when the first one enters the zone at a mark, and it says the outside or clear astern boat must provide mark-room. Note that rule 18 never requires an inside or clear ahead boat to make any kind of hail for mark-room.
There are only two rules in the rulebook that require a hail: 1) Rule 61.1(a) when you must hail ‘Protest’ to another boat, and 2) rule 20 when a boat must hail if she needs room to tack at an obstruction. So a boat that is required to give mark-room must provide that room whether or not she hears a hail.
However, it can be helpful for the boat entitled to mark-room to make a hail to that effect. Even though it is not required, a hail can remind the outside boat of her obligation to provide mark-room, and it can help avoid a messy situation where both boats think they may be entitled to mark-room.
Communication between competing boats is often helpful even when it’s not required, especially in tight situations such as mark roundings. By proactively talking with nearby boats you can often clarify each boat’s rights and avoid risky situations.
Hang back before the start
When you are racing a lightweight dinghy, the boats typically sit luffing near the starting line for quite a while before the start. Then the key is to trim in and get going at the right time.
Instead of sitting so your bow is even with all the other bows, hang back 1/3 or 1/2 a boatlength. This way you will have more room to trim in and go. You can accelerate a couple seconds earlier than the boats on either side of you, which gives you at least two advantages: 1) you won't have to bear off so much to accelerate so you can maintain more of a gap on your leeward side; and 2) if your timing is good you will be going a little faster than the boats that were sitting with their bows very close to the starting line.
This bow-back position is OK because it still allows you to hold your position on the line just as easily as being half a length farther forward. But you have to be careful that you don't accelerate too late – you want to be at least even with the boats to windward and leeward!
How to minimize risk
Don’t take unnecessary chances! If you want to finish consistently near the top of the fleet, you must follow a conservative gameplan. That is, you should minimize risk, or exposure, by sticking to tactics and strategies that have a high probability of success. Of course, there are situations when it’s all right (or even smart) to take a chance, but your general approach should be to avoid risky decisions, manuevers, tactics and strategies. Here are 13 ideas on how you can minimize risk around the race course. If you implement as many of these as possible, your finishes should be more consistently near the top of the fleet.
- Learn the racing rules. Knowing the rules is the best way to avoid breaking any rule. So spend some time looking at the rulebook on a regular basis. Besides reducing your risk, it will put you in a much stronger position tactically and help you stay in control of your race. (Don’t forget your class rules, too.)
- Study the notice of race and sailing instructions. If you really want to minimize risk-taking, don’t ever sail a race without reading all the regatta rules first. This is an easy, foolproof way to avoid the kind of embarassing mistakes that can cost you a regatta.
- Work hard on boatspeed. Improving your boatspeed may be hard work, but it can give you a huge return with no risk at all. In addition, good boatspeed will help you recover from mistakes. It lets you take slightly bigger risks (in search of slightly bigger rewards) while reducing your downside.
- Practice boathandling maneuvers, especially in heavy air. When you’re racing, there is always at least a small risk whenever you perform a maneuver (e.g. heavy-air jibes). To minimize this risk, practice as much as possible, especially in stronger winds, and try to avoid high-risk maneuvers while racing.
- Check over your boat and gear. Another easy way to lose a race or regatta is by having something break. Therefore, if you want to reduce your risk, be sure to check your boat carefully before every race. Pay special attention to areas of high wear like the boom vang, hiking stick, hiking straps, halyards and so on.
- Aim to finish in the top three or five, not first. If you try to win every race, you will probably take too many risks in order to beat all the other boats. A better idea is to aim for the top 5 or so instead. Just as you don’t need the best start to win a race, you don’t need first places to win a series.
- Keep your head out of the boat. To avoid bumps in the road, keep your eyes on where you’re going. Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate. Keep the big picture firmly in mind so you won’t sail into a position where you are left with only high-risk options.
- Avoid close encounters with other boats. If you foul another boat it can be very costly, especially if it’s early in a race. Therefore, in order to reduce risk, keep clear of other boats.
- Be willing to take a penalty. No one likes to admit they broke a rule or do circles in the middle of a race, especially when they’re not sure they were actually wrong. However, when you go to a protest hearing you typically have a 50% chance of losing. So, if you really want to minimize risk, your best move is to take a penalty (720° or yellow flag) at the time of the incident.
- Don’t take fliers. The greater your separation from other boats, the more you are at risk. Therefore, stay away from the corners and laylines of the course, and avoid sailing off by yourself.
- Make a strategic plan and follow it. Much risk-taking results from decisions that are made on the spur of the moment. To avoid this, get out to the course area early, develop a race strategy and use this as your guide for decisions during the race. Of course, you should modify this as necessary during the race.
- Sail the longer tack first. In other words, stay on the tack where your bow is pointed closer to the next mark. This gives you the best chance of success because it will keep you closer to the middle of the course in a position where you can best play the windshifts and handle other boats.
- Cover the boats behind you. When you want to stay ahead of the boats behind you, cover them by positioning your boat between them and the next mark. This will minimize your risk of losing them.
In light air, go for pressure
When you're sailing on a beat or run, the two main strategic factors are usually changes in the wind direction and changes in the wind velocity. Obviously, you want to sail toward the next windshift and sail toward better pressure. But sometimes you can't do both, so which is more important?
In light air, sailing in better wind velocity is relatively more valuable. That's because a small increase in wind pressure will often mean a large increase in boatspeed. When you are sailing in 4 knots of wind, for example, a puff that brings two more knots is huge. In addition, this puff will allow you to sail higher upwind (like a lift) and lower downwind (like a header).
In heavy air, a two-knot puff may not help you go any faster at all. When it's already windy, an increase in pressure is not so valuable. That's why it's usually better to sail for shifts, especially upwind. A very general rule of thumb is to go for puffs in light air and shifts in heavy air. This is especially true when you are sailing downwind.
In light air, go for pressure
The idea of sailing the longer tack (or jibe) first seems so simple, but it's hard to over-estimate the value of this rule of thumb. When you're not sure what the wind will do next, you can increase your chances of success greatly by getting on the tack that takes you closer to the next mark.
The shorter tack takes you closer to the layline, and we know that is usually not a good place to be. By sailing the longer tack, you stay away from the laylines and closer to the middle of the course. This gives you many more options to handle unanticipated windshifts.
It is more important to be on the longer tack when:
1) you are far from the mark. That's because the longer it takes you to get to the mark, the more likely there is to be a change in the wind. It's not so important to sail the longer tack when you get very close to the mark; at that point other things are more critical; and
2) the length of the tacks is very skewed. If you have seven minutes to sail on starboard tack and six minutes left on port tack, it is not so critical to be on starboard. But if you have nine minutes left on starboard and one on port, then it's very important to sail the longer tack. It's simply a question of odds.
Of course, it doesn't always pay to sail the longer tack first. When you know there is better wind pressure in the direction of the shorter tack, for example, you should go for it. But when you're not sure what will happen with the wind, play the odds by sailing on the tack where your bow is pointing closer to the next mark.
Look before you spin
When you break a right-of-way rule, you can exonerate yourself by taking a Two-Turns Penalty (see rule 44). Almost every sailor knows that you must take this penalty by "promptly" making two turns. But before you make those turns, you have to "get well clear of other boats as soon after the incident as possible." A common mistake after fouling is to begin making your turns immediately without looking around. But this leads to two potential problems:
You can easily foul another boat and then you will have to take a second penalty. Remember that while you are taking a penalty you must keep clear of boats that are not taking penalties (see rule 21.2).
You may have to abort your turns in order to keep clear of other boats. This is not only slow, but also may require you to start taking your penalty all over again (if you don't take it 'promptly').
To avoid all this, take a good look around before you begin spinning. You are entitled to time to sail well clear of other boats after the incident (as long as you do that as soon as possible), so first make sure you get to a place where you can make fast, uninterrupted turns.
Oscillating or persistent?
Is the wind oscillating (shifting back and forth) or persistent (shifting steadily in one direction)? This is one of the most important strategic questions you should keep asking yourself during any race. The way you answer this question will have a huge impact on how you play each windshift.
¬¬Consider a boat that is sailing up the first beat on port tack. If that boat sails into a header, should she tack? Not necessarily. It depends on whether her crew thinks the wind is oscillating or persistent. If the wind is oscillating, she should tack because the next shift will come from the left (and a good rule of thumb upwind is to sail toward the next shift). But if she thinks the wind is shifting persistently, she should not tack. In that case her best strategy is to stay on port tack and keep sailing into the persistent shift.
It's critical to have this strategic plan before you get the shift. In other words, don't sail into the shift and then have a discussion about whether the wind is oscillating or persistent. By then it's too late. Be proactive and have the conversation early (and constantly) so that when you get the shift you can quickly respond to it in a way consistent with your strategy.
It ain’t over when you finish! Crossing the finish line may be the end of the race, but it definitely doesn’t end your responsibilities under the rules, and it should mark the beginning of your preparations for the next race. Here is a checklist of things to think about just after you finish the race.
- If you are protesting, inform the RC. This is not required by the rulebook, but many times the sailing instructions modify protest procedure and require you to tell the race committee (RC) at the finish if you intend to protest. Often you must hail the number of the boat you’re protesting (or tell them that you did a 720° turns penalty during the race). Make sure they acknowledge your hail before you leave.
- Look for witnesses. If you might be involved in a protest, try to find any potential witnesses as soon as possible after you finish. This way you can talk to people before they scatter ashore and before they forget what happened in the race.
- Hold a crew meeting to review the race. If you want to improve the overall performance of your boat and crew, it’s essential to spend time learning together. Right after you finish, when the race is still fresh in everyone’s minds, is the best time to pull everyone together in the cockpit to talk about speed, boathandling, communication, tactics and more. All crew are captive on the way in, so use this time wisely.
- Make a list of boat things you need to fix. Ask one person to start a list of all the boat breakdowns and things that need to be fixed or improved. At your crew meeting, ask everyone to do a brainstorm for this list. For each item on your list, write down the name of one person who will be responsible for fixing that item. The list-maker has overall responsibility to make sure everything gets done.
- Get ready for your next race. If you have to start another race soon after this one, I recommend preparing for the second race right after the finish. For example, overhaul your spinnaker gear and re-pack the chute. Sail upwind from the starting line to check your sail set-up and the wind. Then, if you still have time, you can take a break.
- Keep clear of other boats still racing. Once you have finished and cleared the finishing line and marks, the rules require that you avoid any kind of interference with boats that are still racing. Don’t just cross the line and become oblivious to the world – you must keep your head out of the boat and stay clear.
- Record your finish time and sail numbers of nearby boats. Recording all the finishers in proper order is one of the hardest jobs for any race committee. To be safe, assume the RC may miss your sail number at the finish, and make sure you can re-create your finish time or position if necessary.
- Write in your racing notebook. You can learn a lot by keeping a daily notebook of good moves, mistakes (i.e. things to improve), weather conditions, tactics and so on. When you’re done with your post-race crew debrief, find time to write in this log while everything is still fresh in your mind.
- Say “thank you” to the race committee. Usually the race committee does a great job, but they don’t get enough appreciation from sailors. So after you cross the line, go by the RC boat, give them a friendly wave and shout, “Nice job.” Even if you feel they made mistakes, you can still appreciate all the time and effort they have volunteered for the job.
- Compliment your competitors. Another thing that’s not done often enough after the finish is saying “Good race” to your fellow sailors. In particular, compliment any of the top finishers who aren’t usually up there. Or compliment someone who didn’t finish near the top but made a nice comeback or other good move.
Sailing fast and smart is hard enough when your boat stays in one piece. But when something breaks, it can upset your entire rhythm and kill your speed.
Therefore, you must view breakdowns as your enemy. Work hard on your boat in between races, and treat it with respect on the water. When you have more than 15-20 knots of wind, for example, don’t do unnecessary jibes and never let your sails flog unless it’s absolutely essential. If you’re using vang tension upwind, be sure to ease it before you bear off to go downwind. And when you need more genoa luff tension, don’t grind the halyard up with the sail fully loaded.
Below is a checklist of areas on your boat where breakdowns are most likely. Inspect these each race morning before you rig your boat. Better yet, check them a day or a week before your race. If you sail more than one race in a day, go over this list again in between races. When it comes to breakdowns, you can’t be too careful or too prepared.
Hiking straps. On one-design boats, this is #1 on the list because it’s a common disaster. How many times have you seen or heard about someone going overboard because their hiking strap broke or came untied? Check all your straps for wear: especially inspect the attachment fittings, lines and knots.
Rubber hiking stick universal. If you have a tiller with a rubber universal, check this regularly (especially in colder weather) for cracks. Use the type that has an internal wire in case the rubber cracks. In hot weather, put sunscreen on the universal to slow aging and drying due to the sun.
Sheets and guys. Check over all running rigging to make sure no lines have worn spots where they might break. If possible, turn your sheets end for end every so often, like rotating tires on your car. On smaller boats, attach sheets by tying. If you use shackles, make sure these are working properly.
Halyards. Broken halyards are another common failure. Check the full length of halyards for chafe marks, burrs, etc. Look especially at points where the hoisted halyard sits on the sheave and where it connects to the shackle. Put a two-block mark on each halyard so you won’t grind it into the sheave.
Boom vang. The vang takes a lot of abuse, so be sure to check it frequently for wear and tear. Look for frayed line or wire, and problems at the attachment points on the mast or deck and boom.
Spinnakers. Even a small hole in a chute can turn into a blowout, so inspect your spinnakers carefully for holes, tears or bunched-up seam threads.
Turnbuckles and mast fittings. In heavy air, the strain on your mast and shrouds is huge, so don’t risk failure here. Make sure all turnbuckles and pins are tight and secured. Tape tightly around all fittings and sharp edges to keep them in place and prevent tears and injuries.
Battens. Check your mainsail and jib battens to be sure that a) they are not broken; b)?the correct (more flexible) ends are inserted first; c)?the inboard ends are centered in the elastic; and d)?the pockets are securely closed at their outboard ends.
Rudder fittings. Gudgeons and pintles are common heavy-air victims, so check to be sure these are secured tightly. Inspect each closely for stress cracks.
Outhaul. Examine the wire and car/shackle assembly closely. If you don’t have a flattening reef fora backup, I recommend using a small piece of line as a safety.
Winches. Clean and lubricate your winches on a regular basis, especially before sailing in heavy air. The last thing you need is to have one of your primaries seize up just after the start of a windy race.
Spare equipment. One of the best and quickest ways to repair a breakdown is with a spare, so consider carrying extra essentials such as a winch handle, guy, running backstay and spinnaker pole (especially in heavy air when breakdowns are more likely and extra weight won’t hurt you so much).
Ditty bag. Check your ditty bag to make sure all essential tools and supplies are there.
First aid kit. Be sure you have all necessary first aid supplies in case of human breakdown.
Your sails are a big investment that require lots of tender, loving care. So don’t even think about powering upwind with your mainsail flogging, walking on genoa bags, or drying your chute while it is draped all over the boat’s rigging.
There are three reasons why every sailor should take good care of his or her sails. The first is to maintain their fast racing shape as long as possible. The second is to prevent sail failures that could cost you a race or series. The third is to reduce the cost of replacing sails.
Whether you race a one-design or a bigger boat, here is a checklist of ideas on how to preserve the racing life of your sails.
Avoid flogging as much as possible.
The best way to maintain the strength and shape of your sails is to minimize the amount of time they flap in the breeze. Flogging breaks down the sail material. Don’t, for example, let your jib luff while you are having lunch in between races. It’s much better to drop a sail than to let it flap. If your boat is overpowered, don’t just let your sails luff. Bend your mast, flatten the sails, hike out, put in a reef – anything to keep the boat flat without ragging the sails. Besides helping your sails, this will make you faster, too!
Roll your sails carefully every day after sailing.
Sails will stay fast a lot longer if you minimize wrinkling and creasing. On one-designs, always roll your main and jib and store them in tube bags. Make sure you don’t fold or squash the bags either. I’ve even rolled the Kevlar main on a 40-footer, but it’s OK to flake the sails neatly. Spinnakers should be folded neatly and loosely if possible.
Don’t exceed a sail’s recommended wind range.
On most one-designs you don’t have to worry about this because sails are made to cover the full wind range. On bigger boats, however, where sail loads are much greater, be sure the maximum apparent wind speed for each sail is written on its clew in big numbers, and always try to change sails before you exceed this number.
Check your spars and rigging regularly for sharp edges.
Reduce chafe by taping all cotter pins, turnbuckles, etc. Pay particular attention to the front of the mast, which claws at the jib leech on every tack, and the area where the vang attaches to the boom, which is notorious for chewing on spinnakers as they come down. Also make sure you have good protection on things like spreader tips and stanchion tops.
Never use an overlapping genoa without spreader patches in the right place.
When you hoist a new genoa, check the spreader patches before you tack. If they’re in the wrong place, or missing, measure and mark the correct patch location(s). Then take the sail down and apply the patches before using it again. Other places where chafe patches will help include the forward part of the main (where it rubs against the shroud or spreader when running) and the foot of the genoa (where it rubs against the stanchion tops).
Keep your leech lines taut.
Leech flutter, like flogging, is detrimental to sails. Always keep your leech lines just snug enough to prevent a humming or flapping sound. On jibs and genoas, keep the leechline tucked away in its pocket, so it won’t catch on the rigging during a tack. On mains, be sure to replace lost or broken battens promptly to minimize flutter.
Give your sails a complete check-over before and after every regatta.
With all sails it’s important to inspect stitching, especially in areas of potential chafe such as spreader patches. On spinnakers, look over the whole sail carefully, since even a small hole could be the start of a large tear. If you have laminated sails (e.g. Mylar or Kevlar), check them for areas of delamination. Most sail problems can be patched temporarily with “rip-stop,” but you should have a sailmaker make permanent repairs.
Use an older suit of sails for practice.
Whenever boatspeed is not your first priority, save your best sails. In general, the fewer hours you have on any sail, the faster it will be. When you are practicing, train your crew to develop an appreciation for sail care – and cost!
Store your sails dry, clean and not too hot.
Wash your sails with fresh water when they get salty, and be sure they’re completely dry before storing them for a long time. Never let sails flog when drying. Instead, lay them out flat on a lawn. On a calm day, hoist the sails on your rig and wash/dry them in place. Beware of drying spinnakers from your mast, however, as they can easily catch on rigging and tear. Also, protect your sails from sun and heat. Don’t leave them in the sun any longer than necessary, and avoid putting them in hot places like car trunks.
Tack at the median
Most racing sailors know that when the wind is oscillating you should tack on the headers. But when exactly should you tack? Should you wait until the wind shifts all the way to one side (and you are sailing the maximum header), or should you tack sometime before then?
In theory, you should tack when you are headed to your median heading. In an oscillating breeze, the goal is to sail on the lifted tack all the way up to the windward mark. If you wait to tack until you are headed as much as possible, this means you will be sailing on headers for a good part of the beat (you are sailing on a header whenever you continue past the point where you are headed to the median). By tacking when you reach the median, you will always be sailing on a lift, and you will get to the next shift sooner.
Tacking at the finish line
Many sailors don't realize that rule 18.3 (Tacking in the Zone) applies at an upwind finish just like it does at a windward mark. Rule 18.3 is the rule that was added to discourage boats from approaching the windward mark on port tack. But it also limits what port tackers can do when finishing near the pin (port) end of the finish line.
In the situation shown here, the Blue boat (B) tacks on the lee bow of the Green boat (A) so she can beat A to the favored pin end of the line. When B gets near the mark, she "shoots" the line and beats A. It's a common way for races to end.
But let's look a little closer here. The two boats were approaching the pin end mark on opposite tacks. Blue tacked inside the zone and was fetching the mark, while the Green boat entered the zone on starboard tack. Therefore, rule 18.3 applies and puts several limits on the tacking boat (B). Since B caused A to sail above closehauled, B broke rule 18.3. This is a little-known application of the rule that comes into play fairly often at upwind finishes.
Use a blocker
When you're racing upwind, it's important to sail in clear air!! On starboard tack, a good way to protect your lane of clear air is by using a “blocker.”
A blocker is another boat on starboard tack that’s to leeward and bow out on you (one-half to one boatlength ahead of you in the race). You want to have this boat in a position to intercept incoming port tackers that otherwise might lee-bow you (and force you to tack out of your lane). With a blocker in place, the incoming boats will either have to lee-bow the blocker or duck behind the blocker and go behind you too. This will leave you free to continue sailing in your lane.
One good way to get in the proper position with a blocker is to duck behind a starboard tacker (while you're on port), go two or three boatlengths and then tack on their windward hip. Now boats that might have lee-bowed you will be intercepted first by your blocker.