Around the Racecourse, Part 8: Closing Strong
In the eighth installment of his Around the Racecourse series, Steve Hunt keeps us pointed towards the finish line. "Fundamentals" from our October 2011 issue.
The second beat, and in this example, the final leg to the finish, is your opportunity to string together everything you’ve learned throughout the race and finish strong. Your top priorities should be to sail on the lifted tack, and stay in the most wind on the racecourse.
To quickly determine if you’re on the lifted tack, check your compass after you round the leeward mark and compare your heading against the numbers you’ve seen throughout the race. If you’re not on the lifted tack, look for a good lane and tack as soon as possible.
Once you’re sailing on the lifted tack and aiming at the finish, you can relax a little, sail your own race, and start looking around for any other significant racecourse features, i.e., more wind or favorable current. You must also consider how satisfied you are with your position. Top sailors win regattas by having a series of low scores, or “keepers.” If you are up in the front of the fleet, you want to keep it that way. The farther ahead you are the more you should minimize your risk by covering nearby boats.
If you are having a bad race, you may want to take a little more risk and focus solely on sailing the course as best you can given the available lanes. Let those ahead of you make mistakes.
If you’re doing well, say top third, evaluate how you can pass boats ahead, and whether boats behind can pass you. Often, the front of the fleet is pretty spread out, so evaluate possible scenarios before making any decisions. For example, if you are leading the fleet out of the leeward mark, and the next eight boats tack and go the other way, tack and go with them.
We typically have varying levels of confidence in our tactical decisions, so you can factor that in, too. In theory, you should always sail the fastest route around the course in the absence of other boats. But what if you like the right, and everyone behind you goes left? Should you sail right by yourself? No way. If you’re leading the group, position yourself to the right of them (since you like the right), and go left with them.
What if the next group goes right, forcing you to decide which group to stay with? The answer depends on how far back that second group is, and how favored the right is. At some point, if that second group starts gaining on the right, you can tack and go back right since you had confidence in that side to begin with. If the right side really is better, that group will now be closer. It’s all about balancing what you think is right and not splitting too far from potential threats.
If you’re trying to protect your lead, or your place in the fleet, the safest position you can put yourself is ahead and to windward of the competition. From this covering position, you are safe if the wind shifts either direction. In doing so you’re putting your boat between the fleet and the finish line, minimizing risk as much as possible.
Let’s say you are having a tough race and round the leeward mark 15th of 20 boats. Here it does not make sense to cover the few behind you because you need to pass boats. To do so, simply revert to the top two priorities: sail the lifted tack in the most wind available. By doing so you’ll pick off anyone who does not follow those rules.
Many people think it’s best to simply split from the group if they’re behind, going for the “Hail Mary” pass. But if splitting means going the wrong way, it only puts you farther behind.
The better move is to play the wind correctly and patiently wait for others ahead of you to make mistakes. Mentally, it is tough to resist splitting, but you’ll be better off focusing on doing the right thing.
Earlier, I said it’s OK to take more risk, but what I’m talking about is calculated risk, meaning you take a little more leverage to the side you think is correct.
Let’s say the right side of the racecourse was best on the first beat because there was more wind. On the final beat, when you are behind, instead of sailing a conservative 80 percent of the way to the right side, take more risk and sail 95 percent to the layline. You don’t sail 100 percent of the way to the layline when behind because those ahead may tack on you and you want to leave some space for a clearing tack.
As you approach the finish line, you need to determine which end is favored, and do your best to finish at that end. On upwind finishes, the downwind end of the finish line is closer and favored. I figure out the favored end by pretending it’s a starting line and comparing the angles of other boats to it to determine the favored end as if it were a start. Then I finish at the opposite, downwind, end. I do this because it’s easy to figure out the favored end of a starting line by watching others sail across it, or by comparing my own angle to it. When the committee boat end is favored, boats sailing across the line on starboard look really “bow up,” sailing almost perpendicular to the line.
When the line is square, boats sail across at a 45-degree angle on both tacks, and when the pin is favored, boats are sailing more parallel to the line pointing toward the pin. Port-tack boats crossing the line near the pin will look “bow up” with a pin-favored line, and they will look “bow down” if the committee boat is favored.
Another method is to look at the flags on the finish boat and use them to determine the downwind side of the finish line. The flags tend to point toward the favored end. The only downside with flags, however, is that they are hard to see from a distance, and turbulence from the race committee boat can affect their angle. I trust sailing angles most, but with either technique, you should pick the closer end and do your best to finish there.
If you happen to be bow to bow with a few boats at the finish, you can “shoot” the line to gain a few extra feet. Depending on how far your boat will glide in the given conditions, you can steer the boat directly toward the line, gliding across with speed and sailing less distance. Having called many tight finishes, the boats that time their glide will often save critical points.
In conclusion, stick to the basics of sailing upwind on your second beat while factoring in those boats around you. If you are happy, cover. If not, take a little more risk toward the favored side. When approaching the finish, figure out the favored end, and finish there.