The Essential Leebow
The Essential Leebow
Jan/Feb 2011 From the Experts: When executed at the right time, the right place, and with proper technique, a leebow tack can be a game-changing tactical move.
What’s more satisfying than engaging a competitor from a weak position, and coming out ahead? For all of you pondering a favorite racecourse memory right now, I’ll bet many of the close, come-from-behind moments you’ve enjoyed started with a perfectly executed leebow. The leebow is a great tactical weapon with which you can gain control from a close, but disadvantaged position next to your opponent.
Leebowing a competitor means placing yourself to leeward and ahead; a position in which your boat’s wake and sails disturb the area where the windward boat sails enough to have it slowly drop back into a weak position. If the windward boat doesn’t promptly tack away, it will end up straight behind, or worse, to leeward. Either way, it’s no longer a threat.
In match racing, the leebow maneuver is used to herd an opponent to the nearest layline where it is forced into a trailing position as the boats approach the mark. In fleet racing, the same tool can be used on one or more boats, and can even be a way to get into a stronger position over a group of boats. However, perform the maneuver poorly, and you’ll be ping-ponged back in the fleet while contributing to your opponents’ top-10 comeback list. Let’s look at how you can put yourself in a strong leebow position, and make the most of it.
First, there are racing rules to consider. Most leebows happen when a port-tack boat can’t cross a starboard tacker and tacks ahead and to leeward. Throughout the tack, and until it’s clear the tack is complete, the port boat is required to give way. On the other hand, the starboard tacker has to limit any course alterations to those that allow the port boat to respond and stay clear. It’s pretty simple, really; starboard makes it obvious what their course is and port has to stay out of its way. The responsibility is always on the boat that changes course last. So the goal is to tack legally, get up to speed, and let nature take its course.
What works, what doesn't
You can always count on alert teams to have the best leebows. To ensure your team knows that a leebow situation is imminent, verbally count down the timing of the tack (i.e., “tacking in three, two, etc.). Either the tactician or the trimmer should be doing the counting—whichever can see the situation best. Pass the responsibility off to the driver as late as possible so he or she can focus on keeping optimal boatspeed.
The goal is to do a normal tack and end up bow-forward and close to leeward. The challenge is to know when to begin the tack. That’s the part that takes practice. To limit the risk of fouling, learn when to start your tack and how to exit with good speed in a strong leebow position.
After the tack, sail in a normal speed mode and be patient. There is no need to pinch. In fact, keeping the normal target speed usually gets you the best height, which is what will ultimately allow you to slow the boat on your hip.
The basic rule of thumb for deciding whether to leebow or duck is your relative position. You will struggle to execute a leebow if you are aft of bow-to-bow in the cross, but sometimes you can tack to leeward and ahead, with as much as a boatlength between, and still affect your opponent. If you’re crossing but want to leebow, tack just before you are straight ahead of your opponent. If you’re not crossing, but advanced on them, get as close as you feel comfortable, legally, and tack there. The important point is to end up bow forward when you are up to speed on the new tack. From there, your clear air and ability to sail your normal course should eventually hurt the performance of your opponent. In underpowered conditions or big waves, this can work. But generally if you are behind bow-to-bow before the crossing, consider ducking the other boat rather than risk getting trapped to leeward on the new tack.
If you're crossing but want to leebow, tack just before you are straight ahead of your opponent. If you're not crossing, but advanced on them, get as close as you feel comfortable, legally, and tack there. The improtant point is to end up bow forward when you are up to speed on the new tack. From there, your clear air and ability to sail your normal course should eventually hurt the performance of your opponent.
Slowing the boat (unintentionally or not) as you go into a leebow tack is a common mistake. Pinching as you get close to the starboard boat reduces your closing speed and allows you to more comfortably pick your time to tack. However, that slows you down, requiring a bigger speed build after the tack, causing the boat to make more leeway, and leaving you in a worse position than a normal tack. This is especially true when it’s choppy. Do not pinch! It doesn’t help.
Team members sneaking off the rail early to be “in position” is another speed-reducer, making a good tack less likely. Likewise, pushing really close to your opponent and then turning faster also slows you down, as well as making you more vulnerable to protest. Trust your teammates. The driver and trimmers need to see the other boat. The rest of the team needs to concentrate on nailing the tack.
Think of it this way…full speed in, full speed out. That’s the winning formula. Practice your leebow tacks to the point that you’re comfortable going into them at full speed.
Typically, it takes roughly a minute to flush your opponent away after a lee bow. The stronger your position (i.e., closer sideways and more bow forward), the faster they’ll struggle and you’ll gain. In lighter and bumpier conditions, when the boats are underpowered, the windward boat won’t survive long at all.
Every boat and situation is different, which means part of the skill set needed to consistently pull off good leebows is the ability to “read” the situation and be sure you have the speed, position, and time to make the leebow stick. I like to think of it from the opponent’s viewpoint. If you exit the situation in a position that leaves your opponent wishing you weren’t there, you’ve done your job!
If you’re close to the port-tack layline, there may not be sufficient time on starboard to peel your opponent after a tack, and you might set yourself up to get pushed past the layline. Or worse, your opponent may tack away as soon as you leebow them, only to set up the same situation again at the impending mark rounding, where there might be a lot more traffic, which puts your team at higher risk of fouling. Be aware of how close to the corner you are.
On the open course, just because you can leebow doesn’t always mean you should. Leebowing another boat leaves you vulnerable to the same treatment soon after tacking. Before you tack, look over your shoulder to ensure you’re not about to tack into a position that will leave you sandwiched with no escape. In addition, remember your overall strategy. If you are on a huge lift and happy to stay there, you’ll often gain more by ducking the starboard boat and staying on the good shift. Keep the big picture in mind.