The key to getting around the top mark clean is to look around early, evaluate how those around you will come together, and plan to avoid the major pitfalls. I’ve made enough mistakes at the top to know that overstanding, bad air, fouling, huge ducks, and the most painful of them all, having to jibe out because you can’t make the mark, never contribute to a successful race. To avoid these race killers—and maybe even make some easy gains—there are a few rules of thumb to follow. If you stick to these rules, you will find the top mark a place to make a move, rather than mistakes.
Monitor the starboard-tack layline
Avoid setting up early on the long starboard-tack layline if you’re working the right side of the course. Unless you’re among the top few boats, enjoying clear air all the way into the mark, tacking on the starboard-tack layline far away from the mark usually nets some degree of loss. This is especially true when port-tack competitors ahead of you come across and stack up on the layline, leaving you in bad air or forcing you to do two clearing tacks and overstand the mark. Neither outcome is good.
If you’re more than a minute from the mark, consider tacking beneath the lead group on the starboard layline, with clear air, usually 30 to 50 yards below the layline. When you set up underneath the layline, make sure you set yourself up with a lane to tack back and get to the starboard layline when the timing is right; don’t tack directly underneath a starboard tacker that can pin you. In this inside lane, you will usually enjoy clear air longer, and, if you do get tacked on, you can do two clearing tacks without overstanding. As you get closer to the mark, the key is to get into the starboard parade before it’s too late. It will be tempting to sit there on the inside lane, enjoying the gains as you get closer and closer to port-tack layline, but if you wait too long, a hole in the parade to tack into will be harder to come by. Get in before all the openings are gone.
Avoid the port-tack layline
Unless you’re with the top few boats, or have plenty of open space to tack around the mark, avoid the port-tack layline. Bad air from any boats sailing the offset leg and setting spinnakers can really slow you down. More importantly, tacking around the mark inside the three-length zone is asking for trouble under the rules. A Two-Turns Penalty certainly does not help your race, so be safe. The smart sailors who come in from the left do so four or more lengths below layline, putting themselves in a position to tack safely outside the mark zone when converging with starboard tackers, and a little farther away from the bad air zone at the top.
Anticipate what others may do
As you get to the top of the beat, it’s important to anticipate how the weather-mark rounding will play out for you and those around you. If you know your competitors well, you can usually predict what most of them will do. The more experienced teams will usually do what is best for them, and the less experienced teams tend to be a bit random. The more accurately you can predict what will happen, the better you can dictate your own mark approach.
Have an exit strategy
In addition to thinking about how you will get around the top mark cleanly, you should be thinking about your downwind exit strategy. Going the right way downwind equates to immediate gains. I like to keep it simple and determine whether I’m going to set the kite and go straight or jibe shortly after setting and go left (looking downwind). In extreme right shifts we may even call for a jibe set, as long as the bad air from those still sailing upwind won’t hurt too much.
Having a plan for the downwind leg is important because it lets the skipper know whether to protect the high lane for clear air, or work low through the rounding, setting up for a jibe as soon as possible. If you want to go straight, you must protect the high lane. If you want to jibe early in the leg, you can sail deep and jibe once clear from the top of the course. Either way, you must pay strict attention to any overlaps while on the offset leg. If your plan is to jibe early in the leg, or jibe set, you don’t want anyone overlapped to leeward, preventing you from jibing, so slow down momentarily, if you have to, and follow into the mark. If you want to go straight, you don’t want anyone above that may eventually roll you. If you’ve got someone stuck on your weather hip, threatening to take your wind, you can delay the hoist for a moment, and head up to protect your breeze. Slow down to break overlaps below or hike hard and go fast to set yourself up for what you want.
If you follow the rules of thumb we discussed you will start thinking about the top mark rounding well before it happens. You will also determine whether you want to set and go straight, or jibe shortly after the mark. Given that information, you will make the best plan to get around the mark clean while avoiding overstanding, prolonged periods of bad air, and race-killing fouls. If you come in from the left side, you will do so four or more boat lengths under port-tack layline. Once around the mark you will make sure you are setting up properly to hoist and sail straight in clear air, or sailing low (“soaking”) to ensure you can jibe early in the run without anyone blocking your escape.
Lastly, if you’re unsure what to do, be safe. It is sometimes mentally hard to do a big duck when you can almost cross someone on starboard-tack layline, but being conservative in those situations is the right thing to do. If a hard, last-minute duck is looking likely make sure the crew is ready for it; ease the sails through the duck so the rudder doesn’t stall, then trim the main in hard to head up and tack. In the Melges 24 we have one crew go legs-in to trim main for these ducks because it is a lot of sheet for the skipper to deal with. If you’re fast, you should be safe with the mindset that you will pass them later in the race. If you’re slow, taking a little more risk from time to time is OK, as long as it is calculated risk and not foolish sailing. A penalty turn is a lot slower than ducking a few starboard tackers. Be smart, sail fast, and pass boats at the top mark.
Read the next installment on sailing a low-risk run here.