Nailing the Second Lap

The second lap of a windward-leeward racecourse is just as important as the first. Look for more opportunities for clear passing lanes.

sailing
Before you start the second lap, prioritize what you learned on the first: Where is most wind? What’s the shift pattern, and where’s the fleet? Get in phase before going into offensive mode.Sharon Green

While many sailors are holding on for dear life, trying not to get passed on the second lap of a race, the clever sailor is licking his chops with excitement, because one lap of data is pure gold to the tactical sailor as he or she can more accurately identify what type of racecourse they’re dealing with.

We all know we’re supposed to try and figure out the racecourse before the start, identify the type of conditions in which we’re sailing, and make a game plan. Is it an oscillating breeze or a steady breeze? Is there a land-induced geographic shift? Is there favorable current on one side? Where is the most wind? What racecourse feature will pay the most? Figuring it all out is easier said than done, but after one lap of sailing, where boats have spread out all over the course and come back together a couple of times, we have much more information to better manage the second lap.

As you approach the leeward mark you’ve already thought a little bit about your upwind plan, right? If you round the closer upwind gate, and are heading the way you want, you’ve hit a leeward mark home run. If you’re forced to the other gate because of traffic or position on the run, its best to get clear of the boats coming downwind and then head the direction you think is best. To quickly determine whether 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. Not sure what’s best? Keep it simple and stick to the basics: Sail in the most wind available on the course and sail toward the mark.

With these rules of thumb in mind, once you round the leeward mark, get on the long “lifted” tack as soon as you can. The first lap should have given you an idea what the lifted and headed compass numbers are. If you’re lifted, keep going, if you’re headed, tack as soon as possible given the downwind bad air and water scenario. The larger the fleet, the longer you’ll have to wait to get away from the crowded bottleneck of the gate, then get on the long tack.

If you want to keep things at the most basic level, consider that, more often than not, what paid on the first lap will pay again on the second lap. If you go with this mindset, you will do well most of the time, but if you want to be correct more often, (and you need to be if you want to win) you should take it a step further and accurately identify “why” something paid on the first beat and use that knowledge to sail a smarter second lap. Sail the long tack, or head to the racecourse feature that paid on the first beat. The best tacticians in the world are incredibly observant and you should be, too. During the first lap, in addition to observing what happens to you by watching your compass and feeling the wind, keep your head out of the boat and notice what happens to others. Boats spread out across the racecourse are extremely helpful in figuring out shifts and breeze strength, as well as gains and losses from current. As boats come back together toward the top of the course, it’s easy to see gains and losses. Having an idea of who went where and how they did really helps decipher the course. As the run develops, you should be observing as well. Is the same side of the racecourse paying on the run or are opposite sides paying?

As you are about 80 percent of the way down the first run you should decipher what’s paying. You can figure this out by asking a few questions: Was the first beat shifty or did one side pay? If one side paid, was it because of more wind or better current, or maybe both?

Then figure out why the leaders gained. Are they ahead because of more wind? Better current? Geographic shift? Was it one big shift? Did they play the shifts? Did not much happen and they are just faster? As far as your boat goes, how much was your compass changing during the beat? How was the wind for you? Did it change as you moved around the course? What side paid downwind? Was it the same side of the course that paid upwind? When identifying what is paying, you should also observe by how much. Is the fleet tight or really spread out? Did the same side pay downwind?

One big shift is usually a blowout where one side comes in far ahead of the other. Will it happen again? Or is that the big shift toward a sea breeze? Or is there a thunderstorm approaching? When it’s shifty, it’s all about sailing toward the mark and playing the shifts. More wind is often about a side, same side upwind and downwind. Current is often about a side, and changes from upwind to downwind.

The second lap of a racecourse is a wonderful opportunity to go the right way, tactically. Before the race, you developed a game plan and did your best to implement it. So when starting the second lap, you should have much more knowledge on what is working, rather than what you thought may work. Many sailors have trouble with the second lap. The average sailor often lets others determine their fate, or they focus on beating their rival above all else. The top sailors have a different mindset: They’re on a mission to move forward in the fleet. If they happen to be doing very well in the race, they may focus more on staying between their competition and the mark, while also factoring in what paid the first lap and hedging that way.

If you are having a bad race, you may want to take a little more risk and focus 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, and go left with them.

What if the next group goes right, forcing you to decide between the two? The answer depends on how far back that second group is, and how favored the right is. 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, revert to the top two priorities: Sail the lifted tack in the most wind available. 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 and wait for others ahead to make mistakes.

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 was best on the first beat because there was more wind. On the final beat, when you’re 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. 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.