From the Archives: The Essential Leebow

When executed at the right time, the right place, and with proper technique, a leebow can be a game-changing tactical move.

©2015 Martinez Studio
A well placed leebow can create a huge tactical advantage in any race.Martinez Studio

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Your best leebow defense

The basic defense is to tack away, get up to speed and tack back. Wait until the port boat has completed its tack underneath you, and then tack away. If you still want to go left, as you were before the encounter, then get to speed and tack back. Now you have a blocker to take care of any future leebow situations, and they cannot cross you. You're in control.

Remember also that just because you are the starboard boat, doesn’t mean you have to use your starboard tack rights. If you are bounding along, heading the way you want and happy to stay on your tack, the last thing you want is someone stealing your lane by leebowing you. Think ahead and make a plan.

One possible option is to let the port boat cross, especially if they are close to crossing anyway. This works early in the leg when you are trying to escape the pack and sail your shift. Have the crewmember that’s most visible to them wave them across and call, “Okay,” or, “Go Ahead!” Do this early enough so they can process it, turning down at the same time making it clear they can cross. If you are close to the port-tack layline, there’s no need in letting them cross (thereby giving them control going into the mark), particularly if there are no other close competitors. But when you’re happy to keep going straight on the open course, it can work well to wave other boats across.

When the port-tack boat is in a weaker position, and therefore controllable, an effective leebow defense is to sail a few degrees lower and build extra speed. Put the bow down a little with a small ease of the sails when you are 10 to 20 seconds away from getting leebowed. Your speed comes up, and the closing period shortens between the two boats, putting increased pressure to tack on the port boat. Be sure to hold a constant course as the boats gets close. When the other boat commits to its tack, trim back in to normal upwind settings and gently return to your upwind course. The extra speed developed can propel you to a position that leaves you unsusceptible to the effects of the leebow. If it doesn’t work, you can tack away with no real loss.

Leebowing from starboard tack

The trickiest leebow maneuver is tacking under a port-tack boat. The starboard boat has rights, but also responsibilities. The goal of this move is to get the port boat to commit to turning down to duck the starboard one, and then tack before it gets too close. The challenging part is to avoid fouling the port boat by tacking too close. As a starboard boat, remember that you can’t make any turns that leave the port boat with no option to avoid you. You also have to finish your tack before they have to avoid you as a new port tack boat yourself.

Generally, when you leebow a port-tack boat, you have to start your turn earlier, which can leave you uncomfortably far to leeward when you’re back up to full speed. So you should plan to allow more time to scrape off your opponent after the tack (presuming that’s your goal). Also remember to be full speed in and full speed out.

One of the very coolest moments in sailing is when, after a lee-bow, you realize that your opponent is not going to tack away immediately. This allows you the few seconds you need to get up to speed. As your opponent slows, and then tacks away, you can often match immediately, or a length later, and finish in a strong position abeam and to windward. If you listen carefully, you might even hear the last person who gets on the rail of the leeward boat say, “How’d they do that?”

Good luck. Have fun with this, and remember to keep those smiles of satisfaction to yourself so you’re not the next target.