From the Experts: Focus on Success

No two races are won the same way, but sticking to this six-point plan will help you win regattas. "From the Experts" from our October 2011 issue.

Andy Horton recently tried his hand at the high-flying world of Moth sailing and relearned a few lessons about what it takes to be at the top.

Good coaches in any sport usually advise their charges to focus on just a handful of ideas when they compete. This advice is especially potent in sailing because there are so many variables. Try to focus on them all, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Putting your emphasis on what’s important will keep you at the front of the fleet. Here are six general rules I keep in mind whenever I compete.

1. Stay in line at the start
Generally, the worst starts are a result of getting to the line too early. All of the other boats are just behind you, and when you slow down to avoid being over early, the trailing boats overlap you and steal your speed and maneuverability. At the gun, you're in the front row, but going nowhere, and everyone else leaves you in the dust. Conversely, if you get behind the line of boats that set up 50 to 20 seconds before the start, you may never get through—especially in light air—and find yourself sucking bad air off the line.

Try this: When everyone starts to line up, get in there and keep your bow even with the other boats. Focus half of your energy on staying in line with the other boats and the other half on determining whether the line of boats is early or late. If you can’t determine where the line of boats stands relative to the starting line, when the guy next to you sheets on, do the same. Nine times out of 10, if you’re in the line of boats and sheet on at the right time, you’ll be in better shape than if you try something else.

** 2. Develop an anti-pack mentality**
Packs of boats go slow. This is especially true in light air. On the starting line, stay to the edges of the packs: maybe it's just to leeward of a group of boats fighting for position at the committee boat, just to windward of a pack trying to win the pin, or on either side of a pack in the middle of the line. Staying on the edge keeps your options open and, more importantly, keeps you from being controlled by other boats. Plus, it usually keeps you in clean air at a very crucial time.

The same principle applies on upwind and downwind legs. When you see a pack forming, get to one side or the other. Tactical issues, such as trying to hold the inside position at an upcoming mark rounding, may determine the side you choose. Regardless, avoid running with the herd.

3. Stay lifted
This is Racing 101, and I'm sure you've read or heard this nugget of advice a million times, but it's always worth repeating. Stay on the lifted tack as much as possible. It's very difficult to predict the wind. The key is to take a little bit of a gain whenever you can and minimize the risk. Sailing on the lifted tack—the one where your bow points more toward the mark—always makes your VMG to the mark, at that moment, at least as good as any other boat out there.

If you’re on the headed tack, you should have a good reason to be going that direction, such as better pressure or a known geographical shift. While you’re on the headed tack, however, anyone on the lifted tack is making better progress toward the mark. There are a lot of reasons to sail a 5-degree header, but there are few good reasons to sail a 20-degree header.

4. Take the under
If you're contemplating a tack, and there are boats coming the other direction, the smart move is to leebow instead of crossing, or letting them cross and tacking on their windward hip, or "hipping up." The boat to leeward, and ahead, always has cleaner breeze. The boat to windward, and behind, is always in a compromised position. There's also a psychological advantage to being the leeward boat. Seeing a boat in the window of your sails tends to make you pinch and go slower.

If you’re thinking about tacking because you’re getting headed or approaching a layline, you’ll want to lead the other boat to the next shift. If you cross them, or let them cross you, before tacking, you won’t be leading your opponent to the next shift. You’ll be following them. An exception to this would be when you’re sailing the lifted tack. If you leebow a boat that’s sailing on a headed tack you’ll obviously end up on the headed tack, too. Then, once the wind shifts and starts to lift, the boat you leebowed will gain because they are closer to the shift.

5. Plan ahead
Before you round a mark, determine in which phase the breeze is in and use this information to formulate your plan for the next leg. For example, if you're on the lifted tack as you come into the windward mark, you'll want to think about jibing after rounding the mark. And if you're coming into the leeward mark on a headed port jibe, you'll want to get on starboard tack as quickly as possible after rounding the mark. Make sure to discuss these plans with your crew before you begin any preparation for rounding. Then execute the rounding that best fits your plan. That means before the crew begins preparing for the spinnaker set while going upwind, and before the takedown begins going downwind. If you decide to continue on starboard jibe after the windward mark rounding, you don't want to get caught low immediately after the mark and risk a trailing boat sailing high and stealing your breeze.

6. Warm up right
A common rule of thumb for sailors is to get to the racecourse at least an hour before the first start, giving you time to learn the course, work on your boatspeed, plan your start, etc. But there's never enough time to do everything. So you must plan your warm-up time to suit the conditions.

If it’s really shifty, sail upwind and focus on learning the maximums and minimums (high and low headings) on each tack, and whether there’s a pattern to the shifts. Sail through a whole phase on one tack, from all the way headed to all the way lifted. When I sailed collegiately on upstate New York’s Lake Seneca, we would have races with 40-degree shifts. On one tack you’d be sailing toward the mark, and on the other you’d be sailing away from it. In such shifty conditions you’re better off spending your warm-up time on learning shifts than on boatspeed. Conversely, if the conditions are such that one side is usually favored, and there might be just a small shift or little bit of a pressure difference, 90 percent of that race, assuming you’ve had a good start, will be boatspeed related.

If you’re slow, there is no way you can have a great race. In this scenario, use your warm-up time to focus on boatspeed. Try to tune with one of the best teams. When they tack, you should do the same to stay with them. Make sure you start the race with a good idea how to set up your boat for the conditions. While doing this, however, keep an eye on the shifts. A timed split with another good team is one quick and effective way to learn the subtleties of the breeze. In those conditions, knowing that passing lanes will be few and far between, I would also practice starting, focusing on details such as accelerating off the line.

If there’s a favored side, practice a start that will set you up for that side of the course. The general idea is to pick an important factor for the upcoming race and practice that beforehand instead of, for example, something more general like spinnaker takedowns or roll tacking. Ideally, by the time you’re on the course, you’ll have those key basics down, and you can focus on what’s most important for the prevailing conditions.

Like anything in sailing, this list is far from foolproof. It’s all about playing the percentages, and avoiding unnecessary risk. Stick to this list—write them down on your deck or review them before each race—and more often than not, you’ll benefit. They will not win you every race—they may not win you any races—but they will prevent you from making many regatta-losing mistakes.