Iron Mike's Guide to the Leeward Mark

What does one of the most explosive boxers in history have to offer regarding leeward mark roundings? More than you think.

Sailing World

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"What do you mean I don't know anything about rounding the leeward mark?"

Maybe you view the leeward mark the way a 20-year-old Mike Tyson viewed the boxing ring: an battlefield where you spend a minimum amount of time and inevitably depart with your hands held high in victory and your opponent(s) prostrate on the canvas awaiting medical attention. If so, read no further.

Maybe, however, you're more like me. I view the leeward mark much in the way a 30-something Mike Tyson viewed the boxing ring. At that stage of his career, Iron Mike generally entered the squared circle with the best of intentions—if you can call mashing some guys nose into his face that; but I understand, it's a job, and, hey, we all gotta eat—but the results were a mixed bag. Sometimes, he'd emerge victorious after a hard-fought battle, sometimes he'd wobble out to the melodious sounds of concussion birdies chirping in his ear, sometimes he'd come away with a piece of his opponent's ear clenched between his teeth.

Now I can’t say that I’ve ever headed upwind wondering whether my opponent would taste better with a little more salt, but I’m all too familiar with going into a battle knowing exactly how it should turn out and emerging afterwards wondering where it all went wrong.

Last night is a prime example. We rounded the leeward mark twice during the third night of Newport's 2011 J/24 series and, in both cases, came out in a similarly compromised position.

Given our positions going into the mark, I’d give the first rounding a B-plus, the second a D. And this brings up an important point. Sometimes, much of your fate is determined by how you arrived at the mark—whether you’re on the outside or inside of the pinwheel, ahead or behind a clump of boats. Sometimes, the best you can hope for is to be sucking bad air, in a bad lane, and hemmed in by other boats.

In both races last night, that’s how we came out of the leeward rounding. Both times, we struggled to survive in a poor lane. Both times, we had an opportunity to escape, but missed it because we (mostly I) were too busy lamenting how we’d landed ourselves in this unfortunate predicament. Yes, in other words, I was bitching about the past instead of focusing on the future. Someone should tattoo that on my forehead, or maybe the inside of my eyelids, so I’d be more likely to see it at the right moment.

In Race 1, we lost an inside overlap around 7 boatlengths from the mark and had to round outside a logjam of boats. We effectively squeezed the boat inside of us into a poor rounding and were able to maintain our speed with a wide rounding while the boat directly in front of us luffed up sharply and slowed down. We were able to go bow forward on the boat that rounded ahead of us, but were too close to tack and in the bad air of the boats ahead. Given where we started, it was about the best we could’ve hoped for.

In the second race, we had the inside position and we’re in fourth in the race. But the rounding was too wide, and when combined with a slight height issue that plagued us all night, we quickly slipped to leeward of the line of boats ahead of us and into bad air. Meanwhile the boat that rounded behind us was able to hold the line and gradually pull even.

During the latter rounding, the solution, in hindsight, was obvious. As soon as we rounded the mark, and realized we were slightly below the line of the boats ahead, we should’ve tacked. At that point, we had enough room over the boat behind us to tack and cross. Even if we were intent on getting to the right side, the distance lost to two clearing tacks would be less than what we endured by sailing in a bad lane, going lower and slower than anyone in clean air.

In the first race, a quick tack after the mark wasn’t an option. We were pulling even with the boat than rounded ahead of us, but were a long way from tacking and crossing. We would have, however, had the starboard advantage if we found the room to tack. The strongest move would’ve been to round wide and aggressively foot to gain enough space to tack and not foul for tacking too close. We tried to do that after a minute of sailing, but by then the moment was long past. All we got was a “How do you like me now?” slam dunk.

We rounded the mark with a speed advantage—which the bad air would eventually neutralize. We needed to use it while we had it by footing off, tacking, and coming back at that boat on starboard. A second option would be to gain enough space to tack and then duck behind the boat on port and get into clear air. The distance lost in that maneuver would still have been less than spending any significant amount of time sailing in bad air, which is exactly what we did.

The common theme is awareness, seeing opportunities and taking advantage of them before they vanish. The seconds after a leeward mark rounding are the most chaotic onboard many boats. You can take advantage of this if you're prepared, if you're not too caught up in the mistakes or rotten luck of the recent past, and—it goes without saying—if you're not too busy tenderizing a piece of your opponent's ear.