In the Soling European Championships on Austria’s Attersee in 2012, I was in fifth as I approached the starboard layline for the first mark and was pulling away from a German on my hip. A little header appeared and (as I didn’t want to join the layline parade 150 yards from the mark) I tacked, crossed the German, and soon sailed into a back. But thinking that a passage farther toward the port layline would provide clearer air, I held on. By the time I tacked, about five boatlengths below the layline, the wind was veering once again, and when I reached the starboard layline, I had lost all I had gained and had to duck the German. In retrospect, a few simple tactical rules would have kept me in the hunt.
Take what you’ve got when you’ve got it
The weather mark is like a finish line: What you get there, you are likely to keep. Make sure you beat the boats that are astern, while attempting to catch those close ahead.
If the winds are oscillating consistently, one should utilize the last lift until close, but recognize that overstanding is never wise. It is better to tack under the layline (pertinent to that shift) if an oscillation to your side is likely in the minutes remaining. Indeed, if there are but a few boats in contention and the wind is oscillating, one must be willing to sail the shifts right up to the mark. A last second back may permit crossing on port a boat that in an earlier veer was well ahead but sought the starboard layline early.
Catching boats is chiefly accomplished by avoiding the laylines that your competitors regularly seek too soon, by tacking where the air is less disturbed and the lanes less congested, and—most importantly—by being aggressive when making the final tack onto the starboard layline.
Avoid the port layline
The worst way to round a weather mark is to reach the layline—either layline—early, and the worst of the worst is to reach the port layline early. Every crossing boat has right-of-way, and you must accept their tacking directly ahead and close to leeward. Expect to continue in that unhappy condition until you must tack onto the starboard layline.
And—insult piled on insult—you are persona non grata when you reach that starboard layline. The modern rules have made it almost impossible for a port-tack boat to tack into the starboard-tack parade close to the mark. Even a tack ahead and to leeward could be illegitimate as it may require an approaching starboard tacker to luff. And the approaching starboard tacker (who knows precisely where the layline is) is entitled to head down to convince you that you don’t belong there and cannot tack there. Your only escape may be to duck a half dozen crossing boats to find a hole in the column through which you can pass and tack to windward.
One should (almost) never approach the weather mark on the port layline (or within three boatlengths of that layline).
Avoid the starboard layline
Of course, as a consequence of the recognition of the risks inherent in the use of the port layline, “everyone” uses the starboard layline, and, although advised by every article ever written on the subject to avoid it until close to the mark, the majority tack onto it and line up early. But in a big fleet, reaching the starboard layline early is only slightly less onerous than reaching the port layline early. As a line of boats begins to form hundreds of yards from the mark, each boat adversely affects its followers by the cumulative effects of backwind, blanketing, and disturbed water.
When one tacks onto either layline, one abandons all hope of acquiring a subsequent strategic advantage and, until the mark is reached, commits oneself to sailing more slowly than those competitors who have yet to reach a layline. Clear air will increase the speed of—and a shift to their side will shorten the course of—every boat not on a layline, but the speed of every boat on a layline is limited by those in line ahead. The course—a straight line to the mark—cannot be reduced.
Avoid the near-mark picket-fence effect
Of course, every boat does eventually sail on the layline and near the mark, and consequently the picket-fence effect contributes to a marked disruption in airflow. To leeward and astern of a line of boats (and their accompanying blanket zones) for a distance of five mast heights, and to a lesser degree beyond that, the air flow is severely disturbed. Consequently, the third most undesirable place of transit when approaching the weather mark in a crowd is within five boatlengths to leeward of either layline.
Stick to a general plan
In uncongested conditions, pursue an advantage to within three lengths of the mark, but after that tack onto the starboard layline.
In congested conditions, tack onto the starboard layline as late as possible, but not less than five boatlengths/mast heights from the mark; i.e., to avoid the picket-fence effect, one must not approach within five boatlengths of either layline before reaching a position five boatlengths from the other. And by reaching the starboard layline at five boatlengths from the mark, one also avoids the restrictions on the port-tack boat tacking into position and is more likely to find a place to leeward of the starboard-tack parade in which to tack.
As one is sailing along five boatlengths to leeward of the starboard tack parade (or approaching it on port, five lengths to leeward of the port layline), one must be looking for a hole and, before tacking to starboard, deciding on whose bow one intends to tack.
Tack ahead and to leeward of a boat in the starboard-tack parade within five to eight boatlengths of the mark
In congested conditions, this is the means by which one may catch several competitors who were previously ahead. The farther back one joins the parade—although the maneuver itself becomes easier—the greater is the likelihood of loss, the less is the possibility of gain, and the more misery one must accept, and vice versa.
If, when approaching on port, there is no evident opening into which one may tack to leeward and/or if the air is light and/or the current adverse, the only solution is to reach off and wait for a hole through which one can cross the parade and tack to windward of it. And in these conditions—dense crowds, light air, or adverse current—it is far better to give up five (or more) boats, so as to be able to pass through the parade and tack above it. Then one will be to windward when rounding in a position that provides clear air and the opportunity to fill one’s spinnaker and drive over the congealed, airless pack fouling the mark to leeward.
However, in most circumstances—particularly in moderate air, smooth water, and (ideally) favorable current—there will be a hole to leeward into which one may safely tack. Each of the boats in the parade is working to keep upwind of the backwind of the boat ahead, which leaves a space directly astern of the boat ahead, a space that the boat approaching on port should notice and into which it can tack. Such a tack is made into backwind, but in moderate to heavy air, backwind can be tolerated for the five to eight lengths required to reach the mark.
The minimum space essential to the tacking boat must permit the completion of the tack (so that one is on the new closehauled course), either dead ahead or slightly to leeward of the approaching starboard tacker, before the latter is forced to initiate an avoidance move. Although you, the tacking boat, must complete your tack in a manner that permits the starboard-tack boat to avoid a collision, the latter must anticipate your acquiring right-of-way and be prepared to alter course abruptly, if necessary, so as to keep clear.
Know your boat’s capabilities in the wind extant, and presume that—in moderate to heavy air—you can safely tack close under a boat in the parade which is in relatively clear air, is sailing at least slightly above the line of the boats ahead, and is moving at or less than the speed of the other boats. Be wary of tacking to leeward of a boat that is below the layline, is in very disturbed air, and/or is severely slowed by the adverse conditions ahead. So long as you end up with your bow out from under the boat astern, you should be able to hold position for five to eight boatlengths (until the mark is reached), and then you can luff (up to head-to-wind, if necessary) to round.
Ultimately, the only way you are going to discover the techniques required, the risks involved, and the potential gains to be made is to try it a few times.
Shorter distance to the mark, smoother water and stronger air mean that a more daring tack can be used to get into the layline parade.