It’s easy to overcomplicate sailing because it can be a pretty complex sport if you want it to be. Buying fast sailboats is obviously a fool proof method for increasing your speed, but what if you don’t have the budget and need to rely on your skills to gain an advantage? That’s why come race day, I stick to three rules that keep me focused on the things that really matter. These rules that have never failed me, and I continually drill them into the young minds of the Point Loma High School sailing team. And if the rules can work for a bunch of fast-sailing teenagers, then they ought to work for you, too, right? Let’s review them one at time.
Sail in More Wind
If you ask someone who has never been on a sailboat, what makes a sailboat fast, they could probably tell you without much thought, “sail in more wind.” That’s true, and it amazes me how many racing sailors do not give this one fact utmost priority. If you gain nothing else from this article, please make “sailing in more wind” your top priority this year.
How do you do it? Remember this basic tenet: dark patches on the water represent more wind. Wearing polarized sunglasses really helps you see the distinction between puffs and lulls on the water. Before a race, I like to stand on the boom and scan the course for the most wind—if you’re dinghy sailing, simply stand up to get a higher vantage point. Ben Ainslie looks for wind when he’s at his highest point during a roll tack in his Finn. Just as he hits the hiking straps and is fully extended in the air, he gives the course a quick scan.
The key here is to be constantly asking your self, “Am I sailing in the most wind available?” If not, make a change.
Having an open lane (with no other boats disturbing the wind in which you’re sailing) gives you more wind as well, probably more than you can imagine. Wind follows the path of least resistance; it will flow over and around groups of boats, just as it does around a building or a mountain. The key point to remember is: the bigger the group, the greater the effect, so avoid packs of boats, and you’ll have more wind. That’s pretty simple, right?
If someone tacks or jibes on you and closes down your lane, don’t sit there going slow; do something about it and find a better lane. Often, people sailing in open lanes appear faster and you wonder whether it’s their sail trim or sailing technique that’s giving the edge. It’s not—they have more speed because of their lane. (Think of it like driving on the freeway: when you’re stuck in a cluster of cars you can only go so fast, while the guy in the open passing lane is blazing past.) The only time I consider sailing in a bad lane is when the wind is very shifty and the potential gain from the next shift outweighs the loss of speed from sailing in bad air. A 20- to 30-degree shift with pressure may justify sailing in bad air briefly. The other 98 percent of the time, make sure you’re sailing in a big lane.
Sail to the Mark
Now that you’re sailing in the most amount of wind and avoiding big packs of boats, you should be sailing toward the mark.
Typically, your heading on one tack or jibe will point your bow more toward the mark than the other. This is the lifted tack upwind and the headed jibe downwind. The fundamental rule of thumb is to tack on the headers upwind and jibe on the lifts downwind. Doing so puts you on the “long tack” to the mark. The greater the windshifts, the easier it is to see which tack is longer. Sometimes, if the course is set well and the wind direction is steady, it’s difficult to tell which tack is favored. If that’s the case, you’ve got one less thing to worry about because each tack is pretty even, so stick to Rule No. 1.
If the wind is shifting or the course isn’t square, which happens often, I always ask myself, “If I were to tack or jibe right now, would I be aiming more toward the mark?” This helps me make sure I am always on the long tack. If I am not sailing the long tack, I make sure there is a very good reason. Actually, because I adhere so much to the above rules, an internal alarm goes off when I’m not sailing toward the mark. “Warning, warning, you are not sailing towards the mark. You better be right because this is often bad!” The longer I sail away from the mark, the louder the alarm.
When do you not sail toward the mark? There are, of course, exceptions to the long tack rule (as with any other): You can sail the short tack when: You’re sailing toward more wind, getting a better lane, or sailing towards a significant gain, such as favorable current or a geographic shift. The other exception is sailing into a heading persistent shift, but these are somewhat rare. The exceptions occur about 10 percent of the time, the other 90 percent of the time you should be sailing toward the mark.
Keep it Simple
Keeping it simple means avoiding crowds, not tacking or jibing too much, and avoiding drama. Most good races are clean and simple. Minimizing maneuvers is pretty straightforward—they often slow you down, so doing fewer of them will help you go fast. In other words, sail straight and sail fast.
Drama can rear its ugly head in a myriad of situations. By way of explanation, I’ll give an example of something all too familiar. You’re sailing downwind on starboard jibe. You’re in a nice puff and aiming towards the mark. Life is good. Then, there’s a boat approaching on port that can almost cross you but can’t quite make it. Rather then heading up to go behind them and waving them across, you holler, “Starboard!” and at the last second, you bear away, crash jibe, and hail, “protest.” You get tangled up with the port boat, and after a bit of arguing they spin, while you jibe back onto starboard and continue on towards the mark. Nice job. Now what exactly did you just gain?
You may have won the skirmish, but you’ve made an enemy and lost sight of the big picture. While you were messing around, exercising your rights as a starboard tack-yacht, and feeling good about yourself, the rest of the fleet was sailing fast toward the mark. The point is: minimize the drama and have fewer maneuvers. You’ll get around the course in less time (you’ll also have more fun and maybe even pick up an “I owe you” for later.)
Next time you find yourself looking for a game plan, or stressing too much about the minor stuff like the jib-lead position, or one turn on the lowers, make sure you are in the most wind and aiming at the mark before you do anything else! You don’t have to be perfect; just stick to these three rules and you’ll find yourself on the podium more often.
Pro Tip for How to Sail Faster
What if you’re on the long tack but there is more wind somewhere else. Should you leave the long tack for more wind? This is often a tough call, and you have to weigh the gain from the wind versus the gain from staying on the long tack and heading towards the next shift, if any. These types of decisions are tough, and you have to do the best you can and base your decision on what you’ve experienced. If you don’t think the wind will shift back much, go for the wind; if the long tack will take you toward a nice shift, stay on the long tack.