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Working the Gate

Terry Hutchinson offers his expert advice on rounding leeward gates. From our August 2001 issue.

October 31, 2001
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For nearly a decade, leeward gates have been used to reduce congestion at the leeward mark. Before race committees started using gates, the tactics were simple if you were leading: Protect the inside. But today, gate tactics are more complicated than that. Now you have to ask yourself, “Which gate is closer? Which way do I want to go up the next beat? Where’s the traffic?”

If you’re the boat behind and you have the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to gain. If you choose the correct mark and work the traffic flowing through the gate, you’ll make up distance quickly.

How do you determine which gate is favored? Most race committees will set the gates early. Before the start, you should sail upwind to a position abreast of the gate. Line the marks up using a hand-bearing compass. If you’re doing this from the starboard or right-hand side of the marks and the bearing is 90 degrees, then you know the gates are square for a true wind of 180 degrees. Do a quick head-to-wind shot and determine the bias of the gate. As tactician, I write this down on the boat near my upwind numbers so I know which gate is favored compared to the true wind direction.

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Sometimes the race committee won’t set the gate until after the start. This makes it harder to tell which gate is favored. Tactics and strategy aside, the best way to select the favored mark is to judge which mark appears to be bigger. If both marks are identical in dimension, the mark that appears to be bigger is closer. I like to ask my crew for their opinion to help confirm which gate looks favored. If both marks appear to be the same size, formulate your strategy for the upcoming beat.

Prioritizing the upwind leg

After you devise a game plan, decide which side of the gate will allow you to execute it. For example, if you want to go to the right side on the next beat, round the left gate mark. If you want to go left, round the right gate mark.

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At the Acura SORC in Miami this year, the right side of the Farr 40 course was heavily favored. It was so favored that we spent the last mile of the beat on the starboard layline. Knowing this, for the next beat I wanted a position that would allow me to continue on port toward the favored right side, so I tried to get around the left-hand gate mark (looking downwind).

If you can’t decide which side of the beat is favored, round the left gate mark. When you need to tack after the rounding, you’re tacking onto starboard with right of way. Let’s say you round the left gate mark at the same time as a competitor rounds the right gate mark. Then you both tack; now you’re on starboard and they’re on port. If the gate was square to the wind, you’ll have right of way, and they’ll have to duck you. Then you’re a length ahead.

Also, if you have a bad rounding at the right-hand gate mark, you may not be able to tack if you’re pinned by boats that rounded behind you. They’re on starboard, and you’re tacking onto port.

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So far, the process of choosing which mark to round might sound easy, but I’ve rarely been in the position where the decision’s so easy to make. When you’re in the thick of the race, traffic can change everything.

Tactics in traffic

Most people deal with traffic every day on their commute to work. I’ll bet some of them have shortcuts that are longer in miles but faster because there’s less traffic. The same principle holds true at the leeward gate.

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The lead boat has the most options. But the trailing boat has plenty of choices as well. If you’re close astern there are a number of tricks you can use to get ahead. First, block the lead boat’s wind. If you’re successful, you may be able to force it into a slow rounding or away from the gate mark that you want to round.

Because the leader has so many options, it’s easy to make them doubt their decision if you make it appear you want to round the opposite mark. Sometimes they’ll be indecisive and switch marks at the last second just to stay ahead of you. Once they’ve committed, turn and head for the other mark.

If you’ve managed to confuse them, you may get the favored mark. Or you may force them to make a boathandling error. Even if you don’t, you’ll have clear air at the opposite mark. Follow the leader around the same mark only when it leads to a heavily favored side of the course. Make sure there’s enough space between the two boats so you don’t have to tack out immediately to clear your air.

In the Miami example, the right side of the beat was favored and everyone knew it. The fleet fought for the left gate mark and this made for a lot of extra distance sailed in dirty air at the bottom of the run. Boats lined up and waited their turn to round the gate mark. If you chose the right gate mark, instead, had a good rounding, a nice speed build, and then tacked, you’d often gain and still be headed toward the favored right side.

To be successful you must be able to change your choice of mark at the last second. This means your bow team needs to be ready for anything. You might tell them you’re thinking left-hand gate, but at six lengths out, if it’s obvious the left mark will be jammed with boats, the crew needs to be ready for a last-minute change of plan.

There are times when it pays to slow down. Let’s say you’ve fought hard for the inside position at the left gate mark so that you can go hard right up the beat. If there are boats that have rounded ahead of you, don’t ride their transoms. If you’re too close, you’ll be spit out, have to tack, and be heading toward the unfavored side of the course.

As soon as you get the inside overlap on your group, douse the spinnaker and start focusing on exiting the mark. The distance between your bow and the boat in front is crucial. If you can drop back a boat length and make a perfect tight rounding, you’ll be on a track toward the good side of the beat until most of the competition has been forced to clear out.

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