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? Wheres the traffic?”
If youre the boat behind and you have the answers to these questions, youll be able to gain. If you choose the correct mark and work the traffic flowing through the gate, youll 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 youre 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.
Sometimes the race committee wont 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.
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 cant decide which side of the beat is favored, round the left gate mark. When you need to tack after the rounding, youre tacking onto starboard with right of way. Lets say you round the left gate mark at the same time as a competitor rounds the right gate mark. Then you both tack; now youre on starboard and theyre on port. If the gate was square to the wind, youll have right of way, and theyll have to duck you. Then youre a length ahead.
Also, if you have a bad rounding at the right-hand gate mark, you may not be able to tack if youre pinned by boats that rounded behind you. Theyre on starboard, and youre tacking onto port.
So far, the process of choosing which mark to round might sound easy, but Ive rarely been in the position where the decisions so easy to make. When youre 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. Ill bet some of them have shortcuts that are longer in miles but faster because theres less traffic. The same principle holds true at the leeward gate.
The lead boat has the most options. But the trailing boat has plenty of choices as well. If youre close astern there are a number of tricks you can use to get ahead. First, block the lead boats wind. If youre 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, its easy to make them doubt their decision if you make it appear you want to round the opposite mark. Sometimes theyll be indecisive and switch marks at the last second just to stay ahead of you. Once theyve committed, turn and head for the other mark.
If youve managed to confuse them, you may get the favored mark. Or you may force them to make a boathandling error. Even if you dont, youll 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 theres enough space between the two boats so you dont 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, youd 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 youre thinking left-hand gate, but at six lengths out, if its 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. Lets say youve 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, dont ride their transoms. If youre too close, youll 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, youll be on a track toward the good side of the beat until most of the competition has been forced to clear out.