How to Build A Winning Regatta Strategy

An Olympic veteran shares her approach when preparing for your next regatta and achieving your desired results.
The Hague, The Netherlands is hosting the 2023 Allianz Sailing World Championships from 11th to 20th August 2023.
With deep research, the ­author and her Olympic 49erFX skipper, Stephanie Roble, get a handle on each venue and the fleet itself. Sailing Energy

Much has been written in ­textbooks and articles about how to win sailboat races once you cross the starting line, especially when it comes to tactics, speed and boathandling. And while it is true that races are won and lost between the start and finish lines, it’s also true that the outcome of any race or regatta can be affected by what happens well before the start. Here we’re talking about building an overall plan for the day before we even suit up to go racing.

Our first order of business is to align with our teammates on our goals for the regatta well in advance, which will ­eliminate any stress that creeps in when or if your expectations and actual performance don’t match up. If your team is intent on bringing home a trophy, it usually makes for an awkward dynamic on board when you choose to win the regatta party instead. Step one is to set performance-related goals, like “finish in the top 10.” Our performance or results-based goal will be determined by factors that are outside our control, so the second type of goal is even more important: ­process-oriented objectives that are completely in your control. For example, if we expect a shifty and puffy venue, we will set a goal to “look up the course to identify the first puff at one minute before every start.” On the other hand, if we anticipate steady wind, making boatspeed the critical element, we would set a goal to line up with multiple competitors before the start and check our control-line marks for the first sprint off the starting line. Putting these goals in writing will give us a framework for debriefing after each day of racing. It also allows us to better divide and conquer the pre-regatta homework.

Speaking of homework, let’s talk about hitting the books. A little research can go a long way to minimize surprises during the regatta. Start by printing or taking a screenshot of the racecourse areas and annotate the common breeze directions. Familiarize yourself with the body of water and surrounding land features so you can put the forecasts and local knowledge into a geographical context. Identify which weather-­forecasting app is most useful for the region, and make sure your subscription is up to date. Ask local racers about which forecasting model they find reliable. If you don’t know anyone, check out the validation feature on the PredictWind app. Local airports and fishing, surfing, and NOAA websites are excellent sources because these entities catalog a ton of historical data. The goal is to better understand the regional weather systems during the regatta window, the direction and strength of the typical sea breeze, and the ­influence of currents or tides. At a minimum, you will make better-informed choices when deciding which wetsuits or spray gear to bring. 

Once you have a general idea about the venue’s ­predominant wind characteristics, brush up on wind-related strategy basics. My favorite textbook to reread is Wind Strategy by David Houghton, and you can also find great web-based resources from sites like Sea Tactics by Chelsea Freas. If we are sailing in a bay like Palma de Mallorca, the typical sea breeze creates a racecourse with a left-hand shoreline looking upwind. This tells us we can expect convergence on the left side of the racecourse, so we’ll likely have some drag races from the starting line to the shore and need to be set up for it.

Practice Winning Moves

Visualizing the winning path and rehearsing likely tactical scenarios will build confidence during your pre-regatta training. In the Palma example with a left-dominant racecourse, our pre-regatta training will focus on strong boat-on-boat positioning off the starting line to control our lane to the left corner. Drills that replicate the left-corner-exit scenarios provide a chance to practice communication during critical moments, such as: Are we going to be the first or last boat to tack out of this corner? Can anyone tack on us?

On a shifty, high-tempo ­racecourse, being able to tack or jibe on a moment’s notice will be important, so maneuver readiness should be a focus of our boathandling training. All of our venue homework should give us a sense of what style of racing we can expect and the best way to establish good ­habits and confidence. 

Study Your Competitors

It’s beneficial to skim through class-results archives to get a sense of which teams dominate in certain conditions. For example, we can avoid starting next to the fleet’s light-air experts. Look for trends, like whether a fleet is generally conservative or aggressive on the starting line. It also helps to identify our fleet’s starting-line repeat ­offenders so that we don’t get tricked into being pushed over by a team who has a history of OCS penalties. This is especially important in fleets who cannot use GPS instruments. It’s important to know who tends to misjudge the starting line. There is one caveat, however. A venue with strong current can introduce unique starting challenges. For example, we can take Charleston Race Week scores with a grain of salt.

It also helps to identify our fleet’s starting-line repeat offenders so that we don’t get tricked into being pushed over by a team who has a history of OCS penalties. 

Also, we examine the score lines of teams with the same performance goal we set for ourselves at recent, ­similar-size events. We like to set a daily-total-points goal for ourselves each day before racing. Focusing on our average score line should help us avoid desperate and risky decision-making.

Race-Day Preparation 

When looking at the forecast on the morning of the regatta, make mental notes of the most important things, and don’t try to memorize it all. Knowing the minimum and maximum of the velocity range and expected trend will help us make informed choices about our rig and sail settings throughout the day. The most important piece of information we want to pull from the forecast is what type of breeze we will race in because that will dictate our priorities on the racecourse that day.

Try to identify whether you’re going to sail in a sea breeze by looking for the key ingredients for a thermal: a land and water temperature difference greater than 5 degrees and a forecast direction more or less blowing perpendicular to the shoreline. Expect three major trends when racing in a true sea breeze in the Northern Hemisphere. First, as the breeze builds with heating over land, it will likely veer (shift to the right). Once the breeze is established, watch for small, rhythmic oscillations. Then, as the breeze fades in the evening, look for the direction of the wind to get pulled toward the angle of the gradient wind aloft.

If we don’t have the key ­components of the sea breeze, the forecast can still help us understand the likelihood of predictability. For example, if our forecast calls for an offshore wind throughout the day with a wide range of direction and velocity, we get ready to follow our instincts and sail what we see at the moment. If we see that we’re going to sail in a gradient breeze, our challenge on the water will be to determine a pattern to the oscillations. Look closely at the predicted directions throughout the day to see any hints of a persistent shift. We treat the first few hours of the day as if we are detectives trying to determine the accuracy of the forecast. Look at the wind strength, direction and clouds to see if things are aligning. Forecasts give us clues about possible patterns, but most of the time, it’s only that: clues. We are trying to find indicators of the expected change, such as a temperature drop and darker clouds that can be a red flag for a storm system nearing. Even if we don’t know exactly what the new system will bring, telling ourselves to be heads-up for a change here can give us an edge over our competitors. There will be days, however, when we have to ignore the forecast and sail what we see. 

On the Racecourse

The hour before the race is our last chance to gather the final and critical pieces of information: starting-line and racecourse geometry. Before each race, check the race committee board to find the bearing to the windward mark, and identify the compass heading numbers that are “neutral to the course.” Compare the compass bearing of the starting line to the compass bearing of the head-to-wind numbers to determine the bias of the starting line. These data points won’t usually dictate our strategy for the race, but occasionally, we find an opportunity to gain an ­advantage off the starting line. 

Now comes the most important moment of our pre-race preparation: determining what we need to prioritize. If we’re sailing in light air or in a steady breeze, we need a comfortable upwind lane off the starting line, so we will need to set up in a low-density area, home in on our distance to the line, and determine if we want a two- to four-tack beat. If we see puffy, shifty craziness upwind, we choose our starting position as late as possible to keep our options open, remaining ready for anything and reminding ­ourselves to stay flexible. 

In an ideal world, we can accurately predict the priorities of the racecourse and execute flawlessly. The easy answers of racing to a geographical feature are convenient but actually rare. Usually, only hindsight makes the winning strategy perfectly clear. The most important skill, which takes humility and confidence, is admitting when we don’t know what will happen on the racecourse. There should be no shame in the no-plan plan. We must come to terms with unknown variables in order to be open-minded enough to learn as the racing unfolds. Ultimately, developing a solid racing strategy requires skills in filtering information, remaining adaptable, and learning as you go throughout a race, a day, and a regatta. Now go get ready.