Racing Tactics: Valuable Input from the Rail

When the tactician has his or head in the game it's essential to have someone "paint the picture" of what's happening up the course and nearby.
Gathering intel from the rail
The tactician may not be in the best place to see what’s happening up the course and must rely on intel from the rail. Paul Todd/Outside Images

Some tacticians like continual input, while others prefer a quiet boat, but the majority of tacticians at least like small amounts of accurate and timely information. In other words, provide the input only when appropriate. Before racing, and especially if you’re new to a team, always discuss the type of information the tactician wants to hear once, and follow these tips after the race is underway to make your input useful.

Sketching Out the Prestart

The tactician will certainly want to know if you spot a last-minute windshift. Indicators are if you notice that you are sailing deeper or higher up or down the line than you were before, or even watching another boat going head to wind or tacking. In a left shift (pin favored) it will take the boat longer to get to the start line. The inverse is also true if there is a right shift or if the boat end is favored. I’ll say something like, “Eyes out of the boat; looks like left shift; it will probably take a little longer to get to the line.” If possible, I’ll add whether it’s a small shift or a large shift.

Traffic is also important to communicate. During the last minute of a start, it is often hard to see everything and everyone. I will often report “shark” or “bogie.” A bogie is someone coming at us that we will have to deal with. Bogies are usually the biggest threat when there’s around two minutes to go and you’re sailing down the line on port. Sharks are boats approaching from behind, like a shark getting ready to bite. When you tack to starboard for the final approach, watch for both sharks and bogies.

The third bit of helpful prestart info can come in the last five seconds. This is where, in all likelihood, the bow person or someone else forward in the boat can let the tactician know if your boat is hidden from the race committee’s view. Sometimes this will let you get your nose poked out in a congested area. Be extra confident with this one, and remember your bow is poked forward of your line of sight. The consequences of getting this one wrong are costly. We only make this call if we are quite sure that boats above and below us are poked well forward and exposed.

Brushstrokes Around the Course

Immediately after the start, you’ll be looking to communicate boat-on-boat relatives. The driver and tactician are looking for comments like, “same speed, higher” or “same height, faster.” With these calls, the trimmers and helmsperson know they are in a good mode upwind. If they hear, “same speed, lower” or “slower, same height,” they know they need to make a change to keep up with the pack.

Where it gets tricky for the person calling the relative modes is when you say things like “faster, lower” or “slower, higher.” In these cases, the commenter must quickly evaluate the VMG and decide if it is a net gain or net loss and make that call. For example, if we are going upwind with a big gap to weather and I say, “Higher, slower, net gain,” the driver and trimmers know that it’s OK to be a little slower because our high pointing is letting us gain on boats around us. The rule of thumb is always talk about your boat when communicating relative speeds and angles. It’s best this information comes from someone in the proximity of the trimmer and tactician so the conversation can be quiet and not too distracting for the rest of the crew.

As we sail upwind, I like to let the tactician know where he is in relation to the laylines. This helps avoid getting too close to a layline from too far away. Many tacticians avoid the laylines early because once you arrive at a layline, your tactical options are limited. This communication also reminds the tactician to start looking at laylines when you’re closer to the mark. I refer to the laylines in percentages with whatever layline we’re headed at stated first. If we are directly downwind of the weather mark, I will say, “50‑50 on the course.” This means that there is equal time to spend on port and starboard before arriving at the weather mark. As we continue up the course on starboard, I’ll look upwind and perhaps say, “30-70.” The tactician will then know that he or she has 30 percent to go to the port layline or 70 percent to the starboard layline. Many tacticians will tack before getting within 10 percent to a layline when they are still far from the weather mark to take advantage of a windshift or leave room to tack back out if you get tacked on.

Calling puffs and lulls helps the tactician decide where to tack, but more importantly, it helps the trimmers and drivers. The trimmers can anticipate and adjust power in the sails, and the driver can pinch or foot slightly to keep the boat tracking properly at maximum VMG. “Short-lived puff in 3…2…1…” lets the driver and trimmers know that only a small change will be needed keep the heel angle the same and the boat sailing along properly. If they hear “more pressure consistently in 3…2…1…,” they will know that a more long-term setup will be required to keep the boat sailing optimally.

RELATED: Downwind Tactics For Planing Conditions

Calling chop and flat spots will help the tactician decide on where to tack as well, but equally important, the calls will help the helmsperson drive the boat. In a choppy section, you often need to foot, and you can really point in flat spots because there is less chop or waves to slow you down. We’ll use verbiage such as “chop in one boatlength,” or “chop continues” or “flat water for a bit.”

Lastly, in some areas, ­calling weed or kelp in the water is important. This can be a little complicated. I like when people keep these communications simple. “Up one, up five, down one, down five” are four of the only six calls I like when I’m driving. If I hear “one,” I know to turn a little; if I hear “five,” I know to turn a lot. I also like to know “clear,” meaning I can go back to driving normally. It can be important to know what mode you are in and where boats are around you. If there is a boat close to leeward, saying “down one” is probably bad when you could have said “up one.” Also, pay attention to boatspeed. Rarely should you say “up five” when the boatspeed is already low. The final two calls are “no lower” or “no higher.” This simply lets the driver know that he can stay on course as long as he doesn’t turn toward the debris.

As with upwind, calling puffs on the downwind leg is important. When soaking, the helmsperson and spinnaker trimmer can work together to make some gains. For ­example, if they know that a puff is coming, they can soak deep a little longer. Normally, after soaking deep, you have to head up to build speed. But if you know a puff is coming quickly, you can stay deep and let the puff help you accelerate rather than heading up and burning distance.

The tactician will likely want to know whether they are in clear air or not. This also helps the spinnaker trimmer. I will often call how many boatlengths of clean air we have. For example, I will say something like, “We have three lengths of clear air,” meaning there is bad air from a competitor three lengths behind us. Then later, if I say we have two lengths of clean air, everybody knows that we need to speed up or sail slightly higher to avoid bad air. Then if I say, “One boatlength of clear air,” the crew knows we are in danger of being rolled.

The rule of thumb is always talk about your boat when communicating relative speeds and angles.

Again, like upwind sailing, it helps to communicate relatives between boats. In some boats, such as the Etchells, the bow person can look behind and make these calls, almost becoming the boat-on-boat tactician themselves. If the trimmer, who is ideally talking to the driver about angles, hears “lower, slower, net gain,” they know their mode of sailing slower but lower is gaining on the competition and they can continue sailing in that mode. However, if they hear “lower, slower, net loss,” they know they need to change modes to achieve a better VMG. The tactician may be interested to hear “lower, slower, net even.” This means that you are simply sailing a different mode, but you are not gaining or losing overall. In this case, the tactician can decide how they want to sail for future positioning. The tactician may want to sail low and slow across someone’s bow so that after a jibe, they are again in clear air.

Last but not least, as you come into a leeward gate or finish line, the tactician can benefit from input on which end or mark is favored. Remember, it is OK not to have all the answers. However, even that should be communicated. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” It’s better than giving false information.