Sailing a Smart First Beat

In his fourth installment, Steve Hunt gives us the guide to a conservative first leg.

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Staying clear and out of trouble on the first beat is important, especially after the start when the fleet is compact.Paul Todd/Outside Images

Assuming you're enjoying the benefits of a great start, it's time to settle in and sail fast for a while, letting those less fortunate fade away, and most importantly, allowing the racecourse to open up so you can control your race. From here, it's a matter of sailing a low-risk beat, which means three things: sailing in the most wind available, sailing toward the mark, and sticking with the fleet. These are your most important goals and executing them will minimize your risk more than anything else. Another key is to keep your boat in a lane that gives you clear air, so protect your breeze by anticipating what others around you will do.

One of my top high-school skippers, Jake Reynolds, summarizes his game plan in a simple way: get a great start, sail fast, and stick with the majority of the fleet. By getting ahead early and sailing fast around the course with the majority of the fleet, he improves his odds of having a good race. The result? He has won six of his eight high-school regattas and placed third in the other two. That’s consistent.

Buddy Melges, another great mind in sailing, has a similar perspective on low-risk sailing. If you like the right, he says, position yourself just to the right of your competitors. If you like the left, position yourself just to the left. It’s that simple. There’s no need to sail off by yourself, splitting from the majority, hoping for the horizon job, because if you’re wrong, you’ll find yourself deep at the top mark and unable to catch up. By positioning yourself in the proximity of the favored side, you’ll be in contention if you’re right, and if you’re wrong, you’ll still be close enough to have a decent comeback. Taking a huge risk by splitting creates more of an all-or-nothing outcome. Winning regattas (or simply doing well) is more about avoiding bad races than it is about winning a few and placing deep in the others.

Having the mentality to play it safe requires discipline. It’s easy to let greed get the best of you and to keep sailing to the corner by yourself, hoping for the big win. If you really like a side, get to that side of the competition, and then go with the flow. The only time sailing to an edge is safe is in really light air, when the edges tend to have more wind and the middle is disturbed. My dad, who is a light-air expert, used to tell me, “You have a 50-percent chance of getting the edge right in light air, and a 100-percent chance of being wrong in the middle.” He’s always right.

Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta
Think before splitting from the fleet, you might be making the wrong choice.Paul Todd/Outside Images

Another thing I’ve learned is going the right way usually feels right. If you’re splitting from the fleet and hoping you’re doing the right thing, you’re usually wrong. Sometimes despair creates the motivation for a big split, and it’s usually brought about by being behind. Resist it. To be a winner, you have to control your emotions and do what is right. Remember, the wind doesn’t care what place you’re in; it’s going to shift regardless of your feelings, so stay in the wind and sail toward the mark. Let the other sailors go the wrong way and pass them when they do.

To be safe, if your game plan off the start is to go right early in the leg, and you had a great start near the committee boat, go with the fleet until others start tacking, and then tack and go with them. By doing so, you stick with the majority a little longer and reduce your risk should that right side not pan out. If your plan is to go left, your front-row start has set you up perfectly. Just sail fast.

If your start is not good, priority No. 1 is finding a better lane. This is a critical moment that can define the rest of your race, so you must get it right. It’s often best to be patient shortly after a bad start and wait for an open escape route. If you tack and have to sail deep, ducking a lot of boats, it’s hard to make up that lost distance. Usually, boats blocking your escape route had bad starts, too, and they’ll shortly tack away. No one likes sailing in bad air, so evaluate the lanes of those blocking you and determine if they will tack shortly or not. Once your escape lane opens up, tack and sail behind a few boats, hopefully emerging into an open lane. Once you’re free of bad air, it’s time to sail fast and smart, play the shifts, and see how many boats you can pass.

The more extreme the wind or shifts are, the greater precedence you should give them. For example, if the left side of the course has much more wind than the right side, it’s OK to sail a header to the stronger wind, and then sail the long tack toward the mark. The speed you’ll get from the increased wind will make up for briefly sailing away from the mark. If the shifts are big, or the course is such that one tack is obviously much longer than the other, make sailing toward the mark your top priority. In an ideal world, you should sail in the most wind and sail toward the mark. If you can make that happen, and you often can, life is good. When the windshifts are small, and the wind is consistent across the course, it’s more difficult figuring out where to go. In these races, getting a good start, minimizing maneuvers, and sailing fast is usually the best game plan.

Figuring out exactly how to sail a low-risk beat and doing the right thing is much easier if you arrive to the course an hour before the start and gain some insight into how to play it. Your pre-race homework will help you make educated decisions. The more you know, the more accurate you can be with your tactical calls. And for the times when you’re not sure what to do (you got to the racecourse late), be safe and go with the flow.

Read the next installment about windward mark roundings here.