We’ve all been there: It’s the last race of a series, and points are close. You do the math to figure out what you need to do to win the championship or pass the boats right in front of you in the standings. Thus was the case for us when we were racing for the title at the 2017 Etchells Coral Reef Cup in Miami. To win the championships, we had to finish sixth or better in the last race and have one boat between our opponent and us. Our opponent needed to keep us out of the top six; if we were in the top six, he had to be in front of us or immediately behind us. Basically, we were in a match race within a fleet race.
Whenever you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll discover that each has its own nuances; some are far more complex than others. But, there are commonalities between all scenarios, and recognizing them can guide you in the heat of the race. The key is to identify each scenario and decide before the race how you will change your decisions during the race as the scoring scenario changes.
Pure Match Race
This is the simplest scenario, and you must remember not to forget all the other boats on the course. They make your control of the other boat much more precarious, and you often need to revert to fleet racing when other boats become picks that prevent the correct match‑racing move.
You win if you and your opponent finish worse than the scores you are both discarding. Here, you try to gain control of your opponent and drive them back in the fleet. The key is to choose your moments to go on the offensive. Remember, if you make a mistake, your opponent might pass you. Then, they will be free to race ahead on the course and the race is out of your control. They might pass the boats they need to pass and beat you in the regatta. In this scenario, you should always strive to drive them back as far as possible. Show no mercy, but never risk losing them.
This scenario involves some combination of the pure match race and the discard, as well as other factors. Often, you might need extra boats between you and them, or you might have a buffer. It might be good enough to finish within several places of them. You might also need to finish better than a certain position, or better yet, have a lock-out finish, whereby if you finish above a certain place in that race you’re guaranteed to win. The more specifics that need to happen, the harder your job is and the more aware you need to be for the final race.
Regardless of the specifics of the race, it’s still all about preparation. Think through each type of situation and decide how you will respond. The base line is always asking: What would I do if this were a normal fleet race? Then, you know what to default to when you decide that the situation has reverted back to “race forward as fast as you can.”
Before the race, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. What do they need to do to beat you? Figure out what their best action is so you are prepared to respond. But also make a guess at what they will actually do based on what you know about them. Always assume your opponent will be fully aware and know the right thing to do. That way you won’t be caught off guard. Sometimes, you will be pleasantly surprised when they make a mistake, but never plan on it.
The stronger and deeper the fleet, the harder it is to focus on a single boat because the fleet will be tight and there will be many obstructions. Often, the most effective match race is your best fleet race. Stay in touch with the skill set that led you to this point in the regatta. Do not deviate from all the good habits that have allowed you to be fighting for the title. The more complicated the scenario, or the stronger the fleet, the more likely you should be thinking, Sail like I always do. That will give me the best chance to win the race and regatta. That means no corner-banging, no reckless starting, no uncalibrated engagement with the other boats.
Also, don’t get lost in the match race; remember the fleet race. When match racing, fight for inches. When fleet racing well, you can gain a mile. Even at the Olympic level, I have seen boats that are only focusing on each other. Often the better boat will try to control the outcome by covering the other boat. In nine out of 10 races, that boat will beat the other, but only by a couple of points. In the 10th race, the other boat will slip away, get leverage and gain 20 points in an instant.
When focusing on a single boat, the most basic execution is to win the first cross, then gain control tack for tack. Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s a pipe dream to gain control of your opponent and make them minutes late to the start, but you should try anyway. If nothing else, the circling and tailing will often distract your opponent and they’ll forget basic fleet racing. Hang out in a safe position when the preparatory goes up, be five to 10 lengths off the line, on starboard tack, just to the right of the committee boat. Make one member of your team responsible for knowing where your competition is at all times.
Think about where you would start if it were a normal fleet race. What is the strategic advantage on the course? Stay between your opponent and that advantage. Use this to determine when you will break away from the circling at a time when you can find a hole for yourself on the starting line. You will either be to the left or right of your opponent off the line — between them and the first course advantage, so that you can gain the first cross. If in doubt, stay to the right of them. Starboard tack is a huge weapon.
If you want to dive to leeward of your opponent during the prestart, the best control happens at 20 seconds before the start. If you hook them hard too soon, they can easily tack out to reposition. Also, you only want to create a split with them if you are highly confident of the course advantage.
Perhaps you want to circle before the start, or maybe you don’t. Either way, be prepared for it. If they engage you, then engage back aggressively. However, if you are getting chased away from the starting line, slow down and stop your boat. They will also have to stop. At some point, the boats will drift, and you can wiggle free. However, if you are really stuck, it’s not terrible to try a loose escape. If you foul them, they are required to give you space to do your penalty turns.
Covering on the Beat
It would be great if you could go tack for tack with your opponent, blocking their wind each time, but this rarely works as planned. Choose one tack to have a loose cover and the other tack to have a tight cover. In the loose cover, you will not be on their wind, but you will be slightly bow forward. Prevent them from getting bow forward on you because they might pinch up to you or get a shift that will move bow out on you.
Knowing the mark location will help you identify the long tack. Generally, you want a tight cover on the long tack, and a loose cover on the short tack.
Know the shift phase too. You want a tight cover on the lift and a loose cover on the header. If you try a loose cover on a lift, then when the header comes, they will get bow out and might cross you. Also, be aware of the other boats. These boats will become picks that get in the way of your covering scheme. If you are behind, however, they’re a great way to spring yourself free from a disadvantaged position.
In our Etchells race, our decision tree was as follows: We wanted to treat the race as a normal fleet race. We knew we could easily finish in the top six and probably beat the other team. But, we knew that could not happen because our opponent would win if we sailed our discard race. Therefore, we knew they would match-race us. Their best move was to engage us from the prep signal onward before the start. They did just that. Our best response, then, was to engage them. At about 1 minute, we broke away from the circling and headed for the starting line at a time when we could still find a hole. They ended up five boats to windward of us on the line, which proved to be a problem later. We had a good start, but the left shift never came. Our opponent got the first cross and gained control of us. We tried to minimize losses.
At the first mark, we were 20th and 25th out of 35 boats. Our moment came on the run. They got tangled in pack, and we sailed free. Then, at the bottom of the run, we split gates. We passed many boats by playing the wind shifts, and finally, the cone of the beat narrowed. They had also passed many boats. Again, they crossed just in front of us, and we were unable to complete the comeback. We finished 12th in the race and second overall in the regatta, reinforcing the value of knowing how and when to use match-racing techniques in fleet racing.
Seven Keys toMatch-Racing Success in Fleet Racing
- Make the other boat start late. Push it behind the pin or committee boat. From your point of view, you must play from the inside out on the start. Your safest zone is in the windward half of the starting line but inside the committee boat layline, eight to 10 lengths low of the line.
- Gain the first cross to control. Never let your opponent feel free, which will give them hope and make the race harder for you. If you are behind, do not engage with your opponent until later in the beat.
- When you round the windward mark, work to create the maximum gap between you and your opponent so that you can hold your position downwind.
- Downwind, sail fast and protect starboard. You will get in trouble if you try to do too much. When you’re in front, your goal is to stay in front. If you try to get clever, you will get passed, or at least be forced to take an even split at the gates.
- At the leeward mark, take your spinnaker down early and attempt to slow your opponent. This often catches him by surprise. If they are still carrying their kite, they might foul you. If behind, this is a great chance to split gates and sail free for the first part of the second beat.
- The second upwind leg is another good chance to slow them and keep close control by sitting on their wind.
- On the final downwind leg, work to stay in front, or if behind, try to pass.