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How to Lose, And How Not To

Consider some old-school advice on easy ways to finish well by not making these simple mistakes.

May 17, 2021
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Two Lightning class sailboats crossing tacks
The sage advice of “Cross ’em when you can” is usually the best advice. ©Paul Todd/OUTSIDEIMAGES.COM

Tom King is one of the best sailors in the world, yet most folks in the United States have probably never heard of him. Before winning the 2012 Etchells Worlds (as part of a Corinthian team), he won the 2000 470 Worlds and an Olympic Gold medal in the 470 when it was held in his hometown of Sydney, Australia, that same year. About five years ago, I was helping run a clinic with Chris Busch, one of the top sailors in our San Diego Etchells fleet, and Tom’s name came up when Chris shared a document Tom wrote titled “Racecraft.” It included Tom’s top-10 list of ways to ensure you won’t finish in the top of the fleet.

I reached out to Tom and asked him to explain how he developed his top-10 list. Tom said his inspiration was the late, longtime Sailing World columnist, Dr. Stuart Walker. He shared with me a photocopy of an article Dr. Walker had written for the magazine Australian Sailing, which prompted him to write his own notes for his local fleet.

With full credit to Tom and a tip of the hat to the late Dr. Stuart Walker, here’s my top-10 list of how to ensure you won’t finish at the top of the fleet—and what you can do about it.

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Starting where you won’t be able to be on/stay on the correct tack right after the start

  • Focus on starting in low-density areas near the area you want to start.
  • Avoid high-risk starts whenever possible (like at the pin).
  • Practice being at full speed, on the line, at the gun.

Sailing in a position where others are slowing you down

  • If you’re in bad air at the start, or even before, tack immediately to get to clear air, and then get onto the favored tack as soon as possible.
  • The act of ducking behind starting boats increases your speed relative to them often resulting in little loss.
  • Packs of boats tend to go slower than boats that are free to sail where they want—avoid the packs.
  • If you think you are in bad air, you probably are. Tack to clear and then come back.
  • Know that when the shifts are very big and short-lived, like you might experience on a lake, it might be better to stay on the lifted tack in bad air than tack.

Getting near the lay line too early

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  • Don’t do it.
  • On or near the windward-mark layline you lose to the fleet if you get lifted, because you are now you are overstood, and you lose if you are headed, because boats to leeward gain.
  • Getting on or near the leeward-mark layline is like getting near the windward mark layline except the effect of a lift or header is the opposite. Either way, you lose.
  • Always look for opportunities to tack or jibe back into the middle in clear air where you maintain the opportunity to gain.

Separating too much from the fleet

  • The more separation you have from the fleet, the larger your gain or losses in distance in a shift will be.
  • In most places, you have a 50/50 chance that a shift will go your way when you roll the dice and separate from the fleet. Not great odds.
  • Get some separation to stay in clear air but rely on the known quantity of your speed to gain, not luck.

Not knowing what jibe to be on after rounding the windward mark

  • Track the shifts as you get to the top mark.
  • If the wind is in a right phase upwind plan to jibe quickly.
  • If in a left phase upwind, carry on straight after the windward mark.
  • If unsure which jibe to be on after the mark look at the boats ahead. If most have jibed, you probably should too.

Not sailing the “long tack” upwind and downwind

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  • The course axis is rarely identical to the wind direction.
  • The long tack or jibe is the one more closely aligned with the course axis.
  • Sailing the long tack keeps you from getting to the layline too early.

Not consolidating gains

  • Most often the wind oscillates to some degree.
  • As Stuart Walker always said, tack and “cross ‘em when you can.” In other words, when you have made gain, lock it in.
  • If one side of the course is clearly favored, tack between your competition and that side in order to “herd” them to the unfavored side.

Not reading the SIs or NORs

  • Do your homework before the event—read the Sailing Instructions and Notice of Race and make sure your crew has read them as well.
  • Memorize or write on the deck important details, such as starting order, colors of change marks, etc.
  • If the race committee communicates by VHF radio, be sure to have it on at all times, have a spare onboard.

Not making sure your boat fully prepared

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  • Choose a boat to race that you can afford to prepare to the very top level with gear and sails.
  • A fast boat makes tactics much easier and meticulous boat preparation is one part of developing good speed.
  • Copy the setup of the top boats in your class—don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
  • Remember, “to finish first, first you must finish,” so check your boat and gear regularly for things that show signs of wear and could break.

Not understanding the psychology of racing

  • Winning means only that you have made fewer mistakes than your competition
  • The race is always from here onward.
  • Mental toughness is the ability to ignore what has been done and get on with what there is to do.
  • The desire to sail well usually results in winning. The desire to win rarely results in sailing well.
  • Focus on the task, not the result.
  • You may not be able to control the result but you can control your effort.
  • A fast boat fixes many problems and makes the crew look good.
  • To have confidence you must commit to adequate preparation.
  • Trust your instincts. They are usually right.

Reviewing these maxims will help put you and your team into the racing mindset. None are new, but they tend to be the source of common and frequent mistakes made by everyone. A post-race review with these in hand will surely point out some areas for improvement.

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