The more I examine the results of previous seasons, the more it becomes clear that success in sailboat races is directly related to sailing the first 100 yards of every race correctly. It’s not just a matter of getting a good start. You have to know what to do when you get into the lead. Or, if you get a bad start, it becomes a matter of being resourceful enough to recover. Either way it takes an aggressive approach in your strategy from the moment you get on thewater.
The common attitude of sailing the first part of the beat—just waiting to see how things are going and then getting to the side that seems better—just doesn’t pay off. Get out there early, well before the first gun, watch the breeze and try to figure out what it is doing. If you have a compass, write the headings on your deck with a grease pencil. Do whatever is necessary to keep track of the breeze. Then, once you’ve determined what it is doing, you can begin establishing your priorities for the leg, but you must do all this well before the starting sequence. This is the real key to success in the first 100 yards.
To help myself sail that tricky first part of the race, I created a priority chart, rating each strategic consideration in terms of its relative importance in different conditions (see chart). As I began using the chart, I was surprised to find that some of my usual considerations were not so important as I had thought. For instance, I used to always try to get into a position that would allow me to tack, if necessary. But as I used the chart more and more, I found that in many conditions, that priority should take a back seat to some other priorities. The chart helped to pull everything into perspective. To fully understand how to use it, let’s examine each strategic area.
In light winds, clear air is always ranked most important. Unlike when sailing in most other winds, when it’s light, it’s imperative to have clear air so that you can develop even average boatspeed. If your speed is less than average, because you are eating bad air behind a couple of other boats, you’ll be quickly left behind, no matter how well you play the other options.
In medium to heavy winds, clear air becomes slightly less important since speed is not affected by dirty wind as much as in light conditions. Clear air is least important when the breeze is very shifty and strong, for then, where you go becomes almost as important as how fast you go.
As the wind builds to over 5 knots, sailing on the correct tack becomes the top priority. It takes over from clear air since, as the wind increases, average boatspeed can be achieved even if the air is somewhat obstructed. So, as you come off the line in a fair breeze, going the correct way should be the main priority, as it allows you to gain more (or lose less) than any of the other considerations.
Notice that in light winds, sailing on the correct tack is still very important, although less so than in the higher wind ranges. Only when the wind is light and shifting persistently less than 10 degrees does correct tack take a back seat to anything other than clear air.
Ability to Tack Easily
This category has a surprisingly low ranking on the priority chart. When I realized I’d rated this area so poorly in nearly every wind condition, it occurred to me that this was one of the largest problems I’d been experiencing on the racecourse. Perhaps it’s been a problem for you too.
How many times have you started next to a group of boats and been really frustrated because you were sailing into a header, but just “couldn’t” tack because of all the boats on your windward quarter and your strong reluctance to tack and take a few transoms? You wait and wait, and finally they begin tacking off. But by the time you’re able to tack, the shift has gone back the other way. Or in a persistent shift, by the time you are able to tack, so many people have gone to the correct side that you end up miles behind and have to struggle the rest of the race just to catch up.
From the heavy emphasis placed on correct tack, it appears that you should almost always tack when it appears advantageous to do so, even if it means taking transoms and losing a little distance in the short run. After all, the more important priority is going the right way.
Only in a very shifty breeze is it recommended that you place emphasis on positioning yourself where you can tack at will. Even then, getting on the correct tack should be weighed more heavily in the decision-making process.
Boatspeed plays an important part in any race and should always be considered important to doing well. However, in the table, notice that in very shifty winds, boatspeed takes a back seat to all other factors — correct tack, clear air, ability to tack easily and continue on the correct tack. This is because when the shifts are relatively large, position (largely the result of the other four factors) yields much higher dividends and should therefore be the first priority.But when the breeze is steady, boatspeed becomes a much more important factor because less distance is gained per shift. In other words, if it’s shifty, think mostly about the shifts; if it’s steady, think about boatspeed.
Continue on Correct Tack
This is a very important area that is often overlooked. It deals with situations such as letting a port tacker cross in front of you rather than forcing him to tack on your lee bow, possibly forcing you the wrong way. There are many times early in the beat when similar close situations arise and a fast decision must be made about what to do, whether you are the right-of-way boat or not. Using the chart makes decision-making easier. For instance, in shifty winds, it is advantageous to stay on the proper tack as long as the shift lasts. If you’re on the correct tack, most of the time it’s better to duck a close port tacker than to have them tack on your lee bow and hurt you. But, if you’re not on the best tack, call for rights and force your competitor to tack the wrong way, and then tack away yourself, onto the correct tack.
On the other hand, if you’re on port tack and going the right way, you would probably do best to go out of your way to duck a starboard tacker rather than be forced off in the wrong direction. In a steady breeze, though, this is not so much the case. Suffice it to say, that whenever you’re going the way you want to go, try to keep other boats from forcing you to do otherwise.
Method ‘Midst the Madness
The essence of all this “prioritizing” is that you give yourself a method of making cool, logical assessments of what’s happening on those first 100 yards of the race course, helping you to remove yourself from the heat of the battle so you can make rational, clearheaded decisions. It really can be a help, considering how those few, harried moments just after the start are often the most confusing moments of the race.
Regardless of how successful your start has been, the decisions that must be made subsequently are clearly some of the most important ones you will make in the entire race. If your start has been good, do you try to get in front of the fleet for control, or do you go to one side of the course looking for a shift? Do you cover the boats around you or sail to the other side of the course to cover the boats there? Or, do you just try to sail your own race, not really worrying about the rest of the fleet?
If your start has been less than successful, there are even more considerations to contend with. In addition to those already mentioned, you must also now think about clear air, boats calling for right-of-way and whether or not to let port tackers cross you. With so many important things to consider, the chances for a serious error are good, which is why this chart may help you make sense of it all as it has for me.
The first time I used the chart is a pretty good example of how well the system can work. I was at the Laser European Championship, held in Bangor, Northern Ireland. We were using a gate-start system in a race about halfway through the series in a 12-knot wind. I wanted to be one of the first boats through the gate and thus headed for the line early. But I got there too early and had to make a desperate tack .to get away. In the process, I capsized and the fleet was away before I could get going again. Thinking I had nothing to lose by trying something new, I began recalling the priority chart. The breeze was persistently shifting slowly to the right, so I began sailing in that direction. Because gate starts often force the boats very close together, all of the boats were pinning each other on star board, which was the wrong tack. While the rest of the fleet was frantically trying to work out from under and behind each other, I was soon sailing in clear air on the correct tack. I concentrated on staying on that tack and going fast, just like it says on the chart, and rounded the weather mark second in a fleet of 117 boats!
While this example shows how the priority chart can help you physically remove yourself from the head-to head combat that often takes place right off the starting line, the real value of it is that it can get you mentally organized for any situation that comes your way. More importantly, it forces you to think in terms of doing the best you can over the entire leg rather than simply concentrating on passing nearby boats.
Subsequent Weather Legs
The priority chart is just as valid for subsequent weather Legs as it is for the first beat, especially if the fleet is closely bunched. Whenever you round a leeward mark and start heading upwind again, the situation arises once more where you have a lot to do and think about in a very limited amount of time. And what you do in the initial part of that weather leg can quickly determine the order in which boats will finish that leg.
The main difference between the first part of the first beat and the first part of all other beats is that, on the later beats, you must shift smoothly and quickly from off-wind gear to upwind gear, as well as deal with varied tactical considerations, depending up on the numbers and position of the boats around you. Nevertheless, the method of arriving at the correct way does not change. Simply follow the priority chart.
If you should reach the point where you want to start playing defense (maintaining your position) the importance of a single factor, such as going e right way, is reduced. A common example of this often occurs on the final beat, when the only boat close behind you tacks away from the correct tack in a longshot attempt to get by you. So long as you won’t lose any other boats, it only makes sense to tack away from the correct tack yourself in order to cover. For the normal beat, however, the priority chart logic is very reliable.
As you approach the leeward mark, consider what happened on the beat(s) before and add that information to the plan. Then decide how to begin the next beat, not neglecting or overlooking any of the important criteria from the chart. At the 1980 Laser Midwinters, I was just behind the series leader at the start of the last beat 0f the last race, both on the course and on the scoreboard. Based on experience gained on previous weather legs in that race, I knew exactly what range to expect for lifts and headers.
After a short distance, we sailed into a small header and the leader immediately tacked. Recognizing that the header still left us in the lifted range, I continued on the same tack. Then, when a significant header finally arrived, I tacked, took the lead and clinched the series by one quarter point. Without the confidence I possessed in knowing precisely where I stood in terms of wind direction and the priority chart, I might not have been able to sail those first 100 yards of the final beat as surely and aggressively. The final results would certainly have been different.
So, before the next sailing season begins, take a close look at your racing results from last season. Think about what you did right and wrong and why things turned out as they did. Chances are, you’ll discover the key to your successes lay in your ability to make the correct decisions in the first 100 yards of each beat. Get in the habit of attacking that part of each race with confidence and organization and I’m willing to wager you’ll show signs of improvement in your overall racing accomplishments this coming season.