The goal of a leeward gate rounding is to pick the best gate mark to allow short-term gains, a quick exit from under the fleet and, for the longer term, a move toward the next advantageous shift. But first, you have to get around the mark, a process that comes challenges and choices. What you want is to exit the gate in as strong a position as possible to execute your upwind strategy.
With a unique view from onboard and above, we can observe two teams as they round the right-hand (looking downwind) gate mark and head upwind. Let’s talk about their team work and thought process as they each go through a leeward gate rounding.
At about four or six boatlengths from the mark, the Blue team wisely starts to communicate their need for mark room. At this point, the Red team is within its rights to luff and stay outside of the zone to try and stay ahead, but in fleet races, it’s normally smarter to remember the rest of the fleet and choose your battles. For me, if I have to give room to a competitor, my mind immediately shifts to ways to try to limit my losses, while making it harder on my competition.
Red has two choices that make sense in this scenario. One, try to keep their nose in front and come away from the mark on Blue’s lee-bow. Or, two, literally wave Blue through so both boats can escape the gate as quickly as possible. Which one depends on relative speeds, team ability and amount of turn needed, so be ready for either.
For Blue, they have to avoid fouling Red and round the mark cleanly. In photo 1, every team member on Blue is looking at the Red boat. This means there is risk that jobs needing to be done may not be. Teammates need to trust each other to be ready for the next move. Know who should be managing the competitor, and who should be managing the maneuver. My guess is the helmsman and main trimmer should be watching the Red boat and the buoy, and the trimmer should be aware of the Red boat but watching the kite to keep good speed. The pit and bow guys should be preparing for the maneuver and, if needed, should own the timing for getting the kite down without being told. Heads in the boat there, fellas.
As the boats get close to each other, the wind goes out of Red’s kite. This is the moment the gate exit plan becomes clear. Since they are now slower than Blue, Red will end up rounding behind, and they need to take steps to limit their losses. The first move? Take the kite down early. At this point, there is no value in threatening Blue by luffing. Let them get on with their drop and get out of the area. The sooner they do that, the better for both boats.
Next, Red should bear away and make some space to prepare for a nice turn to reaccelerate as they approach the mark. Blue needs to remember that when they drop their kite, they can’t let it touch Red. And to be legal, Blue should be aiming very close to the mark.
I like that in photo 2, Blue’s helmsman is focused on the distance between them and Red. Even though Blue has inside rights, as windward boat, they still need to stay clear of Red.
As the boats reach the zone, each team is focused on dropping their spinnaker effectively. Blue has kept its sail filled longer, trying to ensure they gain against Red. Red should be aware of this natural, competitive tendency and drop their kite early. For Red, the best hope for keeping things close is to have a powerful turn at the mark. If Blue makes any mistake, Red can capitalize with a strong turn. But if Blue rounds well, then at least Red is up to speed and ready for a good tack into clear air after the mark.
When both teams start dropping their kites and cleaning up for the rounding, team members should remember to position their weight to help the boat heel and assist the turn at the mark. Drivers should work with trimmers to coordinate a powerful turn that accelerates the boat onto the upwind heading. The timing of the drop should be such that the team is done boathandling and ready to hike as the boat starts upwind. This is usually more important than having the kite up a few seconds longer.
In photo 3, note that both teams are keeping their jib sheets relatively tight for the drops. Eased jibs make it easier for the kite to get tangled in the jib sheets, or drop overboard. Once the gennaker is down, the jib can be eased again to help with acceleration.
Unfortunately, throughout this sequence Red is making a classic mistake. They are staying too close to Blue and will ultimately lose more after the mark rounding. Experienced teams know this and find ways to clear their air. There is great value in being up to speed immediately after the rounding for a good start to the beat.
And there’s more bad news for Red. Because they are slower to drop their kite they are less prepared for the rounding, while Blue has the sail down and is ready to trim and hike – at photo 4 – In the end, Red starts turning after Blue, is less organized for going upwind, and will ultimately fall further back. If Red had understood this earlier and made some space between the boats, they could have headed up before Blue and started their acceleration sooner. That would have left them closer to Blue at the rounding, closer to the mark and faster than the sharper-turning Blue boat. All these little things would have left them in a much stronger position after the mark.
Instead, Red is slower and set up to lose more distance after the mark in photo 5. This may not seem like much, but they have gone from nearly in the lead, to well behind their opponent. In addition, they have lost distance on the trailing fleet, as well.
Right at the mark, in photo 6, Red makes one final mistake of trying to luff higher than close-hauled to clear their air. Normally, this results in hitting one wave or wake that causes even more losses. The obvious next move is to tack away for clear air before they are up to target speed. The combination of slower speed and lost ground means that Blue can easily match Red’s tack with their bow forward on the new tack, leaving Red in a weak tactical position. If Red had made a more powerful rounding, they could tack soon after and Blue would struggle to match them, leaving Red with more tactical options.
I like that Blue came around and sailed a normal upwind angle. Many teams will sail high just after the mark to try and kill the boat behind. In the end, you gain more by sailing your normal angle right away. The trailing boat will normally fall into you and tack. By sailing your normal upwind angle you will be faster and farther ahead and gain on the rest of the fleet, as well.