Strategy & Tactics

This seminar is the third in a trilogy of topics I believe are necessary to understand in order to safely and effectively compete in sailboat racing. The first, “Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing”, is of critical importance for safety reasons. With a grasp of the complex rules which govern our maneuvers when racing in close quarters, the next seminar “Boat Handling & Sail Trim” is about getting the best performance out of your boat in varying conditions. Performance is important because, after all, you are racing. The third, “Strategy & Tactics” is about how to race sailboats. In simplest form, it is about pointing the boat in the right direction.

Have you ever wondered how the fleet can become so spread out, even in a short race? And have you wondered why it is that certain sailors seem to consistently finish well? Well, ours is a very interesting game indeed!

  • Our power source is invisible, requiring us to rely on our senses.
  • Our invisible power source is constantly changing direction and velocity, and varies across the race course.
  • Our course boundaries are unmarked, i.e., start/finish lines, laylines, and zones.
  • We rarely steer towards a mark, but must have to make a judgment about how “close” to steer towards the direction of the mark.
  • Our course is often not the direction we are steering if current is moving the water beneath us.
  • There are all those other boats!

“Strategy” is about how one approaches sailing a given race course, reacting to wind shifts, current, and waves, such as to complete the course in the fastest time possible. Understanding the topology of the race course is critical, because it is really easy to sail “off the course”. It’s easy to do, because there are no physical boundary lines, and even if there were, they are shifting about constantly.  But, if you sail off the course, you will end up sailing more distance than those who did not, and will likely finish behind them. Strategic considerations include things such as figuring out the “favored” end of both the starting line and side of the course, which may not be the same. The primary emphasis is on understanding the significance of wind shifts which continually modify the course, and in turn, the strategy. A pre-race strategy might be something like “It looks the pin end is favored at the start, but the right side of the first leg seems favored because there is more wind there. So, our strategic plan is to go right and play the right side”.

“Tactics” is about implementing your strategy in the company of all those other boats. If you are positive you want to go right after the start, a good starting tactic is to start a little late at the right end (usually the committee boat end), so that you will be free to tack immediately and head to the right. Any other place on the starting line puts you in a position where you probably would not be able to tack until the boat to your right tacks first. Another tactical move while approaching the line to start is “luffing” the boat to windward to create a hole to leeward so you can start without another boat on your lee bow. Have you ever noticed how, if you do have a boat on your lee bow, the other boat moves forward and to windward, while you move backwards and to leeward, falling in behind? This is because boats themselves cause wind shifts and wind shadows in their proximity. Understanding these effects is critical to how you place your boat in relation to the others around you. A good working knowledge of the Racing Rules of Sailing is critical when playing the tactical game, not only so that you are able to use the rules to your advantage, but so that you are not taken advantage of by those who either know the rules better, or worse, by those who employ intimidation as a tactic. While this is not a rules seminar, emphasis is given to those rules which apply most frequently in tactical situations.

Other important tactics include how to approach windward marks, how to gain an inside overlap at leeward marks, and how to pick the favored end of the finish line. That’s right, the finish line almost always has a favored end, so that you should always finish at an end, and not in the center of the line.

A great deal of emphasis is given to understanding the potential gains or losses caused by wind shifts. While good boat handling and speed certainly provide competitive advantages, they can be measured in a few percent. A good (or bad depending on which side you’re on) wind shift can result in gains of 30, 40, 50 percent and more! Similar gains are possible on those really light air days when wind pressure, rather that wind shifts, is key. This is where races are won and lost, and what this seminar is about.

This seminar is directed at all skill levels, and information will be conveyed in a way that anyone can understand. The information is equally applicable to both skipper and crew. In fact, boats with a crew versed in these topics have a considerable competitive edge! It is extremely difficult for a skipper to be watching other boats, looking for wind shifts, puffs, and lulls, and making tactical decisions when converging with other boats, all while concentrating on driving the boat fast. This is a team sport, and the strongest teams have the greatest advantage. There will be a lot if information covered, and to some, it may seem like “drinking from a fire hose”. But, that is why these seminars are repeated periodically.

If you have questions or suggestions regarding this program, please contact:

Peter Haynes       949-466-3971