Tactics and Strategy
by David Dellenbaugh

Upwind Tactics
Cross other boats when you can.
When the wind direction is oscillating, it usually pays to tack on the headers. But if changes in the wind are subtle or gradual, it may be easier to recognize shifts by watching the relative positions and headings of other boats. For example, a header will make you look better relative to boats on your windward ‘hip.’ If suddenly it looks like you have gained the ability to cross boats on your hip, it’s probably a good time to tack and consolidate your gain. The corollary is that you don’t want to let other boats cross you. When they are sailing on a lift, tack to leeward and ahead so you beat them to the next shift.

Tack when headed to the median.
When the wind is shifty, your basic strategy is to tack on the headers. But exactly when is the best time to tack? The biggest mistake for most sailors is sailing too far into the header. If you keep going until you get the maximum shift, you will sail roughly half the beat on headers instead of lifts, which is not fast. To avoid this, tack when you get knocked to your median heading.

‘Spend’ your lead.
In one-design racing, it doesn’t matter how far you are ahead of another boat when you cross the finish line. Therefore, don’t take chances trying to maintain or build a large margin. In fact, it’s often smart to “spend” (i.e. use up) some of your lead in order to stay in a conservative position and make sure you beat the boat behind.

Avoid bad air.
Boats always cast wind shadows, but these are more harmful in light air. When a stream of slow-moving air is interrupted (e.g. by a boat’s sail plan), it takes a long time for that stream to return to normal. In light air, you may feel another boat’s shadow as far as 10 lengths away, and when you are in that shadow, you may have only half as much wind as boats in clear air. This is a problem because you were already underpowered. In heavy air, the wind stream re-forms much more quickly, so you might feel a shadow only 5 boatlengths to leeward of another boat. And that won’t hurt as much because you still have a relatively strong breeze.

Wave a port tacker across.
When you have a good lane on starboard tack and you want to keep going toward the left side, don’t automatically yell “Starboard” to every port tacker that tries to cross in front of you. Having them tack on your lee bow is probably not the best thing. It’s often much better to let the other boat go across, even if this means you will lose a little by bearing off behind them. When you are still several lengths away, yell “Go ahead,” or other words to make it clear they can keep going. Just be sure to communicate loudly and clearly.


Use a blocker to hold your lane.
A second way to protect your lane on starboard tack is by using a “blocker.” A blocker is another boat on starboard tack that’s to leeward and ahead of you, in a position to intercept incoming port tackers. Those boats will either have to lee-bow the blocker or duck behind the blocker (and go behind you too), leaving you free to continue sailing in your lane.

Bear off at port tackers.
A third way to protect your clear-air lane on starboard tack is to bear off slightly toward a converging port tacker when you are roughly three or outpatients away. The idea is to force her to tack earlier (to avoid you) and then head up, using your extra speed to gain separation to windward. If you do this right, it will help you hold your lane on starboard tack for at least a little while longer.

Fleet Strategy
Avoid needless risk.
When your ace sailboats, every choice you make involves a certain risk. For example, if you try to squeeze inside at a crowded jibe mark, you are taking a relatively large chance. Before you make any race decision, do two things:

1) consider you options and how much risk is involved with each. In other words, what is the probability of success for each course of action?

2) Decide how much risk you are willing to take. When it’s early in a race or series, you probably shouldn’t take too many chances. But as you get near the finish, you may be willing to be more risky to achieve your goals.

Are you happy?
When you make tactical and strategic plans during a race, keep the answer to one important question in mind: “Are you happy with your current position in the race?” In other words, do you need to pass boats ahead of you, or are you content to hold your place? This is a critical bit of information for making decisions about how much risk to take. For example, if you need to catch three boats on the last leg to win the regatta, you might decide to take a flier. But if you can win the series simply by holding your position, you should be more conservative and cover the boats behind you closely.

Stay on the favored side of other boats.
When your strategy says the right side of the course is favored, it may not be enough simply to sail toward that part of the beat or run. If all the other boats go even farther right, you are actually on their left, which is not good. Since your only goal in the race is to beat your competitors, you must use your strategy to position yourself relative to them. If you like the right side, for example, you should generally stay on the right side of the boat (or boats) you want to beat.

Create good luck.
Perhaps you think it’s crazy to suggest that sailors may have some control over their own luck. After all, isn’t luck random? I used to think so until it became apparent that the best sailors usually have most of the good luck! Coincidence? I doubt it. I agree with the person who said luck is ‘what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’ If you are well-prepared and work hard, you are more likely to be lucky.

Know the score.
When your are trying to make a strategic game plan and assess the amount of risk you’re willing to take, you have to know where you stand in the fleet. If you’re in 3rd place for the regatta, for example, you will have a very different approach than if you’re in 10th. So write down the series scores and bring them out with you. Of course, there are many races where the overall scores don’t matter, such as the first few races of a series. But after that it may be important to know the standings.

Beware of the middle.
On most beats, it’s good to avoid the edges of the course, but when you have light air and a large fleet there often seems to be less wind in the middle of the course than on either side. That’s probably because a large fleet acts like as now fence, and the wind has a hard time getting through all the sails. As a result, the breeze tends to bend around and lift up over the bulk of the fleet (which is in the middle). So pick a side and go there; if you play the middle you may get passed on both sides!

At the end of a run, protect the left side.
At the beginning of a run, your choice about whether to go left or right should be based primarily on strategic factors like the wind pressure and shifts. As you get closer to the leeward mark, however, think tactically. If you are rounding the mark to port, it’s smart to play the left side of the course (looking downwind). This will give you two advantages over the fleet - you’ll be inside at the mark and also on starboard tack when you converge with the other boats.

Dave publishes the newsletter Speed & Smarts. For a subscription call: 800-356- 2200 or go to: www.speedandsmarts.com