Make a ‘Game Plan’ For The Windward Leg
by David Dellenbaugh

It’s important to think about strategy before you start sailing up the windward leg, Photo by J.H. PetersonIt’s critical to have a good strategic plan for the windward leg because that is usually where the fleet gets farthest apart. When boats are on opposite sides of the beat, their separation can be huge, and even a small change in wind direction, pressure, or current can have a huge impact on the fleet standings.

Of course, if the conditions never change you don’t have to worry about strategy. In that case the race will be decided entirely on speed and tactics. But in reality the wind is always changing in both velocity and direction. In fact, the wind is a lot like a snow flake -it never follows exactly the same pattern in any two races.

Every race has a unique set of strategic conditions, and that’s why you need to develop a new strategy for each race. This gameplan must be customized to the particular conditions that you experience in that place at that particular time.

Strategic ingredients
When you are planning your strategic moves, you must consider a multitude of factors such as wind direction, wind pressure (puffs and lulls), current, waves, and the location of the windward mark and laylines. The basic question you constantly try to answer is whether you think it is better to be left, right or in the middle.There are many strategic variables that affect how quickly you get to the finish. The five factors that we will cover in this issue are wind direction, wind velocity, course geometry, current, and waves.
For each variable, there are two important considerations. First, is that element uniform across your windward leg, or does it vary from side to side? For example, if the wind strength is exactly equal all across your course, that variable will not influence your strategy. But if there’s a lot more wind on one side, that might be the determining factor in your gameplan.

The second consideration is how you expect each variable to change as you sail up the beat. For example, will the wind shift direction? If the wind direction remains steady, this will not affect your strategic planning. But unfortunately this is hardly ever the case. Almost all five strategic variables change continuously, and this is something that the top sailors are always expecting.

Gather information
In order to make a strategic plan for the beat, you need to gather as much information as possible about the five strategic areas. This data should come from knowledge of the past, observation of the present, and forecasts of the future.

Knowledge of the past
Before the regatta even starts, try to find out what the wind normally does in the area where you are sailing. Identifying common trends can be very helpful in planning a strategy. If you have raced in that venue many times before, hopefully you have a notebook filled with strategic notes. If you haven’t sailed there, talk to people who are “regulars” and see what kind of ‘local knowledge’ you can uncover.

Other good sources of past wind trends are historical data from local airports and online data from meteorological buoys.

Observation of the present
This will give you the most valid and valuable information, so it should be your primary source for strategic planning. Historical data and future forecasts are helpful, but there is no substitute for what you can see and feel in the course area just before and during your race.

So get out to the race area as early as possible and observe the wind, current, and waves. Keep track of wind direction and velocity and look for trends. Don’t stop doing this when your warning signal is made - the wind never stops changing so you have to keep watching it throughout the race.

Forecasts of the future
In the old days you had to get weather forecasts from the newspaper, radio, or television and these were so general (and ‘old’!) that they were almost completely worthless. Now we have two much better options: 1) web-based forecasts, some of which are fairly good; and 2) private weather and wind forecast services, available to purchase for your particular regatta.

These private weather forecasts are by far the best you can get; they usually give you the predicted wind direction and velocity for each hour of the day, and in many conditions they are quite accurate. However, I recommend using them only as a general guide for strategic planning because your own observations of the race course will definitely give you the best and most up-to-date information available.

Develop your gameplan
A few minutes before the start, or before you round the leeward mark, review your historical notes, your current observations and any forecasts you may have. Then make a strategic plan for the next windward leg. The basic goal of this process should be to identify the ‘favored’ side of the beat so you can choose a route that will get you to the windward mark fastest.

A sample strategy might sound something like this: “the breeze is oscillating, but also shifting slowly to the right, and velocity looks steady across the course. The waves are uniform across the course and there is no significant current. Therefore we’ll favor the right side, playing the shifts and being careful not to overstand.”

Sometimes the wind conditions are very predictable and it’s easy to come up with a clear strategy; other times the conditions are extremely unpredictable and it seems impossible to figure out what will happen. That’s OK - sometimes the wind is really a bit random.

Even the top competitors begin sailing many beats not knowing which side of the course is favored. When this happens, you simply have to keep strategizing (i.e. collecting information) as you sail up the beat. The good thing about doing this while racing is that you have all the other boats to help you see the wind patterns.

Sooner or later, you will figure out which side of the course is better and you can head there. The key, however, is what you do before you figure this out. When you’re not sure which side of the beat is favored, it’s probably best to stay somewhere near the middle of the course until things develop.

When I’m hanging out in the middle waiting for a favored side to appear, I watch my competitors to see which of them are most threatening. If the boats on the right seem to be gaining on me, that side is probably better (and vice versa), so I head that way.

The key thing about strategizing is that it’s a fluid, ongoing process. Since the wind and other variables are always changing, and can’t stop thinking about them until after you finish. And when you make a plan for the beat, you must always be willing to revise it (or throw it away) if (when) the conditions change.

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


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