HOW TO CREATE YOUR RACE-WINNING SAILING STRATEGY
Sailing strategy is about forming a race plan based on as much information as possible. Which is going to be the fastest route up the sailing race course? And what factors are contributing to that decision? In this blog, we’ll look at how to put together a solid strategy so that you start the race with a clear plan in mind.
Here are some of the factors to take into account when putting your sailing race strategy together for the day.
– Land Effects
– Course Axis
– Wind Pattern
– Current & Tide
– The kind of boat you sail
– Your Attitude to Risk
WHAT KIND OF SAILING RACE COURSE ARE YOU LOOKING AT?
Before we look at those factors, let’s get an overview of what we’re trying to achieve here. Some race courses have a clear pattern that is well documented because so many sailors have experienced what works, and what doesn’t work at that venue. Let’s look at two very different scenarios and how they might affect your decisions about the best strategy for the sailing race day.
ONE-SIDED RACE TRACK
Lake Garda in the north of Italy is famous for its reliable thermal breeze called the Ora. On a warm summer’s day, the Ora arrives almost like clockwork at the northern end of the Lake just after midday.
When the Ora is blowing, the windward mark will be set to the south of the start line. Almost without fail, you know there will be stronger wind on the right-hand side of the windward leg, near the cliffs on the western side of the Lake. The boats that get to that stronger wind the soonest will be in the best position to win the race.
AT ALL COSTS, GET TO THE RIGHT!
So your goal is to do whatever it takes to get over to the right-hand side as quickly as possible. This could mean a brave start on port tack, either ducking or nipping ahead of the majority of the fleet on starboard. Or if you want to play it a bit safer, start on starboard near the committee boat and wait for your moment to tack into a clear lane on port tack. Even if you have to sail for a while in another boat’s dirty air, it’s a price worth paying for getting over to the stronger wind as soon as you can. In these conditions, there is no reward for sailing up the middle of the course.
EVEN-SIDED RACE TRACK
In contrast with the one-way track of Lake Garda, you could be racing on a course on the open sea with the wind blowing directly onshore. The breeze is steady, hardly changing in strength or direction, and there are no land or current effects on the course. The race committee has set the start line even in the wind direction, so there is no advantage to starting at either end. So, what would you do? The risk of getting it right or wrong is much less significant than in the Lake Garda example. This is about as even and fair a race track as you could hope to find.
CLEAR AIR IS KING!
So your success will mostly come down to getting a good sailing start in clear air and being able to hold your lane for as long as you want, perhaps all the way out to the lay line. Your strategy is to sail fast and be able to tack when you want, maintaining clear air all the way to the windward mark. So maybe starting at the pin end would be a good option. This would give you the ability to put the bow down, ease the sails a bit for speed, and sail in clear air and clear water all the way out to the left-hand side. By the time you want to tack on to port, you should have gained enough of a gap to cross any other boats on starboard tack. Strategy on a day like this is much less important than a great start combined with raw boat speed.
FACTORS TO HELP SET YOUR STRATEGY
The two examples above show you the full range of sailing strategies, from the one-sided ‘must hit the cliffs’ demands of Lake Garda, to the ‘go anywhere you like as long as you’re fast’ nature of the open water race course.
Most racing venues will sit somewhere between these two extremes. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to work out what kind of venue and what kind of day you’re looking at.
Here are the key factors to help you formulate a race-winning strategy.
What land is there near the course, or even some distance away? And what effect could that have on the behavior of the wind? We’ve already spoken about the cliffs at Lake Garda and how the wind tends to get stronger the closer you get to those cliffs. If you’re coming to a new venue for the first time, here are a couple of things you can do to get the inside track on local effects:
– Ask the locals. Club sailors who have raced at a venue for years tend to know all the subtle tricks and tips when the wind is blowing from a certain angle. Ask them and see if they’ll share their secrets! Buy them a beer if it helps loosen their lips.
– Do a split tack. Before the start, find a friendly rival and set out from the starting area on separate tacks. Agree that you’ll both tack at, say, 2 or 3 minutes. Now you’ll be on converging tacks. Who came out ahead? This can be useful research, although be a little careful about drawing hard conclusions. Use it as an indicator of what might be going on. When in doubt about which way to go up the first beat, a split tack can sometimes give you that extra confidence to aim in a certain direction.
CURRENT & TIDE
A bit like Land Effects, Current & Tide should be predictable, even more so in fact. For open sea courses, chances are there are some navigational charts with tidal information. You can buy these charts well in advance of going to the venue, so your research can start days or even months before you’re due to compete there.
The same tips we already talked about, Ask the Locals and Do a Split Tack, also apply to working out which is likely to favor on the race course.
Sometimes the course can be skewed off to one side, meaning there’s going to be more sailing to be done on one tack than the other. Unless there are very good reasons for doing otherwise, Sail the Long Tack first. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself hitting a layline very early, leaving with you no tactical options and at risk of the wind shifting against you. However, there are some occasions when sailing the short tack first, ie. banging a corner, might work. This is when you have high confidence that one side of the course is paying, perhaps due to a well-known Land Effect or because there is a much weaker adverse tide on that side of the course.
What’s the wind doing? And what’s it forecast to do? In the northern hemisphere, a thermal sea breeze will drag right with the movement of the sun, and even on a fairly small course, you can feel the effects. Going right in a sea breeze is generally the safer bet. Or maybe the wind is oscillating back and forth through 10 to 15 degrees, in which case some pre-race homework and timing of the shifts will give you an idea of which way the first wind shift will go after the start.
THE KIND OF BOAT THAT YOU RACE
What kind of boat you sail has a big effect on your strategy. In a hiking dinghy like a Laser/ILCA, tacking costs you hardly any speed loss. So you can afford to tack your way into clear air and play your options to achieve the strategy that you want. In a faster boat like a twin-trapeze catamaran or a foiling Moth, a tack is a relatively high-tariff maneuver. You simply can’t afford to tack too often, which means you need to have done your homework before the race to decide which way up the first leg is likely to pay. The faster the boat, the more important strategy becomes.
YOUR ATTITUDE TO RISK
Some of the most successful Olympic sailors like to start out of the middle of the line and rarely stray to the edges of the course. This is particularly true in the slower boats like Lasers and 470s. But the most successful sailors also tend to have world-class boatspeed, so they can afford to take fewer risks and rely on their speed to manage the fleet and defend their position near the front. Other very successful Olympic sailors are also known to bang the corner of the course, but this is because they have done their pre-race homework and have strong faith in their strategy. The accepted wisdom is that banging the corners is a high-risk option only for fools. But if you know that there is a ‘gain feature’ on one side of the course that works time and time again, maybe the risker option is to stay in the middle of the course. This weighing up of risk v reward is one of the most fascinating parts of sailboat racing. What you decide is sometimes down to your personality and attitude to risk. Experiment with different ratios of the risk/reward equation and see what works!
SO WHAT’S YOUR STRATEGY?
So, Strategy… it’s a complicated business! It’s all about working out what matters most for the day. Analysing the different factors and deciding on the biggest, most important priorities. Start thinking in strategic terms. Do your homework before going afloat, and in the 10 to 20 minutes before the race start. Which way are you going to go up the first upwind leg? And why? The more you think strategically, the better you’ll get. And you’ll be starting with a big advantage over your less strategic rivals!
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