Tactics can seem really, really complicated. Sometimes on a busy race course, in all the noise of battle, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.
Then again, tactics is really, really simple. It’s binary. At any moment during the race you only have two choices:

1. keep going


2. change direction (tack or gybe).

Want to learn about the basics of Sailing into the wind? Read that article first!

In another blog we talked about Strategy. That’s about doing your pre-race homework, analysing the conditions and working out which is the fastest way up the course. But strategy is nothing without tactics, because how often do you get to execute your perfect strategy without other boats getting in the way?

Tactics is about how you execute your strategy on a busy race course, how you outsmart and outmanoeuvre the opposition.
When you’re ahead, it’s about the defensive moves you need to make to keep your spot. When you’re behind, it’s working out how to overtake the boats in front of you. Let’s take a look at the fundamentals of good tactics. And we’re going to focus on Upwind Tactics in this blog post.


Here are three questions to ask yourself at any point when you’re trying to work out if you’re on the right track (and the right tack!).
1. Am I on the long tack to the mark?
2. Am I on the lifted tack?
3. Am I sailing in the same direction as the majority of the fleet?

Let’s look at those in more detail. We’ll consider these factors in relation to upwind tactics. The same principles more or less apply on the downwind legs too, but because we spend more of the time racing upwind, let’s make that the priority for now.


If the race course is skewed, and there’s more sailing to be done on one tack than the other, then start sailing on the long tack first. This will take you back towards the centreline of the course as defined by the wind direction. The closer to the centreline, the more tactical options you have available. Do the opposite, and sail the short tack first, and you have boxed yourself into a corner. You’ve used up your tactical options early and now you’re at the mercy of any changes in the wind, and most likely the bad air from other boats.


You should have a sense of how the wind is shifting and you should be able to feel the boat lifting and heading through the wind shifts. Even better if you’re tracking the numbers on a compass. Sailing the lifted tack means you’re sailing a shorter distance towards the next mark.


If most of the fleet is going in a certain direction, you should be going with them. Or at least, you need a good reason to be doing the opposite.


If you’re leading the fleet or in the front pack and aiming to protect your position, there’s little reason to break the three Golden Rules.
However, let’s consider some reasons why you might want to break them…
1. Better wind on one side: There’s a clear bias towards one side of the course. This could be a land factor which means there’s a wind bend and/or a stronger breeze on one side of the course. In which case you’ll want to get further into that side sooner than your opposition.
2. Tidal Difference: Similar to a wind factor, there might be a tidal or current difference across the course. If the current is stronger and pushing you upwind, you’ll want to get over to that side of the course as your tactical and strategic priority. The same, or even more so, if the current is against you. Escaping the worst of the current is now your biggest priority.
3. Sailing on a header: If you’re looking to take advantage of a better wind or current situation, then be prepared to sail on a header to get over to one side. If there is a permanent wind bend, sail on a header so that when you tack on to the lifting tack, you’re sailing on the ‘inside lane’ of the race track.
4. Sailing away from the fleet: If you feel the fleet is missing a big factor, like one of the ones listed above, then stick to your guns and sail in the opposite direction.
5. Getting out of dirty air: If you’re in dirty air and need to tack away from the bulk of the fleet in front of you, that’s a good reason to break the Golden Rules. But only sail as far as you need to before you’re back in clear air. Now ask yourself those three Golden Rules again. It’s too easy to stay on the same tack and gamble your position on going for the opposite corner from the fleet, just because it’s different. If you’re going to be different, be different for a good reason.
6. The final lap gamble: If you’re struggling near the back of the fleet and running out of time for playing a game of patience, now is the time to consider a gamble. If you’re so far back that you’ve got nothing to lose, then break the Golden Rules. Bang the opposite corner of the race course and see if you win a lucky lottery ticket!


That last point, the ‘final lap gamble’, comes with a health warning. There’s a temptation, as you’re getting towards the end of the race, to start taking more risks. Coming back from a bad start is usually the accumulation of lots of small gains around the race course. If there’s one quality that marks out the people who win championship after championship, it’s the ability to come back from a bad start and convert it into a good result by the finish. As you go around the race course, wherever you are in the fleet, keep on checking in on the three Golden Rules of Tactics.

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‘It’s all about upwind performance’ emphasizes the importance of boat speed, VMG, strategy and tactics during that crucial first leg. Olympic Gold Medallist and skipper and helmsman for the Japan SailGP Team Nathan Outteridge will share all his knowledge from his professional sailing career. Learn from the best, improve your sailing skills in the moments right after the gunshot and get ahead of the competition. 

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