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Y&Y Magazine - Winning in a big fleet

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

Nacra 17 World and European Champion, Ben Saxton, talks us through his key strategy decisions and plans when preparing for racing in large regatta fleets.


My first and arguably most important rule is the need to keep it simple. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the situation if you are new to racing. Experienced racers become great champions once they have learnt to not get distracted, and focus on the important “pinch points” of the regatta, or race.


So we have got off the start line, the race has begun what do we do next?

Sailing is a decision making sport. The thing that makes sailing exciting and difficult is that every time we go onto the water we experience different conditions. This means we sail with and must manage uncertainty.

Good racers analyse the risk of a decision and compare it to the reward to judge whether or not it is worthwhile. This theory can be applied to a decision about boat on boat positioning approaching a mark, tactics across a leg, a race, or a championship.

Here are a few basic principles to help with decision making around a course. If you stick to these you will not go too wrong.


Fleet Positioning Safest in towards the middle, and close to other boats. The greater the distance from you to another boat (leverage) the higher the risk or reward stake. As a rule it is high risk to be completely towards the edges of the course, and lower risk to be in the middle half. The second aspect of fleet positioning is how to defend. A simple rule of put yourself between them and the mark makes it very hard for boats to pass you upwind. In a large fleet fleet, positioning is more important than in a smaller club race or handicap race, as you’re no longer racing the clock, only boats, and the steaks are higher.


Long Tack Describes the tack or gybe on which you have a higher percentage of the leg left to sail. Often consistency is found by doing the long tack first. Percentage-wise it gives you more time to wait for the opportune moment (shift or pressure) to take a gain across the fleet. In big fleets this is a particularly important rule as staying on the long tack helps you keep space up the beat. If you need to tack to clear your air etc. you can. Trust me, this one is key!


Where is the next mark? In order to know if you are on the long tack, you need to know where the next mark is. Looking at the mark you’re currently sailing to is also a simple way of telling if you are on the correct tack for the wind shift or long tack – on a leg that is square to the wind. In big fleets I find this trick really useful. Fleet positioning, and long tack are particularly important on stable wind days, where racing is close – for example sea breeze days, or days with an onshore wind direction.

It is surprising how hard it is to look for the leeward marks whilst you’re three-quarters of the way up the beat, but you you must make time to do this. In a big fleet you must have a plan for the next leg before you get to it. In smaller fleets this plan is a small tactical gain of a few seconds, but in larger fleets it is often harder to swap sides of the course whilst keeping clear air, thus planning becomes more important.


Different Way Another way of making tactical decisions is by crossing boats when you can. Banking your gains is a no brainer, as long as it is not a tidal, or geographical advantage that has lead to your gain. In a big fleet it is especially important to cross boats when you can and get back to the middle of the course ahead of boats when you can. This method is most useful on days with unstable breeze, where shifts and pressure are more important.


Fact vs Feeling Risk is reduced when you are making decisions based upon facts, and increased when making decisions based upon feelings:

Facts • Compass numbers, or which tack is pointing closest to the mark. • Fleet positioning • Long tack

Feelings • Looks like more pressure left or right • Looks like shift • What worked last beat

Having said this, you must use both types. All good racers are attempting to predict shifts and pressure gains. So when should you trust your feelings? If you can see indicators that turn feelings closer to facts (other fleets, cruisers, downwind boats, smoke, flags, wind turbines, tide lines). It comes down to the confidence you have in your feelings. If you’re logically confident in it (note logically) then go for it, especially if your stakes are decreased. For example if it takes you onto the long tack, or it helps your fleet positioning too. If you’re low in confidence and at a point of the regatta or race where you want to defend rather than attack then don’t risk it. Another way to ensure you make good logical decisions is to have a strong relationship with your teammate. I value this highly.


The Regatta Timeline Preparation is key. As championships are often held on the sea, look online or in the books to find out the local tide times. Look at a tidal flow model for the area, or print off a google maps picture of the race area, find a tidal diamond on a nautical chart near you draw simple arrows on it for each flow direction – if you can’t do this, remember to have a look at the marks when you are sailing around them. A top tip is to keep an eye on the committee boat too. They often stay anchored for the whole race and the angle they’re lying will give you a live reading of what the tide is doing.

Have a look at the forecast each morning so that you know what to expect. See if you can find any factors that will help you predict an upcoming shift, for example cloud cover.


How to approach Day 1? You cannot win the regatta on the first day, but you can certainly loose it. Rule one is avoid letters, and big scores. Save your discards for later.

If in doubt, do your turns to avoid a protest – not that I recommend pushing it normally, because that’s certainly not the sailor I want to be, or the legacy I want to have. Also, be low risk tactically, and if its windy prioritise not capsizing. However, as with the tactical risk and reward game there is a balance. There is simply no point in being too safe (for example on the start line) and scoring too many points. I try to attack the first day of a regatta, whilst also being low risk. For example, each of the three times I have won the Endeavour Trophy I have been leading after the first day.


How to finish of a regatta? If you’re doing well, it is for a reason. My top strategic advice is not to change too much. If your risk and reward game stays good over the entire regatta this is where you will move up the results. Your competitors will be beginning to wish there are one or to more discards available.

If you’re down on pace, make sure you race even smarter. This is a really hard thing to do, and trust me hardly anyone in the world can do it. In the clubhouse you will hear your fellow competitors saying “I just wasn’t fast enough” etc. hence they had a bad race, but they will forget to mention that the went the wrong way because they were not smart.





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