As the championship season approaches, BEN SAXTON breaks down the principles of strategy and tactics to put you a step ahead.
This is an exciting time of year, as lighter nights mean weekday evening series start and the summer championship season draws closer. Whether it is your first nationals, or you are moving into the top 10 for the first time, or even if you are the reigning champion, it’s time to sharpen up on strategy and tactics.
The first, and arguably most important rule, is the need to keep it simple. It is easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you are new to racing. Experienced racers become champions once they have learned not to get distracted, and focus on the important pinch points of the regatta or race. Sailing is a decision-making sport. What makes sailing exciting and difficult is that every time you go on the water you experience different conditions, and therefore we need to consider what we can do to manage uncertainty.
Good racers analyse the risk of a decision and compare it to the reward to judge whether or not it is worthwhile – the ‘risk and reward’ game. This theory can be applied to a decision about boat-on-boat positioning, approaching a mark, tactics across a leg, a race, or a whole championship.
There are a few basic principles to help with decision-making around a course. Bear these in mind and you will not go too far wrong
1) Fleet positioning – The safest position is generally in towards the middle of the course, and close to other boats. The greater the distance from you to another boat (referred to as ‘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 knowing 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, 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 stakes are higher.
2) Long tack – This describes the tack or gybe that you have a higher percentage of the leg left to do on. 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. That opens up your options so if, say, you need to tack to clear your air, you can. Trust me, this one is key!
3) 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 sailing to now is also a simple way – on a leg that is square to the wind – of telling if you are on the correct tack for the wind shift or long tack. In big fleets I find this trick really useful. Focusing on the fleet positioning and long tack principles is particularly important on stable wind days, where racing is close; for example, sea breeze days, or days with an onshore wind. Also it is surprising how hard it is to look for the leeward marks while you’re three-quarters of the way up the beat, but 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 while keeping clear air, so planning becomes more important.
4) Bank your gains - 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 led 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 is most useful on days with unstable breeze where shifts and pressure are foremost.
5) Facts vs feeling - Risk is reduced when you are making decisions based upon facts, and increased when making decisions based upon feelings:
Compass numbers, or which tack is pointing closest to the mark
Looks like more pressure left or right
Looks like a shift
What worked last beat
Having said this, you must use both types of decision. 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 on to 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.
Personally, I value this highly.
There are a few other little tricks that can help you perform well in a big fleet:
Think ahead on the windward mark approach
Predict where it is going to busy; if you’re not in the front five and it looks like the starboard layline will be busy, then avoid it and get out of the corner early by coming back 100m below the starboard layline. When you’re approaching on port at the top make sure you are at least three boat-lengths away from the mark so that you are not tacking inside the zone, risking breaking rule 18.
If in doubt straight-set on the run. You have a decision to bear away or gybe at the top of a run. Often, especially on the first lap, there is less wind if you gybe because you are covered by the other beating/reaching boats.
Stay in space
Groups of boats go at the speed of the slowest one. So if you can find yourself 30 metres of space on the racecourse then there has to be a good tactical reason not to do it. This can be very important when choosing which leeward gate mark to take.
Break down the beat
Think of it in different stages. As a basic rule, in the bottom third you have more freedom to attack, in the middle third it’s time to start crossing boats, and in the top third, plan your windward mark approach, and bank your gains.
Keep to your plan
It is not a good enough reason that a boat was there so it stopped you from doing what you thought was right. Because there are so many things to consider, and so many ways of justifying a decision, it is key to work out which ones you want to prioritise on the day. Before the start, work out what sort of day it is and this will tell you what weight to put on shifts, versus fleet positioning or a tidal gain. I could talk about this much more, but for now, just remember to identify the type of day.
What can you do between now and the championship to practise when in a smaller fleet?
It is key to reinforce good habits. Therefore, practise thinking about fleet positioning, long tack, and crossing boats. Also practise looking for the mark you’re sailing towards and the one after it. Practise planning the next leg and looking for indicators to reinforce your feelings, such as angles of other boats, how spinnakers are setting on the run, etc.
Starting is also important in big fleets, so practise using transits so that you have the confidence to be in the front row. When it comes to a big fleet start, you have to be in contention by 30 seconds into the race.
BOXES TO TICK BEFOREHAND
Preparation is key. Championships are often held at 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 and draw simple arrows on it for each flow direction. If you can’t do this, just 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. You must do this even if you have done detailed tidal preparation.
Have a look at the forecast every morning so that you know what to expect. See if you can find any factors out on the course that will help you predict a upcoming shift; for example, cloud cover and its direction.
Don’t take any risks with your boat preparation. Above we’ve talked about gaining the greatest reward for minimum risk. This is a simple way to reduce risk! If you think something might break, then replace it. It is best to do it a few sails before you race, just to check your repair is good enough.
Make sure your boat and foils are clean of dirt. You can polish your boat if you want, but make sure your hulls and foils are clean. Carry some spares on your boat to make some running repairs. It is amazing how many things you can repair with a length of rope, a spare block, and a shackle.
BIG PICTURE APPROACH
What’s the best way to approach day one?
You cannot win the regatta on the first day, but you can lose it. Rule one is avoid letters, and big scores. Save your discards for later. The basic rules are: 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 it’s 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 startline) and scoring too many points. I try to attack the first day of a regatta, while 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. Remember, it is never over. If you are doing well at the midpoint of a race or regatta, keep going and stay logical.
How best to finish 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 rivals will be wishing there were one or two 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 this. In the clubhouse you will hear fellow competitors saying “I just wasn’t fast enough” and so on, hence they had a bad race, but they will forget to mention that they went the wrong way because they were not thinking smart.
BEN’S TOP 10 TO TAKE AWAY
1. Keep it simple
2. The ‘fleet positioning’ principle
3. The ‘long tack’ principle
4. The ‘finding marks’ principle
5. The ‘crossing boats’ principle
6. Facts vs feelings
7. Evaluate your confidence in your plan versus the risk
8. Prioritise the day ‘type’ in order to decide how to make decisions
9. Reinforce good habits now
10. Consistency is key