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Performance Racing Tactics

by © Bill Gladstone
Chapter 7 – Upwind Strategy

7.6 Strategy vs Rivals

While dealing with other boats is really a tactical issue, other boats can enter into our strategic planning. Late in a series we may be concerned with particular boats which are close to us in the standings.

It is good strategy to consider your close rivals, but do not let them distract you from sailing your own boat properly. There is a danger in becoming preoccupied with the opponent. The rivals are but one strategic factor. If you sail your own boat well, the rest should fall into place. If you sail badly, then you stand a greater chance of losing your private war.

The basic strategy when ahead is to stay between the competition and the next mark (Fig. 20). When behind the basic strategy is to split with the rival, but not simply for the sake of splitting. If you are behind and the rival is going the right way, splitting will leave you further behind. You have to be patient and look for your opportunities. For further discussion see Chapter 8: Upwind Tactics, next. There are times when you may be close enough behind in the race to be able to preserve a lead in the series. In this case the strategy is simply to follow the rival. You must, of course, consider handicap time differences when evaluating your position.

Fig. 20 – Cover your chief rivals. Stay between them and the next mark or the wind.

7.7 The Land of Opportunity

It happens, even to the best of racers. All of the sudden you find yourself at the tail end of the fleet. Who knows how you got there-a third row start, a miserable first beat, a big shift, a boat handling disaster. I will not dwell on the ways to fall behind; at that, it seems, we are all uniquely qualified.

The Most Important Race

So, you’re back in the pack. What should you do? Before getting into details, recognize that in any regatta or series your worst race is often the most important. One astronomical score can shatter an otherwise competitive record. The ability to bring that astronomical finish down to earth is the mark of a champion, and success starts with attitude.

Don’t Dwell

As a skipper you should take charge. Never mind how we got into this mess-let’s focus on getting out of it. (Besides, more than likely it was your fault.)

How Many Can we Pass?

When you find yourself at the wrong end of the fleet, don’t get depressed. You are in The Land of Opportunity-there is a whole fleet of boats waiting to be passed. Don’t wait for a miracle to save you. Get to work and grind ‘em down, one at a time. You’re not going to win this race; that is no longer the goal. Actually, winning is redefined for this race. Winning is passing as many boats as you can (Fig. 21).

Fig. 21 – The Land of Opportunity.

Sail Fast & Go the Right Way

Don’t panic. Settle down and work on boat speed. You will not pass anyone without good speed. Concentrate on speed, and you should be able to knock off a few tail-enders easily.

Go the right way. In The Land of Opportunity you must concentrate more on your overall strategythan on immediate tactics with those nearby. Upwind, figure out which side of the course is favored and head that way. Back here it is hard to sail the middle; all that gets you is traffic and bad air. You must pick a side. Do it carefully-you can’t afford another mistake. If you are not sure which way to go (maybe that’s how you landed in the Land of Opportunity), look to the leaders for guidance. The leaders are probably doing what is right. Others will gamble against the odds in hopes of passing the leaders. Our goal is pass the gamblers.

Sail Clean, Fast, Smart

On the reaches, you can save distance by sailing the rhumb line while letting others waste distance sailing high and then low. Avoid luffing duels, plan well ahead for the inside position at roundings and, above all, keep sailing fast.

Running legs offer an opportunity to attack those ahead. For all you need to know about Running Strategy and Tactics, skip ahead a few chapters. There are real opportunities here.

The Promised Land

Hopefully you’ve fallen behind early, so you have plenty of time to catch up. Play the shifts and work the favored side; and keep sailing fast. Position yourself carefully to pick up a few boats at each mark rounding. Look ahead for changing conditions and be ready to respond.

Every boat you pass is worth a point, and it is easier to move from 15th to 5th than it is from 5th to first. When you find yourself in The Land of Opportunity, keep cool, sail fast, go the right way, and avoid confrontations. You can reach The Promised Land. The End (Fig. 22).

Fig. 22 – When you fall behind (as on the previous page) get to work. With grit, determination, and a little luck, you can reach The Promised Land.

7.8 Local Knowledge

Consistent success in a local area depends on local knowledge. You must learn to recognize local conditions and know the strategy which is called for. When I raced collegiality at Yale, our team captain, Steve Benjamin, required us to complete a regatta report for every regatta we sailed. All the regatta reports were compiled into a notebook. Later, when I went racing on the Charles River in Boston, for example, I could refer to dozens of reports by my teammates covering the boats and sailing conditions I would face.

Local Knowledge: Racing in Annapolis

Each year it seems I race a regatta or two on Chesapeake Bay, out of Annapolis. The northern bay offers a challenging sailing venue. It is close enough to the ocean to be affected by sea breezes, and far enough north to be battered by cold fronts in early fall, when I seem to do most of my racing there. Winds come from all points and in all strengths. The currents run strong and vary widely across the bay. The winds have a big effect on the current, sometimes making a joke of the tide tables.


Following are my impressions. God save you if you are foolish enough to follow my strategic advice when you go racing on Chesapeake Bay.

South East/South Sea Breeze

Comes in on top of prevailing southerly or when no other weather pattern is firmly in place. South East to South winds are generally shifty but not strong. Current is important, since this wind takes us diagonally across the bay. Beware of getting too far in toward the Eastern Shore. The breeze tends to run lighter and more southerly there, lifting starboard and making it painful to tack out onto port-and easy to take the great circle route.

Against the current you must get very close to the eastern shore to avoid the current in the main channel, and this often leads to great circle route just described. It seems better to stay right to avoid some current and still keep breeze. Tendency to clock also favors the right.

With an outbound current, sail to the main channel to get current advantage, but stay right once in current. Avoid the left corner.

South/South West Sea Breeze

The sea breeze will fill and reinforce a South to South West wind. As the breeze builds, it does not back to the south as might be expected (since ocean lies to S.E.). Winds around 200º-210º roll straight up the bay. Winds tend to clock, and lift inshore between Tolley Point and Thomas Point.

Against the flood, the best tactic is to tack inside the line between Tolley and Thomas (don’t forget to honor Tolley Pt. Buoy) to avoid the current. With the wind tending right, all signs lead inshore.

On the ebb, a more moderate strategy is called for; but there is rarely a strong ebb current against a southerly wind. The wind effectively blocks the current, and wind strategy prevails.


The prevailing westerlies can become blustery after a frontal passage. Most cold fronts take the wind N.W. or N., but a post-frontal westerly is not uncommon. The races are generally started near the Eastern Shore, with the windward mark set at the mouth of the Severn River. The wind tends to fan out of the Severn, particularly in the upper half of the beat. Boats sailing out to either side are lifted. They never get a favorable shift for a return tack, and boats come back from the corners headed. The wind also gets lighter off to the sides, with the steadiest and strongest winds coming straight out of the Severn.

Strategy: Play and protect the middle. Don’t get driven to the sides.

The reach mark is set in the middle of the bay, south and east of Tolley Point. After rounding the windward mark, particularly on the blustery days, the leg appears too tight for a spinnaker. Go ahead and set. Sail low on the early part of the leg, in the strong winds from the Severn. Later in the leg the breeze will lighten and fair, and it will be advantageous to be able to reach up from below.

WARNING: Things don’t always work out this way on the first reach. Sometimes a S. W. puff will come off the shore inside Tolley Point and the boats inside will beam reach across, while those down low struggle to reach up. It depends on the wind direction (S. or N. of W.?) and the position of the mark (the closer under Tolley Point the more likely S.W. puffs are to be a factor).

The second reach across the bay is dominated by current. The same is true of the later part of any leeward leg. The current runs strongest near the mark. Overcorrect for the current to make sure you are sailing with it into the mark. (Work south on a flood, north on an ebb). The wind tends to be much lighter on the Eastern Shore and you don’t want to have to fight the current in the main channel.

In the westerlies, the wind tends to be stronger by the river than on the eastern shore. Be ready for more breeze at the top of the leg.

If the frontal passage is weak the sea breeze may push the breeze to the S.W. in the afternoon. A strong front will tend to clock the breeze to the N.W.

North West Wind

After a frontal passage in the fall the strong N.W. winds provide some of the year’s best sailing. From a start in mid-bay the windward mark is set at the mouth of Whitehall Bay or off Hacketts Pt. to the east. Coming off the line there tend to be starboard tack lifts, with the boats up the line gaining an advantage. From there the race is often a sprint to the left in search of puffs from the Severn. The puffs are starboard headers, allowing a tack to port and a lifted track into the mark.

North Wind

In a northerly there is no fixed strategy. With the mark set below the bridge there may be some port lifts off Whitehall, but there may also be better breeze in the open part of the bay. If the wind is clocking then plan a strategy to take advantage of the persistent shift. Current can become a big factor. Stay left to avoid an ebb. Go right to take advantage of a flood, though the wind may diminish its strength.

North East Wind

As the frontal wind fades the breeze will clock to the northeast. The temptation is to go right, and that strategy may pay off early in the leg. But if the mark is set under the Eastern Shore the right will be a problem later on. In the second half of the beat boats coming in on port from the left hand side will be favored by more northerly puffs which roll down from the bridge, while those on the right suffer in fickle easterly puffs off the shore and big northerly headers.

The current can be a big factor, as you will have to cross the main channel on the way to the mark. After a strong northerly there will be little water left for an ebb, but beware the flood which may run longer and much stronger than usual as the bay refills.

Easterly Wind

The easterlies are among the most fickle and difficult of bay breezes. One thing is for sure. Rain is on the way. Stay home, stay dry; put in the storm windows until the rain starts, then watch football on TV If you don’t have a good TV go to Marmaduke’s Pub on Severn Ave.

POP Quiz and Homework

Newport Rhode Island Strategy Quiz:

See the Chart Below

We are part of a crew racing in Newport, just outside the harbor, adjacent to Goat Island. The course is Olympic-A triangle, followed by windward, leeward, windward. We are about to complete the triangle and turn upwind. Our skipper wants to know what our strategy should be.

Looking upwind here is what we see:

The sea breeze is blowing steadily across the course, about 15 knots true, and very steady everywhere.

On the right hand side of the course where the harbor opens out into Narragansett Bay, there are waves rolling in with the sea breeze. To the left, smooth water, but the same wind; strong and steady.

Which way should we go?

Upwind: Against the waves to the right,

or in the smooth water to the left? _____________.

Downwind: With the waves,

or in the smooth water?_____________.


Make Your Own Local Knowledge Chart

Make a copy of your local sailing area and create a local knowledge chart of your own. List the prevailing wind conditions and strategies for each condition.

What clues help you pick your strategy?

Is a cloudy northerly different from a clear one?

You will be surprised at how often conditions repeat.

If you create your own race planner (or use ours from Chapter 2), print your local knowledge chart on the back. Keep a record of wind and current conditions, and strategies that worked (and didn’t work). Also, after each race, write down what you learned about boat handling, and trim, as well as weather and strategy.

When you create your local knowledge chart and written analysis please send a copy to me. Really. I collect them.

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