For the most part we will be concerned with your strategy on a large scale so that you can develop a plan for the race that changes only with the actions of the boats around you. Today, we will work on the start and the first beat. A good first beat will put you in contention for the lead, but will not always mean that you are winning. It is best to gamble in a conservative manner because while you can stand to gain the most on the first beat, you also stand an equal chance of loosing the most.
Once you know where the breeze started, you can gauge the local effects to make a guess on which way the breeze will shift and what the velocity will do when it does. For example, at Davis Island the gradient can come from any point on the compass. However, cold fronts usually approach from the North and bring velocity with them. However, after the front has passed, the direction will move towards the west and the velocity will die. The direction is moving because the sea breeze is from the west and as it amalgamates with the gradient it causes the new breeze to shift constantly left, even 180 degrees. The sea breeze sucks the power out of the northerly and replaces it with a weaker southwesterly as the sea breeze takes over the gradient. This is a good example of where the sea breeze fights and overcomes the gradient breeze to give both a new direction and a new velocity.
Another example a local effect would be in Solomon's Island Maryland, on the Patuxent River. When the breeze blows west it lines up quite well with one or more of the Naval Air Stations runways. While the surrounding tall trees and small hills effect much of the racecourse, the air funnels down the runways and creates predictable puffs on the racecourse. Hitting these shifts can give a racer added height and speed compared to a boat just a few yards away.
There are many examples of local effects, including current, topography, temperature differential (beaches), shape of landmass, and much more. It is paramount to identify this early on- before the race. Learning that there was one knot more of favorable current on the left side of the racecourse (ever been to CORK?) would be a lesson too late on the third day of a regatta. So when you get there- look around! Find a good vantage point and observe puffs, changes, and local effects like points, big trees, and other things that could give you an edge on the water.
So as you start remember that clear air is your first goal. You should defend you windward hip by pointing and your leeward hip by footing. When you point never pinch and when you foot make sure to ease, or you will be heading in a different direction at the same or less speed as those who are sailing the tell tales. Once you have bow out get free to tack on the next shift. Foot to get away from you competition as soon as you are bow out! You will want to avoid the air traveling over the large group so get out in front of the pack fast! You have now finished the first phase of the beat. You have started and gotten clear- now it is time to implement you game plan.
Lets assume you started in the middle and headed off on starboard. You know that the left will be favored due to a land effect. Your competition is below you, heading off to the favored side of the course. You begin to get headed and consider tacking. The rule of thumb is to keep yourself in-between your competition and where you want to go, and on the first part of the beat that is towards the favored side. Look to see if the competition below is tacking on the shift and wait for them. Otherwise, while you may gain short term on a small shift you will loose out on being too far right on a left favored beat. Now, the boat that won the pin tacks and heads back, slightly ahead and lifted to your slight knock. GOOD! Let them cross or go right even if you have to wave them across. They are giving you your first gift. Like I said- you want to be in-between your competition and the goal- the left side of the course. However, now is a good time to tack and get what is left of the shift? If it has gone away or come back- stay heading towards the goal- left.
We will come back to this concept again and again. It is the basis of sailboat racing strategy, and all racing for that matter. Stay in-between your competition and the goal and you will win- always. How do you decide when you should tack? If the right hand side is favored and your competition is below you then you should keep him there until you get headed. Then, tack. If he holds then tack back soon to cover the position. If he tacks after you, then tack back only after him- stay in-between him and your goal- the right hand shift. Get it? If not, re-read until you do.
The next goal is to win your side. To do this, disengage any tight boat to boat matches you have created early on the beat. Don't let your competition get in-between you and your goal, but be conservative in engagements. If you are messing around at this point in the game others are sailing clean and going faster. So work the shifts and get to the favored side, and then play the waiting game while concentrating on boat-speed! And remember, as always- if you know a shift is coming (oscillations, etc...) don't let your competition get to it first! If he is already ahead then limit the time you spend playing catch up. Everyone makes a tactical mistake eventually, especially if they are in the lead and begin to cover on the first beat! Work the shifts by tacking early after detecting the shift, and then come right back as soon as you have made your boat to boat gain and continue to work towards the favored side.
So when you're trying to work a boat down how do you grind away at his lead? Right now boatspeed is a good choice. Smart on the shifts is another good choice. Engaging in match racing we'll save for the end of the beat and the whole last beat.
We saw this technique worked to perfection in Weymouth in 97'. Defending world champs Goodman and Turner had worked the middle right with us all the way up the course. However, they abandoned their position about 100 yards from the mark and sailed off into never never land. We, in our infinite wisdom decided to set up early on starboard to avoid "the line." We did, and they did. However, the last shift was a lefty. We had to pinch to make the mark and they had us by 20 boatlengths or so, 5 times the lead they had just a minute earlier at a crossing. Bummer, but lesson learned. You can pick off a whole group of boats at a time by hitting the LAST shift.
The last consideration on the beat is selecting your position on the reach. Most first reaches in Fireball courses are very tight, and the favored position is to be on the outside of any overlaps so that you may head high early on the reach. A high position will allow you to head high on a jib reach and then set just a little late, sailing over the boats below you when a puff comes. If you are on the inside of the rounding, use it to your advantage. Head your competition high off the mark and then wait until you have good speed to bear away and set. Hopefully you can put the boat overlapped to your outside behind you before your set, and wait to set until he makes his move. Then, prepare to keep high and don't let him overtake.
If the reach is broad, inside is the only place to be. You can set immediately after the mark and reach for speed. We will discuss the downwind sailing in the next section, but the rule of thumb is to head high in the lulls and foot off in the puffs. The end result will be the same average course with a higher overall speed.
First- what were the last starboard and/or port headings? Was it a lift or a header? Use this to determine which way you should go from the leeward mark. Also, if you were headed on starboard going into the mark did you make an effort to stay high on the reach knowing you would be able to crack off in a lift? Think about it. Shifts don't end when you put the kite up. But alas, another topic for discussing reaching in a Fireball.
Henry McCray ACME Labs North Sails South Carolina