Race Management Part 1

Contributed by Henry McCray

This is the first part of a four part series designed to help you come up with a strategic game plan for each race. We will tackle several concepts in this series beginning with the difference between strategy and tactics, and then breaking down the four major parts of an Olympic course race. Each leg of a race will present different strategy, which will effect your tactical approach to the next mark.

Strategy vs. Tactics

There are two major factors in planning your course in a sailboat race- strategy and tactics. They are separate entities, but they directly effect one another. In the simplest terms, strategy is planning where you want to be on a race course while tactics represent the plan you will have to employ to get there. For instance, the right hand side of the race course may be your goal for the first beat due to the fact you believe that side will be favored due to an anticipated wind shift, current, or other factors. Starting near the boat and tacking out early will be your tactic to achieve this part of your strategy.

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.

Before the start

Much of your strategy will come from information that you gather before the start of the race. Has the wind been constant for the entire time leading up to the race? If so what direction is it coming from? Was it different the night before? If you in a predominant weather pattern, are there local changes, which will cause changes in the velocity or direction of the breeze as the day wears on? All of these questions can be answered by paying attention to the weather patterns present when you reach the regatta site. Ideally, you want to get to the regatta site the day before at least so that you can observe the local weather patterns. Use the local weather information available to you to determine local effect. It should be able to tell you the gradient or weather system generated breeze direction and strength, as well as approaching weather.

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.

The Start

While serving a three-year tenure at the College of Charleston under the storied Dr. Wood I learned a hugely important strategic lesson. START CLEAN, and hit the first shift. Many people put too much emphasis on starting at the favored end of the starting line and then heading off on a boat speed war with half of the fleet fighting you for position. This is a bad plan. At the most recent Worlds we noticed that the boat was consistently favored five degrees. Yet the Brits piled up in the middle of the line and the Aussies still lined up at the pin. We duked it out with everyone else fighting at the boat while the brits started clean and hit the first shift unimpeded by a large group of sailors around them and the Aussies headed for the beach reaching off the race course looking for more speed. Why? Think back to a pool for a moment and think about pushing a board through the water. The water flows around it all right, but water also builds up in front of it. The same effect is present in a group of sailboats going to weather. The wind approaches and flows through the sails of each boat, but some of the wind (trying to find the path of least resistance) will simply flow over the entire group, much like the water on your board. Therefore, avoiding the large groups gave the Aussies and the Brits clear air. And what of the Aussies heading for the beach? The first shift was always a left side knock- first to get there made up for the wrong end of the line and routinely allowed them crossed the fleet on port 3-4 minutes into the race.

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.

Choosing a side

As discussed earlier there are many factors which will influence you decision to choose a side. Known factors and geological factors aside there is one way to make sure you are headed in the right direction. Hit the first shift! You will gain or loose more in the first and last 100 yards of the beat than in the mile in-between. Sorry, just fact. So if you are getting headed off the line TACK as soon as you can. If shifts are frequent you will then be in position to hit the next one, and so on. However, which side you would like to protect will determine exactly when you make that tack.

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.

Win your side

About 2/3 or more of the way to the beat begin to look at the mark and where you are on the course compared to it. Right hand side? Left? Middle? Ask yourself where you anticipate the next shift. Just because the right hand side has been favored does not mean the last tack you make will be to the right. On the last part of the beat you should sail towards the expected shift. If there is no expected shift, consolidate and head off to the layline and set up early, protecting your approach. But most often there will be a favored approach to the mark. For example, right has been favored and has paid off for you. You are not on the layline yet but you are close. You are lifted, but expect a knock back before the mark. Now is the time to foot and go for speed. Don't worry about the mark. Sail back across the rhumbline if necessary and wait for the shift. When it comes, make your port approach and watch for crossing boats. It's a miracle! You will pass the boats that set up too early.

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.


Obviously if you are winning after the first beat you have done everything right, or at least better than everyone else. But what if you are in fifth? tenth? Last? Don't despair. Gauging a beat takes all three phases into effect. A good start, choosing the correct side, and winning that side putting yourself in position for the next leg. If you did poorly on the beat evaluate each portion of the beat. If you had a bad start did you make up in the middle? How did you do on the last shift? The evaluation should be an ongoing process throughout the beat. If you got hosed on the left early, did you work the shifts back to the right or just head there hoping to get a shift already gone? If you had a bad start was it because you were in the wrong position or did you fail to get the first shift? Compile a quick mental list at the end of the beat.

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
North Sails South Carolina