How do you sail the first beat of a race in a large fleet? How do you decide when to tack? How do you manage the groups of boats around you on the course?
This is an aspect of racing that I have always had trouble with. So I was pleased to come across these Words of Wisdom from Bill Brangiforte. Bill is one of the best Sunfish sailors on the planet. He won the North Americans in 2010. But he does show up at Laser regattas in New England from time to time and he's incredibly fast in a Laser too. In any case, the tips below apply to any boat.
Bill prefaced these words of wisdom by saying that on the first day of a major regatta his goal was to be in striking range of the leaders without taking too many chances. Hey, I would be delighted to be in "striking range of the leaders" in any race on any day of a regatta.
So how does he do it? (Bill's tips in bold. My insane ramblings about them not in bold.)
1. Until you are sure there is an advantage to one side, start near the middle of the line. A line sight is very helpful here. I have found that traditional line sights are not that useful in big fleets, because boats at the pin are often over early and block your sight. A better approach is to sight from the transom of the committee boat. This will give you a “safety sight” and a good reference of where you are on the line, and when to pull the trigger.
Hmmm. I should try that. I hardly ever know which side of the course is advantaged so I should go for the middle of the line more often.
2. Always tack back after you gain on boats to weather. When their bows start to point towards you, tack and consolidate your gain. This especially true right after the start, but generally works for the rest of the race as well.
Makes sense. Either there has been a header, or (less likely for me than for Bill) you are just sailing higher and faster than the boats to weather. Either way a tack consolidates your lead.
3. Cross boats when you can.
4. Don’t let a big pack of boats cross you- tack ahead and to leeward of them.
I guess the logic here is that if you let them cross you, you may never get ahead of them. If you tack ahead and to leeward you have a chance to cross them if you all get headed?
5. When you find yourself heading close to a lay line, start looking for any excuse to get back toward the middle- any small header will do. I like to use more pressure, as it gets you back in faster.
I do know that I can't make any more gains in lifts and headers after I have reached the layline. But I need to get better at looking for headers or pressure to find excuses to get back towards the middle.
6. If you are heading towards the middle, don’t tack until the boats to leeward tack.
I guess he is saying that you are minimizing risk by heading towards the middle, and if you tack away from a group to leeward you are giving them a chance to gain on you if they get headed later or they find a gust? Better to stay between them and the windward mark. You will get any puffs before they do. In a lift you will gain. And if there is a header you will all tack together and you will still be ahead of them.
7. Avoid the lay lines, but in big fleets, once you are close to the weather mark, try to over stand slightly. There are often big groups of slow moving boats pinching to get around the mark. By slightly over standing, you can maintain your speed and make a fast transition to downwind.
I do try to do this. Actually it's probably a fault that I do it too well, if that is possible. I have a pathological fear of being trapped below a group of boats at the windward mark and failing to lay the mark, to the extent that I tend not to tack below the starboard layline parade even when they are overstanding. And I have a fault of overstanding too far. It's all about improving my judgment of laylines I guess.
Anyway, much food for thought.
What do you think?
Do you agree with Bill's tips?
Does my rationalization of them make sense - or am I talking utter nonsense as usual?
Do you have any words of wisdom on your own on this topic?
Full text of Bill's random thoughts on the 2010 season (from which the tips above are extracted) at ...