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Race Tactics

The Basics of the Start and First Beat

The bigger the fleet the more important it is to get away cleanly at the start and to get the first beat right. In order to do this consistently sailors need not only to have good technique but also need strategical and tactical awareness.


Technique is vital not only in getting the boat going fast through the water but it also helps when the sailor is under pressure from opposition boats. It means that the boat is always controlled positively and accurately almost without conscious effort. The sailor can then concentrate not only on going the right way but also on coping with the other boats in the race.

In simple terms the strategy of going the right way can be defined as using the environment to get to the windward mark as quickly as possible. It therefore relies on long term planning. Planning that comes both from experience and from lessons learnt immediately before the start when preparing for the race.

On the other hand the tactics needed to cope with other boats relies on a knowledge of the Racing Rules as well as the ability to think quickly enough to make the right on-the-spot decisions. In other words the emphasis is much more short term. The relationship between the three aspects varies throughout the beat depending on which has priority at any one moment. In fact it is possible to divide the beat into three main areas:

The Start

  1. Before the warning signal plan the strategy of the beat by working out what is happening to the wind and tidal currents. By sailing for some distance on each tack a pattern will emerge where the wind will either be steady or varying in both direction and speed. More usually it will be oscillating from side to side about a mean direction, although there could be a more persistent gentle but progressive variation in direction known as wind bend. Timing of the shifts and working out the change in the wind is vital. Also work out which end of the starting line is favoured.
  2. At the warning signal make sure of the timing and decide which end to start.
  3. At the preparatory signal focus completely on the start. Double check rig settings and check for weed.
  4. At the one-minute signal be in position and vigorously defend as well as getting ready to GO.
  5. In the last few seconds get up to full acceleration and go.
  6. In the minute after the start nothing else matters but speed. So, keep the boat flat and driving and watch out for waves that stop the boat.

The First Quarter of the Beat

  1. In oscillating wind conditions get on the correct swing as soon as possible EVEN if it means ducking sterns to get to the best side.
  2. If the wind is not varying then boat speed is the most important thing, as it does not matter where the boat is on the course.
  3. If a permanent wind bend is detected then take the HEADING tack even if it means ducking sterns as necessary. Then tack SHORT on the lay line because the wind bend may lift the boat UP to the windward mark on the new tack.

Last Three-Quarters of the Beat

  1. Always under tack a bunch of boats
  2. Do NOT sail away from the fleet
  3. Think twice if on the opposite tack to the majority of boats around but remember that a boat on the opposite tack to the leaders in a group is less affected by their "dirty wind".
  4. Do NOT get out to the starboard lay-line early. That long parade in towards the mark can be both frustrating and slow.
  5. BUT only approach the windward mark on port if in the leading group or when on a port "freer" when starboard boats are being heavily knocked.
  6. Approach the mark at least a boom-length to windward of it, especially in waves.

Michael McNamara

January 2002

Last updated 18:56 on 22 April 2024

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