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To The Windward Mark: Advanced Tactics

We’ve already looked at how to get a great start in FW racing, but what about after the start? The first upwind beat to the windward mark is certainly the most important leg of the race, and with the trend for shorter races on the Pro FW Circuit these days, your position at the first mark can often reflect your position at the finish line. This week will mark the first in a series of articles on Advanced Tactics. In particular, introducing some new concepts (unless you’ve read a few books in your time) such as the “hopeless position”, “safe leeward position” and “close hauled” – or as I like to call it, pinching like a b*tch. Now, to fine tune your skills and get to that windward mark quicker, listen very carefully, or you will break the internet …

Dr. Manfred Curry wrote a famous book in 1928 about yacht racing and the aerodynamics of sails. Thankfully, things have come a long way in terms of boat design since then but nearly everything he wrote about racing tactics are as true today, as they were in 1928. Curry talks a lot about the importance of sailing the ‘next’ tack, rather than the tack you are currently on; thinking ahead and positioning yourself for an advantage on the next tack. To take a line from his book:

“…racing; it is a game of chess of the highest order…It is a game, in which you must reckon out every move beforehand and not only anticipate but also be prepared for the numberless attacks that can or may be made, but with the disadvantage, that you do not have as much time as you may like for your next move…”

This article is focusing on the second tack of a windward leg – which generally speaking should be bringing you to the layline close to the windward mark or to the windward mark on starboard (depending on how you have sailed the course). To get started, a few terms need to be explained and also why this tack should be focused on in a race.

Hopeless Position:

Safe Leeward PositionIt sounds hopeless. Mainly because it is. Generally speaking, this position refers to anytime you are in someone’s “dirty air”, that is, directly behind them, behind and downwind of them, or behind and upwind of them. Take a look at the photo on the left for a fantastic diagram of the hopeless position. To explain the diagram, Boat II is in the hopeless position. The curved lines (a) refer to the wind. See how it curves almost 15 degrees as it displaces off the sail of the Boat I – that’s why you get punished sailing behind someone in their dirty air. If you are in the zone of (b), you are really in a hopeless position and most likely need to tack out of there as you are sheltered from the wind and likely to be sailing slow and at a poor angle. The line (c) is the bad air displacement coming from Boat I upwind. Notice how even upwind of Boat I, Boat II is still getting dirty air. He needs to be almost five boat-lengths upwind of Boat I to reach the safe leeward position and get out of jail (his options are to follow course 1  or 2)…

Safe Leeward Position:

This is where you want to be. The position of dreams (and of race winners). Have a look at a few more diagrams from Manfred Curry in the gallery below, showing you the safe leeward position. His diagrams are a little vague, but give you the general idea. The safe leeward position refers to the boat who is either in front (spilling dirty air on the boats behind him) or upwind and out of the (c) zone and dirty air of the boat in front – as shown in the above image. The safe leeward position is the white boat in [Diagram A,B,C,D] and the black boat in [Diagram E,F,G] to further explain. This position allows you to control the boats behind you and start to dictate the race – instead of just “sailing” it. It’s what top sailors do all the time.

Close Hauling:

I merely use this term to go along with Manfred Curry’s lingo (in case you have his book and would like to study up). It’s a sailing term and doesn’t really relate to windsurfing in that sense, but just think of it as sheeting in really hard, squeezing with your body and sail trim to pinch as high as you can. You know what I’m talking about…dropping your speed down to 12 knots upwind and really going for a super tight angle. The guys using the uphaul rope technique upwind seem to be able to do this well.

Ok, now we know the terms lets get to work on how you can apply it…

Imagine you come off the startline on starboard with clear air and good speed. Your main competitor is directly behind you, upwind about 2 boatlengths but still in the hopeless position (the black boat in [Diagram C]). You are in the safe leeward position and controlling the race by controlling your main opponent behind you. Two things can happen here: you can close-haul really hard, going slow to out-point him and push him into a very hopeless position (like the black boat in [Diagram B]), forcing him to tack off to get out of your dirty air; or you can go about your race casually and let him force YOU into the hopeless position (white boat in [Diagram E]).

Attacking From The Hopeless Position:

Let’s imagine you are the black boat in [Diagram C]. Currently you are in the hopeless position on starboard coming out of the startline. If you are a comparable speed to the boat in front and you are sailing to the favoured side of the course it’s important not to give up and tack away early but focus on the NEXT tack on port toward the layline. If you can hold your angle (you will likely be going slower) and stay within a few boatlengths of this leading sailor then you can tack at the same time as him, pump aggressively to get upwind a few metres (every metre is important here) and instantly put HIM into the hopeless position. Does this make sense?

A quick tack and initiation of planing at the moment the leading boat tacks is important here. Since you are a few boatlengths behind but upwind of this leading boat it is only natural that if you tack at the same time then you are now in front but downwind of him. With an intense focus on making sure the first few pumps out of the tack are heading you aggressively to windward you can begin to spill dirty air on him and push him into the hopeless position, before he has time to sail over the top of you. If you have sailed all the way to the starboard layline than he will really be in trouble because he can not tack away from your dirty air (he is already on the layline). Now YOU control the race.

That is a quick and simple explanation of how to attack from the hopeless position on the second tack of a race. Lets imagine this another way. It’s the second lap of a windward return course and you are currently rounding the bottom mark in 2nd, only 20m behind the leading boat. If you can close-haul super hard and keep upwind of him (still in the hopeless position, unless you are more than 10% faster/higher than this sailor, in which case you can just sail right over the top of him) you should focus on the SECOND tack of this lap, rather than the awful position you are currently in. When sailing to the layline (to tack on to starboard to run to the mark) you can tack fractionally earlier than him, and squeeze to put him in the same position you were in only a moment ago. He can’t tack away because you are already on the layline and if you are a similar speed he most likely can’t overrun you into the mark if you’ve put him into the hopeless position. Once around the mark ahead of him you are well on your way to winning that race … This idea only works if you are withing 5 boatlengths of the leading boat. Any further back and he will have time to run over the top of you from his higher position after the tack.

Defending From the Safe Leeward Position:

These last two examples I have talked about coming from the hopeless position into the safe leeward position by means of a faster and more efficient tack than the leading boat (focusing on thinking about the next leg, rather than the leg you are on). Thats all good and well but it is certainly easier to defend from the safe leeward position than attack from the hopeless position.

Positioning on the first upwind leg of a race is one of the most important aspects of your racing (once you have got your gear tuned and starts perfected). You should always be aiming to get into the safe leeward position to the boats around you, especially if one of these boats is your main competitor. It allows you to control the race, rather than just sail it. Once in the safe leeward position, you can then wipe off your speed and point super high. The boat behind you won’t be able to sail over you if you are comparable in speed and will be forced to tack away or sail under you at a terrible angle. That being said, never be complacent in the safe leeward position as a good sailor will be always thinking of the NEXT tack and getting ready to put YOU into the hopeless position if you are sloppy in your tack.

The key to defending from the safe leeward position on starboard tack out of the start is remembering these points:

  • You must NOT sail over the layline to tack on to port. Doing this will allow the hopeless sailor to tack earlier and put you in the hopeless position on the second leg.
  • Depending on the course, it is usually best to tack earlier than the starboard layline if your main competitor is in the hopeless position (even if this means you have to dip below him after the tack, when he is still on starboard). That way you can take advantage of any lifts into the mark on port and also helps you to avoid sailing OVER the layline.
  • If you are close to the layline, tack when your competitor tacks. Keep him in the hopeless position and continue to spill dirty air. If he goes too early, let him go, you are in clean air and heading to the favoured side – right?

Hopefully this gets everyone thinking about their tactics more than just thinking “oh, I’m in this guy’s dirty wind, I may as well give up on this race!”

A great way to analyse your tactics is by using a GPS unit to record the tracks of your race. Having the other competitor’s tracks is also a good way to analyse and criticise (improve) your tactics… but that’s a whole other article…

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Andreas says:

    Sean, nice summary. There’s a caveat with all of this – know your strengths (and work around your weaknesses). Say you’re a light sailor – you tend to be more able to pinch/grind for angle, but you’ll have a harder time footing off for raw speed when you need to get out from under someone. Those are the kinds of people who manage to get inside the fleet at the boat, then keep the inside line all the way to the mark – and if there’s a bit of a lift, being on the inside, they profit way more than the other guys on the outside. Plus, they don’t get caught up in dogfights, so the get clean air all the way to the mark. You combine that with fast tacks, and it’s a way for light sailors to make up for some of the leverage-based disadvantages they face (and which you outlined very clearly in your post on stance and leverage).

    For heavy guys, the inside line is fraught with danger – if you hit a bit of a hole, you’ll have to foot off way more than the lighter guys below you – usually giving them a chance to pinch you off, so you end up ducking them. If it’s just one – fine, duck and run through their dirty air as fast as you can, then attack them safely from leeward/ahead. If there are a bunch of them lined up below you – might as well tack out for clean air.

    That dynamic, more than anything, is what’s so advantageous for light sailors about holey winds – every lull is an opportunity for them to put the hurt on the big guys by being able to keep their angle. Big guys, however, can compensate by carrying extra fin/sail power and just holding on in the gusts, even though all that extra drag tends to hurt their downwind speed.

    I”m always amazed how much more there’s to learn with tactics – or, more accurately, how much more opportunity there is to take what you’ve learned and really put it into practice on the course. After all, most people in the top half of any fleet have a fairly good rational understanding of tactics – but the difference between the guy dominating the fleet and those who perennially chase him around the course tends to be how quickly they can apply that knowledge in any given situation on the course (as opposed to later on knowing exactly why what they did didn’t work). Every time Bruce Peterson manages to either hold me off start to finish, or come back from me having beaten him to the first windward mark to take the heat from me, that point is driven home again and again. No substitute for experience 😉

    Incidentally – that’s why I love formula racing. Yes, you can do slalom in 12 knots. It’s just not very exciting. In Formula, though, you can be up over your ears in challenge – both technically and tactically – in as little as 10 knots.


  • JW says:

    “Incidentally – that’s why I love formula racing. Yes, you can do slalom in 12 knots. It’s just not very exciting. In Formula, though, you can be up over your ears in challenge – both technically and tactically – in as little as 10 knots”

    So true !!!

    Just still am puzzled why the PWA stepped away from Formula. Still think it is a great mistake. Formula is a so complete way of competing as where the proces itself of becoming a better sailor is so rewarding, even if one is never able to win a race you can learn learn learn and enjoy one of the best sports there is ( at least for me that is 🙂 )

    Keep up this great site Sean!!

  • Andreas says:

    I think the reason PWA went away from formula has nothing to do with how rewarding or not rewarding it is for the racer – but more with how cost-effectively it can be marketed to audiences through media packages and on-site (and thus to sponsors). To make a living as pros the PWA guys have to appeal to audiences outside of windsurfers (there’s just not enough of us to support a full pro-tour).

    For grass-roots competition, sponsorship isn’t nearly as important as attractiveness to racers. That’s why Kona racing is taking off – even though you’d be hard-pressed to find sponsor dollars; there’s a subset of the windsurfing population who find that kind of racing rewarding, and they organize events for themselves (or give organizers of existing events a great boost in participation for minor additional effort of adding another class to their events). That’s also why FW racing, at the amateur and semi-pro level, is still going strong despite the PWA having abandoned the format – a large group of racers who are racing to race and aren’t earning a living that way like the format.
    Some thoughts on PWA slalom racing, formula, and competition (and its marketability):

  • Sean OBrien says:

    @ Andreas – so true. I’ve been a lighter sailor for a number of years (around 78kg’s, and was 73kg’s at the FW events in Europe last season to be competitive for RS:X). Definitely enjoying the fickle 8-12 knot days more than the consistent 20 knot days where I would get punished.

    You are right, I think the PWA turned away from FW as a result of introducing a smaller/simplier package for the media (around the time they were ditching Super-X, to just have the 3 formats).

    Sat around with Jimmy Diaz late in 2006 (when FW had disappeared off of the PWA), and this was the reason he gave. Jimmy is a mad keen FW sailor and so if there was a way for it to be included again, I’m sure he’d be all over it. I wonder if it had anything to do with the disastrous season they had in 2005 (the Nestle World Cup events?) with Pozo, Hungary etc all having almost zero wind at the FW races…

    I still personally believe that any discipline should have a high pinnacle, for the younger sailors on the tour to aspire to. With only 2-3 big events in Europe last season outside of the Europeans/Worlds, there’s not a lot of FW to be sailed, and in my mind that seems to be why it declined a little in numbers compared to 2006, but with the Worlds back in mainland Europe and the Europeans in Poland – as well as the introduction of the “FW World Tour” this year (whenever they get around to posting the dates?), I wouldn’t be suprised if people get motivated to travel again …

    I know there’s a few Aussie’s and New Zealand’ers who are keen to do the FW Worlds this year in Portugal.

  • JW says:

    All arguments of not having formula around anymore may be valid, still I believe it also has something to do with seeiing the opportunity to get us mortals back into buying lots of slalom gear again. Most sailors like to have two boards to cover a big range. In previous years this was one of the reasons to start formats like 42 or 31 (sails-board). NOw PWA is up to 36 and slowely they hope we will also buy more sails and boards??
    I still think that trying to do with fewer boards at PWA also will make the R&D move to more allround then specialiced boards. In the end that will be better for us mortals. yes?

    In Holland we now have a format that we do formula upto 16 knots and from that up we do slalom. As most compromises this also has it’s negative sides but at least the disciplines have a natural overlapp. Personally I find it a bit sad to mis formula in the stronger winds but the compromise is ok.
    There is no limit on gear though… which here in Holland is no big problem so far. Maybe in the future a 63 format (but then including formula) would be a good alternative. Almost always able to compete (as soon as planing is possible) and no overload on equipment. well, just my 2 cents.

    Happy sailing to all of you.

  • Sean OBrien says:

    16 knots?!

    Wow, I’ll just bring my 12m, no need for any other sails when I come to Holland this year! haha. Is that just for the Regio Cups or all the events?

    At the racing series we do in Sydney, we only do slalom when its perfect. The target is 20 knots, but it has to be a super consistent 20 knots at a venue that lends itself to great slalom racing – ie, if its even slightly gusty, we’ll be racing formula in 30 knots. Generally speaking, we’ve only done slalom twice this summer but both times it was in 25-30 knots: full power on 6.7m’s!

    I’m not sure what the best formula is for slalom in a regional setting. We have unlimited gear rules here in Aus and even allow people to sail their formula kit in the slalom if they don’t have any other boards.

    There’s been interest to bring in a 2 sail rule for formula here in Aus, now that the sails are so efficient you can use a 10.7m as largest and be very competitive in lightwinds – but I wonder if that just makes the gap between regional/international level too big. When you’ve been sailing all season with a 10.7m and then get on a startline with 100 guys in Santa Pola in 6 knots you are probably not going to get on the plane without a 12m. The 2 sail rule would bug me, because I would still buy 3 sails to compete in Europe and it would mean I can’t tune the 3rd sail in during the Australian season, to be ready for Europe :-/

  • Steve GBR135 says:

    Another great article – thanks for the insight.
    Question though – what about the ‘right of way rules’? In your hopeless posiiton (diagram C) can the leading board tack into the trailing board’s path? (I know they are both on starboard)

  • JW says:

    During manouvres you need to stay clear from other sailors. So the leading boat may not tack in diagram C, cause he can not do so and not hinder the other boat.
    There is one exception, if they together run into an island or other not moving object the leading boat must be allowed to tack. In all other cases the following boat may even take the leading boat (far) over the lay line as well.
    In battles for final ranking this is sometimes done while others pass them to take the race they only focus on each other just to prevent winning the race.

    Only option for the leading boat here is to try and get above the following sailor or just for afew seconds stop and let the following boat pass after which he can tack and go further on the next tack.

    One thing though, the formula saling is so damm fast that these tactics are not that common as one can see them in slower boats or longboard racing. This is the same for windshifts, faster boats lose more ground on the manouvre then they lose on sailing on at the less attractive side of the shift. So there where a longboard (especially in sub planning mode) will take to take advantage of the windshift a formula sailor will continue on his tack to keep up the pace as much as possible. The benefit of the shift must be equal or greater then the loss on the manouvre. So beiing able to quick manouvres will make the oppotunity to benefit from shifts greater.

    With the tendency to shorten the upwind leg the tacking for windshift will be even less attractive cause the time consuming tack will take to much time whil the upwind leg is to short to be able to benefit enhough from the shift before rounding the mark.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • JW says:

    Long upwind legs are better for tactics, if the upwind is shortenend the appealing formula tactics fade, that would be a pitty cause then we will be sailing in a parade more, then we battle for up and downwind meters.

    Also on the downwind it is best not to have a gate (when tactics is your thing) cause then one can decide it’s own course and benefit more form the shifts. On the other side a gate makes for more manouvres which in itself is more attractive cause that is also a part of the game.

    Isn’t it just great this up- and downwind raceformat 🙂 So much to learn and always an opportunity after a mistake as where in other formats one mistake means you are out of the race…….

  • Sean OBrien says:

    @ Steve GBR135 – What JW says is correct regarding the ability of the leading boat to tack (within the rules).

    This gives you another way to attack from the hopeless position. If you are close enough to the leading boat then you can force him to sail over the layline as he wouldn’t be able to tack without impeding your course upwind. This scenario is most likely experienced coming out of the startline on starboard where the fleet is close together.

    If you are in fact the leading boat, your options are usually to try and point obscenely high and force the following boat to tack off or go below you or to foot off a little downwind to get some speed and distance between you and then tack and go below him on the new tack.

    If you are the leading boat and there is room to tack then tacking before the boat behind you is usually the best option as if he tacks at a similar time you can quickly get him straight back into the hopeless position and if you are on the layline then they following boat will have a very hard time keeping with you to the top mark (or next layline).

    As the following boat, I always believe it is best to tack at the same time as the leading boat and hope you can tack faster than him and get into the safe leeward position. If you decide to stay on the same tack you almost need to sail 100m further to get clean air from him when you are on the next tack and if on that next tack there is a significant life, that leading boat will most likely swallow your extra 100m before you even have time to sheet in as he’s in the new wind quicker than you are.

    The best example of this is a course that’s left hand favoured and everyone sails out of the startline on starboard then tacks onto port almost heading to the top mark. Unless you tack at the same time as the leading boat you might have to sail OVER the layline to get into clear air which is a very slow way to go around a course.

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