The Ramifications of Downwind Jail

Published on October 30th, 2017

While the Racing Rules of Sailing includes a “Proper Course” rule (see rule 17) in fleet racing, the gloves come off with the removal of the rule in match racing. Dave Perry explains the ramifications of that change in this report.


In match racing it is much easier to find yourself in “Downwind Jail.” This predicament is when you are to the right of your opponent (looking downwind) and you can’t gybe and cross them, and you cannot sail into the zone of the leeward mark/gate or Pin end of the finishing line.

If you are in Downwind Jail on the first run, it is likely you will round the leeward mark/gate at least three lengths behind the leader, and in phase with them upwind, making it harder to gain on them, and on the second run you will likely lose the race.

The reason you are in Downwind Jail is that even if the two boats are overlapped and the leeward boat has come from astern, the deletion of RRS 17 in match racing (see rule C2.8) means there is no rule requiring the leeward boat to not sail above her proper course. Therefore, the leeward boat can now sail past the port layline as far as she wants to, or luff towards the windward boat.

If your opponent is in Downwind Jail…
If your opponent is in Downwind Jail, plan to continue sailing well beyond a line drawn perpendicular to the wind through the leeward mark/gate or Pin such that you are sailing back to the mark on a tight reach.

As you approach the port layline to the leeward mark/gate or Pin, the jib should be going up and the pole coming down; and as you pass the layline, the spinnaker should be coming down. For sure, you want to match or even be ahead of your opponent in these maneuvers; never behind!

If your opponent luffs and tacks, you should immediately gybe and head for the mark. If your opponent tries to head up and gain separation or slow so she can gybe and pass astern of you, you should either luff and keep them locked in, or gybe away and head for the mark.

Note: if you have a penalty, then this is a perfect opportunity to tack and do your penalty. Just remember you need to bear away to one degree below 90 degrees to kill the penalty, so try to do your tack a couple of boat lengths after passing the line drawn perpendicular to the wind through the leeward mark/gate or Pin.

If you are racing through a gate, then when you get to the gate you have the choice of reaching over to the left-hand mark (looking downwind) and having a smooth fast rounding and picking up the starboard card, or doing a button-hook turn around the right-hand mark, which is obviously a slower maneuver but it may be required if that is the favored mark.

If you round the left-hand mark and your opponent rounds the right-hand mark, you should tack as your opponent is gybing around the mark. Now you are ahead and in phase with them.

If you are the one in Downwind Jail…
If you find yourself in Downwind Jail, make a “note to self” on how you got there and try to avoid getting there again! But if you find yourself in this position, you want to avoid sailing past the line drawn perpendicular to the wind through the leeward mark/gate or Pin, as you will end up losing a couple more lengths on the leader.

Therefore, as you arrive at the port layline to the mark, you want to be able to gybe. That means you have to start actively slowing down and/or widening out away from the leeward boat so that you can gybe and take her stern.

You can slow down by luffing or over-trimming your spinnaker, wiggling your tiller, sailing too low, etc. If you can beat your opponent on the gybe and get across their transom, you are in good shape. More likely, once you start to gybe, the leader will gybe also. That’s okay; at least you are right behind them, and if it’s a gate, you can get a split to start the second beat.

Worst-case, I think it is better to tack out after passing the perpendicular line, rather than gybing and following the leader to the mark on a tight reach or near a close-hauled course.

Source: The Dial Up

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