Tactical tips for all types of boats

Published on May 31st, 2020

For Seahorse magazine, 2-time Olympic medalist Rod Davis pulls back the curtain on how to succeed in sailing.


Time for a few inside tips for racing your sailboat, the stuff no one ever seems to share, secret stuff I guess. Unlike the tuning sheet for your specific type of boat, where a specific rig tension is best, these are tactical tips that cross the whole spectrum of yachts.

As such, they are in a fluid state, always changing. But the basic rules still apply. Most were developed in match racing, but apply any time boats are racing next to each other. We will start with five rules – there are hundreds, but let’s start by breaking it down into bite size chunks.

Momentum: There is a saying that goes ‘you can’t luff someone going faster than you, it almost always ends badly’. This is because the faster boat’s momentum will take them all the way around you and there is little that can be done to stop that.

The very same rule applies in the last 10 seconds of the start. You need momentum on your side. You need to be a little faster than the boats next to you. That, quite simply, is the reason a boat will ‘pop’ off a starting line, seemingly leaving the others in its wake.

I am not talking a knot faster; just a tenth or two faster. That little extra momentum will continue for the first minute of the race. Boats with it will be strong; boats without it will fade back.

This lack of momentum is the most common mistake I see in starting, be it in dinghies, keel boats, or catamarans. Next time you are starting, at 20 seconds, start thinking ‘momentum momentum momentum!’ Make sure you have it at 10 seconds to go and you too will pop off the start line. Life is much easier with good starts.

Tacking on another boat: When you’re sailing upwind, and you ‘cover’ the other boat, or want to make them go the other way, tack just on their line, not directly upwind of them in the ‘classic cover’ move.

If you tack directly upwind of another boat, your competition gets to coast through their tack with very little wind on their sails because you have taken their wind. This loss of boat-slowing friction will ensure they will come out of their tack faster than you did, thus a gain for the other team.

If you tack on their line, they don’t get that free gain, and they are still going to tack away. Mission accomplished. If they don’t tack, they will soon be going slower and in jail. Even better!

Get in sync downwind: Strange, we spend so much time, energy, and chat working on upwind speed where the gains are tiny compared to downwind. Everyone on the boat needs to get stuck into their work of using every gain: puffs, waves and crew weight, from the second you round the top mark until you get to the bottom.

You work your butt off to gain two boat lengths upwind, whereas downwind, there are five times that gain on offer. Fight for every inch, and downwind there are lots of inches everywhere around you. But you have to get stuck into your work to realize the gain. Keep whispering to yourself ‘technique, technique, technique’.

If you have to put your brain in neutral for a momentary mental break, do it upwind where there is less to lose!

The match gybe: We have all been there dozens of times, and it goes like this: a close battle with another boat downwind. The call is ‘no one move, but if the other boat gybes, we are gybing’. A well-executed gybe will mean we pass, or successfully defend this threat, so we need a good one boys and girls!

Sorry but not true. The pass or defense will be pre-determined by the ‘two-out-of-three rule’. There are three factors to a match gybe contest. Does not matter if you’re ahead, defending, or behind attacking, these three factors control who the winner will be: 1-position, 2-momentum, 3-who turns first.

You get two out of the three factors on your side and you win the contest. You don’t and… you don’t!

Position means being strong relative to the other boat on the new gybe, i.e. on their wind. Momentum is the same as we talked about in starting – a little speed edge at the point of turn. Turning first, that is simply pro-active vs re-active. Two factors are enough to win. Don’t try it until you have two, and remind yourself constantly of that fact.

Leeward mark: The goal of rounding the leeward mark is to be able to sail straight, as in not to have to tack right away. Oh, I am assuming you have the big balloon sail safely down below and the upwind sails pulled in, and people on the rail to keep the boat from tipping over.

If you can sail straight out of the leeward mark this will be the fastest way to race the boat. You don’t want to get into the bad wind of the other boats that have already rounded the mark. Being forced to tack right around the mark is going to lead to additional losses.

Sailing straight away from a leeward mark requires one thing: a lane to sail in! As in just slightly to windward of the boat ahead, not a big lane, a thin one will do. After all, we are not trying to pass anyone at this point, we are just trying to limit the damage. And the damage will be severe if we drop to leeward of the boats ahead.

Sailing straight is easy if you’re leading. Where you have to be really clever is when you’re not leading. Funnily enough, you don’t really want to have your bow right on the stern of the boat ahead of you, but a half boat length gap works better. What you do want is to be going faster than the boats around you when you round the mark.

All boats round the same mark as close as they dare and not touch it. How you get to windward from that point is using the advantage of extra boat speed to smoothly set up a boat width to windward of the boats ahead. Not getting greedy here, just trying to survive, to sail straight for the next minute or so.

How do you create extra speed to round the mark? Boat positioning, smooth rate of turn and sail trim that matches the rate of turn. You can sail extra distance to position your boat for a smoother turn because, like I said above, being close to the boat in front is not our goal, more speed is.

It’s a team sport because the rate of turn and sail trim need to match each other perfectly. Really you want the mainsail trim just ahead of the jib trim to help the turn, but that is what I mean by perfect.

Just pulling the sails in and turning tight on the mark won’t give you much chance of having a lane out of the bottom mark.

Summary: It does not matter if you are racing your OK dinghy, TP52, or a Contessa 32, these notes still apply. Actually, these five plus another hundred and five. But let’s get the whole team on to these five first… then we can bite off the next five.


Note: Seahorse, the dominant international magazine for anyone serious about their racing, is available by magazine subscription or iPad download: www.seahorse.co.uk/shop

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