Decisions: When to cover your opponent

Published on August 26th, 2022

by Adam Loory, UK Sailmakers
The strategy of winning sailboat races involves knowing how to control your competition— when to cover your competition and when to sail your own race. I was reminded of both during the 2022 Ida Lewis Distance Race off Newport, Rhode Island. I sailed on the Reichel Pugh 69 WIZARD chartered by David Greenstein.

Four-time Volvo Ocean Race winner Stu Bannatyne was our skipper, and WIZARD was scratch boat in ORC. The only boat that was close to us in speed was the Judel Vrolijk 66 DENALI, to which we owed about 20 minutes on the 150-mile course. There was also a TP52 in our class, but since we owed her about two hours, there was no reason to be close to her.

At the starting line we did our best to get away from DENALI. Stu Bannatyne did a masterful job of winning the start and closed out DENALI at the signal boat, forcing her to go around and start again. Watch below:

 
But after sailing half of the seven-mile leg out the harbor, we let DENALI split and sail to the west. Sure enough, she was ahead of us at the first mark. If you don’t have a good reason to split with your competition, do as my mother told me in 1977 after she watched me lose a race in the last 100 yards by not covering. She said, “Cover, cover, cover!” Yes, Mom.

Being faster, we sailed through the lee of DENALI on the 16-mile downwind leg to the Buzzard’s Bay Tower. We recovered from our first mistake, and after rounding the tower, we had a 45-mile beat with Block Island in the middle of the leg’s rhumbline. But because we had not tacked right away after rounding the Buzzards Bay Tower, we could not pass to the north of Block Island without bearing off. Bearing off would have put us behind DENALI, which had tacked immediately after rounding the tower.

Our loose cover didn’t pay off. They used Block Island as a pick and we had to tack and go to down the east side of the Island in order to get around the south end of the Island. Denali kept going straight and passed the north side of Block. As a result, she rounded the mark off of Montauk 10 minutes in front of us. Our second mistake of not covering.

We used our superior downwind speed to close the gap to a minute or two the second time we rounded the Buzzards Bay Tower. Once again we had to beat in order to go around the south side of Block Island before making the turn to go back to Newport. As the wind went a little lighter, we were quicker going upwind.

Not wanting to let us go, DENALI tacked with us each time we tried to get out from under her. Just before passing the southeast corner of Block Island, we sailed through DENALI’s lee to take the lead. On the south side of Block, we tacked on DENALI at least five time to try to drive them back. As they say, “Fool me once…”

The final leg of the race was a run from the north end of Block Island into Newport Harbor and the wind was dropping. Even in 10 knots of wind, we were making 10 knots of speed. When we were halfway home, we had to head up to sail at our target angles. This was bringing us into the Rhode Island shore, west of Newport.

Our navigator checked all the weather stations along that shore and found that they all had little to no wind. At that point we split with DENALI and jibed back out into Rhode Island Sound to stay in 8-10 knots of wind. That was the last we saw of DENALI, which kept going to the shore.

We were keenly aware that we were running out of time to finish the race before the wind shut off and before helpful flood current changed to an ebb that would make it that harder to sail up into Newport harbor. That’s exactly what happened to DENALI. They got caught in the dying wind and foul current.

In the 16 miles from Block Island to the finish they went from being even with WIZARD to finishing one-hour-and-a-half behind. WIZARD corrected to first in class by over one hour. Here, the better call was to NOT cover the competitor…but it was based on hard data and sound navigation.

So once again, you have to know when to cover and when to sail your own race.

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