Penalty killing in the clutch

Published on October 31st, 2022

For a match race with umpires, it is inevitable that competitors must know how to shed penalties, and that can happen just prior to finishing. In the Dial Up newsletter, Dave Perry offers how to kill a penalty at the race committee boat on the finishing line:


Before the significant changes to the match racing rules in 2017, the success rate for killing a penalty at the race committee boat on the finishing line was about 10%; i.e., it worked about one out of every ten tries. But with the changes to the match racing rules at marks, the success rate has jumped to closer to 70% when the leading boat plays it right (and the trailing boat plays it wrong).

In this piece I will explain my current thinking on how the leading boat should play it, and then my thinking on how the trailing boat should play it so the leading boat is unsuccessful. To illustrate my thoughts, I will describe three situations in 2022, two of which I was involved in.

First, a quick review of the rules that will come into play:

1. “Mark-room” in match racing is room for a boat to sail its “proper course” to round or pass the mark. See the definition Mark-Room in Appendix C, Match Racing Rules, rule C2.2. A boat’s “proper course” is the course it thinks will get it to the finishing line as quickly as possible in the absence of the other boat.

2. Rule C2.9, 18.2(a) is the rule that requires the outside boat or the boat clear astern to give the other boat mark-room. Rule C2.9, 18.2(a) does not turn off when the boat entitled to mark-room tacks. That is a huge difference from the regular fleet racing rules. In other words, in match racing, if a boat needs to tack, or tack twice, to sail its proper course to round or pass the mark, the other boat has to give it room to do that. This could happen at the windward mark, or when below the starboard-tack layline to the race committee boat at the finishing line. And even though the boat owing the penalty has tacked, it is still entitled to mark-room, so it can tack back and “shut the door” on the other boat, even if it is taking its penalty at the race committee boat at the time. See MR Call K6.

3. In match racing, the penalty on the leg to the finish is to tack and bear away to just below 90 degrees to the true wind as soon as reasonably possible. MR Call N6 defines a “tack” as sailing from a close-hauled course on one tack to a close-hauled course on the other tack. In other words, if a boat with a penalty is approaching the race committee boat on starboard tack, it needs to luff, pass head to wind, and go all the way down to close-hauled on port tack first. Then it can do its penalty by tacking from port to starboard tack and continuing to bear away to a course below 90 degrees to the true wind.

The Plays for the Leading and Trailing Boats
This discussion assumes the leading boat is not far enough ahead of the trailing boat to do its penalty turn at the finishing line and win the race (“Spin & Win”). On average, the leading boat needs to be about four lengths ahead (~12-15 seconds) to win the race after doing its penalty.

When the leading boat is not far enough ahead to Spin & Win, it wants to draw the trailing boat in close so it can get the trailing boat overlapped and then luff them, hoping to either get an offsetting penalty on the other boat, or get into a position where the leading boat can tack around and kill its penalty.

The trailing boat wants to stay far enough back so there is no risk of getting overlapped with the leading boat, but not so far back that the leading boat can Spin & Win. The perfect distance back is two lengths of water between the boats (no more…no less). This is called “Play 2.”

If the boats have spinnakers up when they start slowing down to attack and defend, they should put their jibs up immediately! This prevents the spinnaker from wrapping around the forestay, which is usually a race loser. Very often the boats end up taking their spinnakers down as they approach the finishing line.

The play for the leading boat is to defend their left side (looking downwind) so that the trailing boat cannot get onto starboard tack and force the leading boat to gybe onto starboard to keep clear. Obviously, the trailer is trying to get to the leader’s left and then gybe onto starboard.

The trailing boat is usually happy to be patient and let the leading boat do all the work. Although it is tempting for the trailing boat to gybe and try to roll the leading boat on starboard tack and beat them to the zone of the Pin end of the finishing line, that is risky because if the trailing boat gets locked to windward of the leading boat and can’t get to the zone, the trailing boat is in Downwind Jail, and the leading boat can sail them out to the right forever and then tack around, kill their penalty, and beat them back to the finishing line.

As a result of the leading boat defending its left, and the trailing boat being content to stay behind them, the game usually ends up down in the left corner of the leg (looking downwind), with the boats reaching back on starboard tack towards the race committee boat on the finishing line.

Jordan Stephenson vs Jack Egan
In the 2022 Governor’s Cup, Jordan Stephenson (NZL) was paired with Jack Egan (USA) in the Semi-finals. In race 1, Jordan was leading Jack down the last leg to the finish but carrying a penalty. In traditional fashion, the game moved to the lower left of the leg looking downwind, and with spinnakers down, the two boats approached the zone of the race committee boat on close reaches on starboard tack.

The wind was light, and the Governor’s Cup 22s have narrow keels such that when they get down-speed they lose their grip and the boat slides sideways quickly. Before entering the zone, Jordan slowed and Jack became overlapped to windward of him. Jordan got to the anchor line of the committee boat and luffed head to wind. Jack matched the luff and then rolled onto port tack to keep clear.

Before getting flow, Jack tried to tack back to starboard to beat Jordan across the finishing line before Jordan could do his penalty turn. Unfortunately, Jack’s boat went sideways and he couldn’t clear the anchor line. Meanwhile, Jordan bore away, crossing the line as he built speed, then sailed back to windward of the line, tacked onto port tack, and bore away to win the race.


Watch video of Stephenson vs Egan

Perry vs Holz
In the 2022 Oakcliff International, sailed in Match 40s which are heavy boats with a lot of momentum, Peter Holz and I were racing in the Finals. With us up 2-1, we were sailing down the last leg with us leading but carrying a penalty.

Again, the game worked itself to the left (looking downwind), but this time I led back to the zone of the race committee boat below the layline to the race committee boat, with Peter about a length or so clear astern of us, and about a length to windward of our line. I didn’t mean to be below the layline, but it ended up working out well.

I sailed about a length into the zone and tacked onto port tack. Peter luffed to try to give me room to sail my proper course, which was to tack back to starboard tack when I could sail close-hauled and clear the race committee boat’s anchor line. Had I held my course on port tack, I would have hit Peter on his port side several feet forward from the transom. I tacked to avoid contact and we protested.

Not knowing what the umpire decision would be, and having a slight leeward overlap on Peter, I started luffing him, figuring I may need to kill our penalty in some other way. Just then my tactician told me to finish, because the umpires had given Peter a penalty for not giving us mark-room, which offset our penalty. We bore away and won the race.

In hindsight, even if Peter had given me room to tack, when I tacked back to starboard tack, all I had to do was bear off around the anchor line of the committee boat as soon as reasonably possible, which would have been my penalty (tack and bear away below 90 degrees).

Watch video Perry vs Holz
Watch entire Perry vs Holz last race, with Perry commentary

Tactics for the Trailing Boat
After seeing the Governor’s Cup penalty kill, and being in the situation with Peter, I gave some thought as to what the tactics should be for the trailing boat. It seems that the leading boat is strong when it can sail into the zone of the race committee boat on starboard tack. Therefore, the trailing boat needs to take that play away from the leading boat.

My thought was that the trailing boat should stay in Play 2 (two boat lengths of water between the boats) but sail on starboard tack for a bit earlier in the leg to force the leading boat to also sail on starboard tack to keep from getting rolled. Then keep gybing back and forth to keep the leading boat centered up on the leg (directly upwind of the finishing line). Don’t let the leading boat lead into the zone on starboard tack.

Then, when close to the finishing line, either keep the gybing back and forth going on until the leading boat runs out of race track. Or if you have to get overlapped, get overlapped on starboard tack. Then luff as slowly as possible while still keeping clear, and try to keep the leading boat overlapped to leeward so they can’t tack across your stern. You keep turning and roll into a tack to port tack before the leeward boat can tack. Even if the leeward boat does finally tack, you will beat them to the finishing line. And you still have the “Starboard Card” (meaning you can gybe onto starboard if needed).

Interestingly enough, I had a chance to test my hypothesis several days after my race with Peter, in the Thompson Cup. It didn’t go quite according to “plan,” but the outcome was even better than I had thought it would be.

Perry vs Pierroz
In the Semi-finals of the 2022 Thompson Cup, also raced in Match 40s, we were trailing Aurelien Pierroz (FRA) into the finish of race 1, with Aurelien carrying a penalty. I had been doing a good job gybing back and forth and keeping him somewhat centered above the finishing line (so he couldn’t enter the zone on starboard tack). Now it was time to overlap him on starboard tack, tack around, and win the race.

Unfortunately, when I luffed to keep clear of him on starboard tack, I left him room to tack across our stern. Now he was to leeward of us on port tack and had cleared his penalty when he bore away below 90 degrees after tacking. But I then saw that we were sailing back into the zone of the race committee boat. Of course, now *we* were the “inside boat” and had the right to sail our proper course, which was to bear away, gybe, and luff to pass to windward of the anchor line of the committee boat.

Because he is required to give us mark-room, there was no way Aurelien could stop us from gybing and luffing him, and we were easily able to clear the committee boat’s anchor line, bear away and win the race. It was a good thing we waited until we were near the finishing line before trying our play so we could use the zone of the committee boat to our advantage.


The Dial Up is the US Sailing Match Racing Committee’s most effective way to communicate to the North American match racing community all the great things that will be happening, are happening, and have happened in North American match racing. If you would like to read any of the past issues or sign-up to receive The Dial Up (which is completely free!), click here or go to the US Sailing Match Racing webpage.

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