Downwind Tactics – Protecting a Lead Downwind

This section on protecting a lead downwind ties quite closely to another section - Overtaking on the Run. For a more complete picture it is worth reading both sections.

What the Experts Say

Jim Saltonstall - Race Training with Jim Saltonstall
While defending, many racers forget to continue to sail the boat fast using the gusts to soak off to leeward, as well as the lulls to come up and maintain boat speed

Jon Emmett - Coach Yourself to Win
Unless you have a very large lead you are usually influenced by the boats behind you. So the key is usually to sail fast and this means that you need clean air

Ben Tan - Complete Introduction to Laser Racing
By riding the waves, the usual course deviations make it hard for the boat behind to maintain his dead-to-windward position

Ben Ainslie - The Laser Campaign Manual
When a large group of boats is right behind snapping at your heels then you will have to take one side of the run or the other in order to keep clear air

Doug Peckover - Writing on The Butterfly Fleet 20 Blog
'For every move there is a counter-move and, all things being equal, the smartest sailor wins.'

Andy Horton and Dave Powlison - Sailing World
'To determine the best way to escape a windshadow on the run, you first must be able to figure out the windshadow’s location. This requires understanding the apparent wind angles for the boat you’re sailing and the boat you’re sailing against.'

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart
...always position your boat so you are a little to leeward of your competitor astern

Steve Hunt - Sailing World
'I usually prefer to jibe just before everyone else in my group so we lead away on what is now the long tack.'

Videos for Protecting a Lead Downwind

We've had trouble finding a really good video on how to defend your position on the run. Here is one short video showing a defence by ensuring the inside lane at the leeward mark

Books with information on Protecting a Lead Downwind

Jim Saltonstall - Race Training with Jim Saltonstall, page 120

Jon Emmett - Coach Yourself to Win, page 62

Jon Emmett - Be Your Own Sailing Coach, page 84, page 86 and page 89

Ben Ainslie - The Laser Campaign Manual, page 92

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart, page 166

Ben Tan - Complete Introduction to Laser Racing, page 147

Websites and online articles for Protecting a Lead Downwind

This is a very good article on defending your position when on the run.

This article on protecting your wind downwind helps with protecting a lead

An excellent article on the downwind leg which has some material on protecting your position from the boats behind

What We Learned...

One of the toughest things about dinghy racing is watching your lead on the boats behind disappear on the downwind leg. Everyone that has raced dinghies has had that experience - seeing boats behind them get extra breeze and close rapidly, whilst feeling helpless to do anything about it.

Being ahead on the downwind legs has its disadvantages: the boats behind can steal your wind, and they get the first of any new breeze that comes down the course. For these reasons it is essential to remain calm and focused - it is easy to become distracted and forget to just sail fast. I've written a little on this topic here.

In terms of defending your position downwind, this is the most common thread that all the experts mention: aim to sail as fast as possible. There's not much you can do about the other boats getting the new breeze first, so accept it - relax and keep your boat making the best progress possible to the next mark.

The next most important thing is the old favourite - clear air. If the boats behind are close you'll need to be to one side of them or the other. Sailing in the "blanket zone" in the middle of the course is going to be slow, so pick the side that you think will be most favourable and move towards it. You can use your own wind indicator (and/or the wind indicators on other boats) to ensure you are not in their bad air.

Remember also that, in sailing as fast as possible, you'll be making course deviations to catch waves and search for puffs. This makes it difficult for boats behind to blanket you properly and they either give up attempting it or they end up sailing greater distance to try to stay on your wind. Either of these is a win for you. Doug Peckover describes the technique really well here - it is well worth a read.

But, even though clear air is essential, separation is bad. You don't want to have a big gap between you and the boats behind that can catch you (unless the big gap is a big lead!) because if the majority have gone right and you've gone left then you are giving a large amount of leverage to your opponents. Should they get a nice puff, or a good set of waves, or a helpful shift, or the current turns out to be more favourable, then you stand to lose a lot of ground. And if you're a long way off then you may not even be able to get across to make the pass difficult for them.

Essentially, in terms of boat positioning, your aim is to be between the opposition and the next mark when possible. Buddy Melges describes this as positioning yourself just to leeward of your competitor. The reason for this is that if you have to defend then you'll be doing so by heading up, increasing your apparent wind speed and therefore speeding up your boat - a far more secure position than if you have to bear away to defend, which will lead you to a slower point of sail and may even require an unwanted gybe.

One other thing worth bearing in mind is communicating with the other boats around you. If you are leading the race, it may be worth working with the boats around you to pull away from the rest of the fleet. Agreeing not to interfere with each other can help you create a cushion, enabling you to secure a good finish and then battle out for the placings. Sometimes this will work, others it won't - but it can be worth a try.


  • Stay calm and sail fast
  • Keep clear air
  • Unless well clear, avoid the blanket zone in the middle of the course
  • Sail the same side of the run as the majority of boats that could beat you in the race
  • Don't separate from the majority too much
  • Keep between the opposition and the leeward mark
  • Communicate with your competitors

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