Overtaking on the Run

This section on overtaking on the run ties quite closely to another section - Downwind Tactics - Protecting a Lead Downwind. For a more complete picture it is worth reading both sections.

What the Experts Say

Jim Saltonstall - Race Training with Jim Saltonstall
"...gybe on top of the leader all the time to take their wind and also to try to make them make a mistake. Making this leg longer improves (your) chances of closing the gap and getting an overlap at the leeward mark"

Ben Ainsle - The Laser Campaign Manual
It is very hard to sail through a group of boats...it is far easier to sail around (them) in clear air and clean waves

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart
"approach your opponent's boat on a fairly close angle of sail, cross its stern, and gybe over when you are between the boat and the mark...your boatspeed is going to be much greater and you can use that speed to...get that inside overlap

Jon Emmett - Be Your Own Sailing Coach
"As the attacker you always need to think about whether you are going to overtake to windward or leeward."

Doug Peckover - Butterfly Fleet 20 Blog
"The leeward pass is something I really like because it permits sailing “by the lee” which can be used to really pick up speed".

Rodney Pattison - Tactics
"Your attacking weapon on the run is your wind shadow"

Ben Tan - The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing
"To blanket the boat in front, keep the leeward boat in line with your wind indicator"

Videos for Overtaking on the Run

A good video covering some of the techniques and scenarios involved when trying to pass a boat on the run:

Books with Information on Overtaking on the Run

Race Training with Jim Saltonstall, page 120-122

Be Your Own Sailing Coach - Jon Emmett, page 86

The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing - Ben Tan, page 147

Tactics (Sail to Win) - Rodney Pattison, page 52

Sailing Smart: Winning Techniques, Tactics, And Strategies - Buddy Melges, page 172-4

The Complete Book of Laser Sailing - Dick Tillman, page 56

Websites and online articles for Overtaking on the Run

These three articles cover downwind passing moves brilliantly:

A useful article on the rules that govern overtaking situations on the run

What We Learned...

There is quite a lot to this topic, so I've broken it down to some key areas:

An Overview of Overtaking on the Run

Being able to gain places downwind seems to have become increasingly important over the last few years, especially with the greater number of downwind finishes these days.

We almost always look at boat-on-boat tactics and strategy when talking about overtaking on the run, but it can often be possible to do far better than one or two places. Depending on your position at the windward mark, the quality of the fleet, the fleet layout ahead of you (and, eventually, behind you), and the conditions across the course, it can often pay to be a bit brave and separate from the fleet to get a good clear lane.

That said, it also pays to work on your one-on-one skills and to have a few tricks up your sleeve in order to pick up positions on the run.

However you plan to make gains on the run, you should have thought it out at the end of the previous leg, so you have the chance to take whatever opportunities present themselves. The following are some useful things to be aware of when deciding your strategy when overtaking downwind:

  • Boatspeed is King. If you really want to gain a lot of places downwind then work at being fast downwind. It is far better to speed yourself up than to slow others down
  • Always remember that you're sailing in a fleet - don't get caught up in winning one battle only to find that you've lost a load of positions to other boats
  • An inside overlap at the leeward mark is almost always essential to make your gains stick. Work towards an inside overlap from two-thirds of the way down the run at the latest
  • If there are lots of boats just ahead and a gap behind you then you should attack the boats ahead. If there is a gap ahead of you and boats just behind, you should defend.
  • Remember what worked on previous downwind legs and utilise this knowledge
  • Take into account any changes in conditions from the last beat you were on
  • When racing in a mixed fleet (as we often do in club racing) use all the advantages that are available to you. For example, if you are racing in a boat without a spinnaker against one that does use a spinnaker then a windward pass is a good option. Why? Because they can only luff so far before they start losing a lot of speed, whilst you can go as high as you like.

Overtaking Lots of Boats Downwind

If you round the top mark down the fleet, with plenty of boats in front of you, you need to start looking to get clear of bunches of boats. There are a few things worth thinking about as you approach the windward mark before heading downwind, so that your strategy is prepared before you round the mark.

  • The Starboard Tack Parade - if you are at the back of the fleet then this isn't really a consideration. However, if you intend to go left on the run and there are still a good few boats behind you then you need to get clear of their wind shadow before heading in that direction.
  • The Boats Ahead - Which way have the majority of boats gone? Why have they gone that way? If there is a very strong current you need to avoid, or that you can't afford to miss out on, then you may have no choice other than to follow the fleet. The same applies to wind - if one side of the course is obviously and consistently getting more breeze then you may have to go that way.
    But. If the conditions are reasonably balanced and the vast majority of the fleet have gone one way (they often head off to the right, or in the same direction as the leader) then the benefits of a good clear lane can often outweigh a little adverse current or slightly less breeze
  • The Blanketing Zone (or the Snow-Fence Effect) - Once you've decided you can afford some separation, you need to get away from the blanketing zone (which is described in this blog post) as quickly as possible. This may even involve reaching towards the edge of the run before making your progress downwind. Your aim here is to get away from the disturbed wind that will affect any bunches of boats, and get good clean wind and a lane where you're free to sail as quickly as possible.
  • Be Brave - You need to be prepared to be brave. The temptation to move back across to the other boats is strong, especially if you're not obviously making gains. It is worth remembering that (a) you were down the fleet when you rounded the windward mark, so how much worse can things get? (b) If you had to reach across to get to the edge of the fleet then you will have sacrificed some ground to get to where you are. If it looks like you haven't made any significant gains, then it is probably because the early sacrifice hasn't paid you back yet. And (c) if you do rejoin the other boats how many places do you stand to gain in boat-to-boat combat? One? Two? Stay brave and see how you shape up at the end of the leg.
    One other bit of bravery is required. Don't just sail to the edge of the bunch. Get clear of the boats around, get some sensible distance (at least several boat lengths) between you, so you actually have the chance to get the benefits of your strategy.
The great retention problem - where do all these sailors go?

Getting clear of groups of other boats and just sailing fast can be the best way to make big gains downwind.

If you can do all this right then you will normally make good gains on the downwind leg, especially if your boatspeed is good.

Overtaking One-on-One on the Run

Setting Up to Overtake Downwind
The first advantage you have as the attacker on the run is your wind-shadow. Jim Saltonstall reckons you should use this weapon as much as possible, sitting on your opponent's air whenever you can. Interestingly, Ben Tan reckons you should reserve this weapon for the final third of the run when boats will be converging (describing it as "unreasonable" to blanket an opponent the whole way. I've even heard anecdotal evidence of clubs having an agreement that sailors won't blanket each other on purpose downwind - something which seems counter-productive to me as it makes life easier for the leaders, results in less place changes, and is also not a privilege you'd receive at an away event). Whatever your personal views, there's no doubt that using your wind-shadow is a great way to close the gap on a boat ahead and set yourself up to overtake. Use your wind indicator to help you identify where your shadow will be.

The other big advantage you have as the chasing boat is that the wind fills in from behind, meaning that any puffs that come through will reach you first. It is essential that you remain focused on sailing the boat fast as it can be all too easy to get caught up in attacking another boat, and forget to sail as well as you can.

The boat(s) ahead will be aware that you get the breeze first, and if they are inclined towards being a nervy sailor then this becomes an especially useful advantage. Look out for signs of nerves (constantly checking the boats behind, fidgeting or moving around excessively, make continuous but unhelpful changes to settings) -  a worried sailor is normally a slow sailor, and there should be an opportunity to close the gap.

Unless you are taking a wide berth of the boat you are trying to overtake (i.e. sailing well to leeward to keep your air clear as you pass, or well to windward to avoid getting into a luffing match), then once you catch up with the boat ahead you should learn to be adept at taking up this holding position as described by Doug Peckover - then you can decide what kind of pass you want to attempt.

Overtaking on the Run - Passing to Windward
In the old days passing to windward was the most common way of gaining a position downwind. The old "Mast Abeam" rule meant that at a certain point the leeward boat had to return to her proper course, and it was possible to secure a pass. Now that the "mast abeam" rule is gone, passing to windward is a more dangerous proposition.

But there are still a few ways of passing the boat ahead to windward:

The Simple Windward Pass
If you have a definite speed advantage and you want to pass on the windward side then it is normally worth heading up and leaving around two boat-lengths between your boat and your opponent's. This should discourage them from getting into a luffing match, and it gives you plenty of room to react to anything they do.

The Pattison Pass
I've called this "The Pattison Pass" beacause it is described by Roger Pattison in his book Tactics.

Sit on the boat ahead's wind and wait for a gust. When the gust comes, use the extra speed to sail through the boat ahead's quarter wave and over the top. He also mentions that if they luff sharply as you start this move, it can be an opportunity to dive low and even gybe to pass on the other side.

The Trick Windward Pass
In this pass you trick the boat ahead into thinking that you want to pass to leeward. You set up as with Doug's holding position, then make a few darts to leeward (of course if one of these darts gets you through then happy days!). If you have a crew then maybe even discuss establishing an overlap to leeward, or mention loudly enough to be heard that you think there is a puff coming through on the leeward side. Then, when you make a duck to leeward and the boat ahead follows, suddenly turn up and cross their transom, covering their wind as they turn back up to luff. If you have good boat-handling and execute this well you can get through quite well with this technique.

You can also use this at the leeward mark. Generally you want to try to establish an overlap to be on the inside at the leeward mark. However, if the helm you are racing is particularly defensive this may not be achievable, or extremely risky to try. As an alternative you can dummy that you are going for the leeward overlap as you approach the three boatlength zone and they will almost certainly protect that side. Turn up suddenly across their transom, and onto their back quarter, but hold them to a tight entry to their mark rounding, whilst you execute a smoother, tighter exit and start the new beat in a controlling position.

Overtaking on the Run - Passing to Leeward
Overtaking to leeward is more common than it used to be, but is still as tricky as it ever was. There are a few ways to go about it:

The Simple Leeward Pass
If you have good speed compared to the boat you are attempting to pass (i.e. you are at least as quick) then bearing off by the lee on a good wave may be enough to get you past. If you can keep clean air by sailing by the lee until you are clear (or have done enough to get a nice inside berth at the leeward mark) then this is the simplest way of going through to leeward. It's especially useful for boats with unstayed rigs that go well by the lee.

The Bertrand Pass
Buddy Melges describes "doing a Bertrand" in his wonderful book Sailing Smart. Essentially the idea is to sail across your opponent's stern on a "hot angle" , and then gybe back onto starboard, using the extra speed you are carrying to overtake, or at least establish a strong overlap.
This move works best in boats that are heavy and therefore carry their speed well, but it is useful for all boats and can get you out of jail if you're the wrong side of a bunch of boats and getting close to the leeward mark.

The Trick Leeward Pass
This is very similar to the Trick Windward Pass. This time you feint to overtake to windward, before ducking down and going to leeward.

The Peckover Pass
I call this the Peckover Pass because Doug Peckover describes it well in this post and it makes it easy for me to remember. Having established an overlap more than two boatlengths to leeward of your opponent you have luffing rights, and you can attack them in order to complete the pass. He also describes a more aggressive double-gybe version that also establishes luffing rights, but this is ultra-aggressive and tricky to perform (and you also need to be sure your opponent understands how the rules apply in this situation to avoid a back-and-forth argument on the water which is no fun and not conducive to fast sailing).

Final Thoughts

  • Remember that sailing fast is the best way to gain positions downwind
  • The leeward mark is often the best place to complete passes downwind, so get your approach to the bottom mark right
  • Experience is invaluable - do lots of racing and practice different manoeuvres to figure out what works for different circumstances
  • If you are slower than an opponent then use the advantages that are available to you to make gains - wind shadow, getting the benefit of gusts first, and even using your opponents wake to surf and keep up with them.

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