Approaching the Leeward Mark – The Tactical Considerations

There's a lot to be gained (and lost) at the leeward mark, and approaching the leeward mark correctly is the first step to a successful upwind leg.

What the Experts Say

Nick Craig - Helming to Win
"...the earlier you form a plan for your leeward mark rounding, the better chance you have of executing it well."

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart
"When you are approaching a leeward mark, note the angle your transom makes relative to your opponent...A boat that ...changes course at can break the overlap and therefore does not have to give an opponent buoy room going round the mark."

Jim Saltonstall - Race Training with Jim Saltonstall
"...slow down, let those ahead of you make the mistake while you make the better rounding and gain heaps on those who did not."

Rodney Pattisson - Tactics
"If you are chasing one other boat blanket her late so you shoot alongside a few lengths from the mark; this gives her little time to regain the upper hand."

Ben Tan - The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing
"...before you enter the ... circle, verbally declare your rights to the surrounding boats."

Videos for Approaching the Leeward Mark

This video on downwind sailing (and particularly downwind overtaking) shows how the protagonist is always looking to get the inside rounding at the leeward mark.

Books with information on Approaching the Leeward Mark

Pretty much every book about sailing has something on leeward gates or leeward marks. I've listed the main ones I've used below, but these three are the ones I found most useful. It goes to show that sometimes the old ones really are the best ones:

The Top 3 Books for Help with Leeward Gates or Leeward Marks

Websites and online articles for Approaching the Leeward Mark

A good, brief description of the main tactical considerations of leeward gates can be found here

This article on leeward gates covers a lot of the main tactical points when approaching the leeward mark

This is a very useful piece on how to choose the correct mark in a Leeward gate rounding

A basic description of the tactical considerations of leeward mark roundings can be found here

This photo workshop has some good tactical points for leeward mark roundings on the last page

This piece covers communication between boats in the approach to the leeward mark

This article mentions the "slow-zone" you can get at the leeward gate or mark, and how to get through it with the least difficulty

In these two articles the author first describes how to pass a boat at the leeward mark, then describes how to break an overlap on the approach to the bottom mark

This is a useful article on giving mark room at the Leeward Mark

Another article on mark room at the leeward mark

What We Learned...

The leeward mark is a great opportunity for gaining places - either by getting water on a boat in front or by making a better rounding.

In this section I'll first cover some of the more general advice that is applicable to leeward marks and leeward gates, and then cover some leeward gate specifics in more depth at the end.

Because of the potential for making good gains (and big losses) you should start to think about your leeward mark approach from around halfway down the run, and certainly no later than two-thirds of the way down.

Depending on the fleet you are sailing in and your position in that fleet the amount of thought you need to give your approach can vary quite a lot: if you are well ahead of any boats behind you, and well behind any boats leading you, then your focus will be much more on the technique; however, if you are surrounded by competitors, you need to be making decisions early, and getting into position in plenty of time to make a good rounding.

The aim for any rounding is to make as much ground as you can on all your competitors whilst starting the new leg in the best tactical position possible. For a leeward mark rounding this means that

You do not want to be on the outside of any boats.

I can't stress enough how important this is. Assuming it is a port rounding, you should be looking to protect the left-hand side and be moving over to the inside lane for the mark without losing any places to do so (for leeward gates and starboard roundings it may be the other side that you need to protect).

Getting into position may require time, and it may be a case of waiting for the perfect opportunity - and this is the main reason you need to start thinking about your approach early.

In some situations you may end up needing to slow down on your approach to the mark to let others round before you. It isn't ideal (and it probably means you didn't start anticipating and setting up early enough), but it is infinitely better than rounding on the outside of other boats.

Avoiding the outside of the pin-wheel

So how do you avoid being on the outside of other boats?

Protect the Left
The first aim is to protect the left-hand side of the run. If you have gone right then you may have to cross the fleet to secure the inside lane, and this can mean sailing through a lot of wind-shadow. Look for a good opportunity - an extra bit of breeze, a favourable shift, a split in the boats behind - and make your move. Don't be tentative when crossing - you want to move to clean air on the inside as quickly as possible so be decisive.

Use Your Angles Part I
You don't want to be approaching the mark sailing your slowest angle. If any potential overlaps you might have on outside boats are going to be tight, you don't want to be approaching on a dead run whilst others are coming in at pace on a broad reach or sailing by-the-lee. So remember which angle of approach will suit you best and set yourself up to approach from this direction. This may require you doing a gybe-rounding (or a drop-gybe-rounding for boats with a kite), so it is very important to practice these skills - it can be horribly messy to be in a bunch of boats and get your rounding badly wrong.

Use Your Angles Part II
If another boat has had the same idea as you, then you need to make sure they don't get water on you as you enter the zone. As water is given based on the line from your transom - the angle you are at as you enter the zone is hugely important:


Blue has angled her approach so that Green is not entitled to 'Water'; but Yellow hasn't been so savvy, and her angle of approach means she must give both Blue and Green room at the mark.

If you are Green in this scenario, then the closer you stay to Blue's transom, the less likely it is that this trick will work - more separation will mean that even a small angle change can be enough.

Take the Initiative
If an overlap very marginal, as with Blue and Green above, then make the call early to your opponent. Blue should call "No water behind" immediately on entering the zone, so that Green knows the situation. Be clear and decisive when making the call - arguments only take your attention away from the things you want to be concentrating on, and therefore slow you down.

Accept Your Situation Early
In the above diagram, Yellow is set to be on the outside of two boats - not good at all. But her best move from here is to slow down and follow the two boats around. Psychologically this can be hard to do (especially if Yellow had been ahead of these boats before), but rounding outside them both is going to do a lot more damage. If she gets her deceleration right then there is every chance that one or both of these boats will make a wide exit as their entry is likely to be tight - leaving Yellow the opportunity to have a tactically strong position on exiting the mark.

Leeward Gates - The Tactical Approach

Choosing which gate mark to round is (as with much of sailing) both simple and complicated. Essentially, only three factors will influence your decision:

This leeward gate decision making flowchart should help clarify your decision-making process

The gate bias

Most of the time the gate is set up before the start of the race, which gives you the chance to check the bias just as you would for a start line. If you do this, then you need to take into account any changes in the conditions - did the wind track right or left on the upwind leg? If the wind is in a different direction, then this will change the bias on the gate: if the wind veered to the right as you look upwind then the right hand buoy will be more favoured; if the wind backed left as you look upwind then the left-hand buoy will be more favoured.

For example (click on the image to enlarge):

Unfortunately, the Race Committee don't always set the gate before the start, or set it up so late that you don't have time to check it. In this case, a bit more judgement is required. Fortunately, identical buoys are usually used, so the one that looks larger is closer (if you're not sure what I mean, you may find this video helpful). But remember, you're looking for the mark that is furthest upwind, not necessarily the mark that is closest to you.

It is also worth bearing in mind that rounding the favoured mark on a gate with a one boat-length bias will lead to a two boat-length gain - one on the way down and one on the way back up, so getting good at judging this can be a very useful skill.

Which way do you want to go up the beat?

If the gate bias is small, or the beat is heavily favoured, then your decision may be more influenced by the way you want to go. Logic would suggest that if you want to go left upwind then you should aim to round the buoy on that side so you can head that way straight away. This is generally the right thing to do, and should be your default reaction.

However, if you are mid-fleet or worse, and in a crowd, then there is every chance that, once you round the mark, you'll need to clear your lane. In this case, it can be worth sailing to the other gate buoy (again presuming that the bias isn't a major factor). The reason for this is that you'll only need to tack once after the mark to be heading in a clean lane towards your preferred side of the course; from the other buoy you'd require two tacks - one to clear your wind, and another to head back towards the favoured side of the beat.

Just remember the boats still heading downwind to the gate - you don't want to be tacking into lots of bad air and confused chop.

How busy is each gate mark?

Crowds are slow. Bad air, confused water, rules distractions - these all slow you down. If the fleet is big, and the gate and beat aren't heavily biased, then taking the quieter gate can be an excellent way to pick up places. Have a read of Lesson 4 in this piece to see what I mean.


In summary:

  • Have a plan for your next beat
  • Protect the left - (or the right if it is a starboard rounding)
  • Use your angles - keep your approach quick and avoid giving water to boats behind you
  • Take the initiative - be clear to the boats around you what rights you have
  • Know the bias - know which buoy is favoured in a gate
  • Remember your plan - know which buoy will help get you where you want to go
  • Avoid crowds - crowds are slow for both the rounding, and also when sailing back upwind

Leeward Gate Decision Making Flowchart

Here's a simple flowchart to help you choose the correct mark to round when approaching a leeward gate:

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