Racing to Win – Leeward Gates and Leeward Marks

What the Experts Say

Jon Emmett - Be Your Own Sailing Coach
"A good leeward mark rounding is essential so you have clean wind for the upwind leg and the option to tack."

Eric Twiname - Start to Win
"...the perfect rounding is the one that loses as little ground as possible and leaves your boat ideally placed to start the next leg, travelling fast."

Jim Saltonstall - Race Training with Jim Saltonstall
" order to use less rudder, you must use your sail trim, boat trim and boat balance to maximum effect to turn the ship."

Buddy Melges - Sailing Smart
"I prefer a spinnaker takedown to windward...because I think it not only pulls the boat into the spinnaker and produces a bit more drive, but it also reduces the chance of a mess if the sail decides to turn inside out and flail off to leeward."

Videos for Leeward Gates and Gybe Marks

Jon Emmett on leeward mark roundings:

A GP14 leeward mark rounding in light airs:

Olympic Gold Medallist Sarah Ayton with some racing tips, including these ones for leeward mark roundings:

Leeward mark roundings in an E-Scow:

Olympic Gold Medallist Shirley Robertson on leeward mark roundings in an Oprtimist...

...and a Laser:

Andrew Scrivan with a Leeward mark rounding in a Laser:

Books with information on Leeward Gates and Gybe Marks

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 Leeward Gates and Gybe Marks

This article on leeward gates covers most of the main areas when approaching leeward gates

The third article on this web page has some useful ideas about Leeward Gates

This article on Racing Basics gives a brief description of gybe mark and leeward mark roundings

This article gives some good advice on the approach to leeward gates and the exit from them

A Laser sailor goes over some important lessons from regatta sailing, including stuff about leeward gates

Some of the tactics for gybe and leeward mark roundings are discussed towards the end of this article

This photo workshop has some useful points regarding leeward mark roundings

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

This useful article covers giving mark room at the leeward mark. And this article has some further clarification

What We Learned...

The leeward mark or leeward gate is a very important part of any race. You can stand to gain or lose a lot of positions in a very short space of time if you get it right or wrong - so practising this area has the potential to improve your results quite a lot.

There are two key areas to getting the leeward mark rounding right - the tactical and the practical. This piece covers the practical - the sailing techniques you need to make a fast rounding; you can find the tactical stuff here.

Leeward Mark Technique

Leeward mark technique can be broken down into a three basic areas:

Approaching the Leeward Gate or Mark

The first thing about approaching the leeward mark or gate is to know what you want to do on the beat, and this is covered here.

The second thing to remember when approaching the leeward mark is that you want to have a wide entry and a tight exit. This should be second nature - completely automatic. If it isn't, then practice till it is.

Once you have an idea where you're going on the next leg and you're ready for a nice wide entry to the rounding, your approach should be dominated by a routine.

Routines are important. They make a lot of the work second nature or automatic, freeing you up to keep your head out of the boat and watching for opportunities or problems. So decide on a routine, and practise it religiously - Jon Emmett recommends always finishing your practice on a leeward mark rounding as it is such an important skill. The practice will pay off - it will improve your roundings immensely - and you'll also find it easier to replicate in pressure situations.

Different boats will have different routines depending on what you need to get done - a Sunfish sailor's routine will be quite different to someone that sails a Flying Scot, for example - so figure out what is needed for your boat and plan a routine accordingly. Here's a suggestion, which you can add to or remove from as appropriate:

  • Lift board fully to check for weed, then fully lower for upwind leg. Also check rudder at this time.
  • Adjust outhaul to upwind settings;
  • Adjust rig tension;
  • Drop kite;
  • Adjust cunningham;
  • Adjust kicker;
  • Round the mark;
  • Fine tune a re-check all settings.

The idea behind your routine is to get the boat fully set up for the next leg before the mark, whilst impacting on your current speed as little as possible. For this reason, you need to know what your speed-killers are: as an example, for some classes putting the cunningham on will really slow the boat, so it may be worth doing this after the kicker rather than before.

Knowing your speed-killers has one other important advantage. Occasionally, for tactical reasons, you will need to slow your boat down as you approach the mark: perhaps to avoid being on the outside of another boat or boats, or to give yourself a little room behind a slow moving boat ahead. The last thing you want is to have to really slow suddenly or duck to leeward to avoid a collision with the boat ahead - you'll be on the outside of the rounding despite all your best efforts, and start the windward leg in a bad position.

Slowing a boat down on the run isn't always easy, and different things work better with different boats. Here are some things to try and to practice:

  • Over-sheet: effective but beware of an unwanted gybe
  • Collapse the spinnaker
  • Drop the kite early
  • Tighten sail controls early or excessively: can help, but not as useful as some other techniques if you need to slow a lot
  • Sail a zig zag course using a lot of rudder: a good way to slow down if you have the room around you - just be careful of other boats.
  • Move your weight aft to dig the transom into the water: I use this a lot, and on some boats it is incredibly effective

Sheeting at the Leeward Mark

How hard can it be to sheet in correctly?

If you're thinking "Not very hard at all" then you're 100% correct.

But just because it is easy doesn't mean that everyone does it right.

You should use hand-over-hand sheeting the whole way round the racecourse, but it is especially important to be able to do it well for your leeward mark roundings - you have to get a lot of sheet in very quickly. Here is Nick Thompson demonstrating how it is done:

(By the way - if you are a Laser sailor, then you really should watch the whole video - it is a brilliant view of how to sail a Laser fast. Also, in his book Start to Win, Eric Twiname describes a rounding "from a run to a beat with a gybe at the mark" as the most difficult of all - doesn't Nick make it look easy(ish)?)

If possible, you should even use your sheeting to help the boat turn to windward - matching your sheeting to the turn. However, this isn't always possible. If you watch the Nick's mark rounding closely you'll notice that his the front half of his sail flaps as he heads up to close hauled - he's turned faster than he has sheeted in.

This is deliberate. When it is breezy it takes a lot more energy, and is a lot slower, to pull in a mainsail that is full of wind than one that is flapping. So rather than heaving in the sail slowly, Nick turns up quicker and sheets in rapidly, a much more effective technique. Steve Cockerill also recommends it in his Boat Whisperer DVDs.

In two-sail boats co-ordination is important. The helm needs to sheet as with a one-man boat, and the crew should sheet slightly slower than the helm. If the jib comes in too fast then the boat fights the turn a little, meaning more rudder and a slower exit. It is better to have the jib luff a little through the turn than to have it jammed in suddenly.

A final note on the above video - unless you're a double world champion it is probably worth gybing before you get to the mark in breezy conditions - it is one less component of the rounding to worry about. If you must gybe at the mark, then make sure your controls are on early, except the vang if it is breezy.

Steering Around the Leeward Mark

As mentioned earlier, you need to aim for a wide entry and a tight exit when rounding the leeward mark. Something like this:


If you enter too tight you will exit wide, meaning more distance to sail upwind, and possibly bad air from boats just ahead. It may also limit you tactically - boats behind may stop you from tacking as they sit on your windward hip.

As with all directional changes, the aim should be to use as little rudder as possible. This means using a little leeward heel to initiate and aid the turn. Exaggerate this heel a little in light winds, and keep it minimal in heavier breezes - in heavy conditions you're likely to be heeled as you turn into the wind anyway, and too much heel will lead to sideways slippage which is something you want to avoid.

Finally, keep the turn smooth, and allow the rudder to follow the turn, using the sheeting to help as you go.

To sum up:


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