Approaching the Windward Mark – the Tactical Considerations

You need to have your head out of the boat approaching the windward mark to assess how the fleet is shaping up and where you will fit in

What the Experts Say

Ben Tan - Complete Introduction to Laser Racing

The decision on which approach to take is dependant on:

  • Your upwind race strategy...
  • Wind shift...
  • The expected crowd...

Jon Emmett - Be Your Own Sailing Coach

When approaching the windward mark, make sure you do not allow room for other boats to tack inside you

Videos for Approaching the Windward Mark

A good example of shooting the Windward Mark

Books with information on the tactical considerations when approaching the windward mark

Complete Introduction to Laser Racing - Ben Tan, page 137

Be Your Own Sailing Coach - Jon Emmett, page 83 and page 88

Websites and online articles with information on the tactical considerations when approaching the windward mark Say

This is a really good article on rounding the windward mark and the tactical considerations involved in a successful rounding

This is another great article on the tactics involved in windward mark approaches and roundings

This article gives a good, brief description of some of the key tactical considerations when approaching the windward mark

An enjoyable article covering some key tactical points for a windward mark approach

In this piece the author discusses some of the key tactical considerations that need to be thought out before you reach the windward mark

There is some useful advice on getting control of the windward mark rounding towards the end of this article

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

...and this piece describes an unusual but effective way of skipping past the "slow-zone" in the right circumstances.

This is an excellent article on the importance of understanding persistent shifts, and there is a practical example of the end of the persistent shift at the end of the windward leg in this post

What We Learned...

Approaching the Windward Mark: the Tactical Considerations

The windward mark can be a busy place, especially in big fleets, and even more so on the first lap. You need to have your head out of the boat well before you get to the mark, and assess how the fleet is shaping up and where you fit into the picture. There are quite a few things you need to think about as you decide how you will approach the mark:

  • Your fleet position
  • Your upwind strategy
  • The type of boat you are sailing
  • Your confidence in your boat-handling
  • The windshift you are in, and what you expect the wind to do as you approach the mark
  • What you want to do on the subsequent leg

First and foremost of these is where you are in the fleet - this is always going to be crucial in how you decide you will approach the mark, whilst your upwind strategy may naturally lead you to approach the mark from one side or the other.

Up amongst the leaders

If you are leading or amongst the first few boats then things are a lot simpler. You can sail the shifts right up to the mark, and your priority is to get around cleanly and accelerate away from the pack as much as possible before they round the windward mark after you. The greater the distance, the easier your position will be to defend. One way to assist accelerating away from the pack is to make sure that your final tack onto starboard is not right on the windward mark unless there is a very good reason to do this. The reason you should tack a little earlier than right on the mark is that you will have better momentum as you round the buoy, helping you to pull away from the mark more quickly.

If you are in direct competition with one other boat, then you can also use the lay-lines to defend your lead. When the boat you are defending from is sailing away from a lay line, cover them tightly to try and force them to tack towards the lay-line; when they are sailing towards the lay line, place only a loose cover on them, to encourage them to continue in that direction. As soon as the following boat hits a lay line, there is no reason that they should be able to overtake you: they can no longer play the shifts to overtake you, and you have the option of sitting on their wind all the way to the top mark. Obviously, if you are the trailing boat, you need to try to stay away from the lay-line as long as possible – try and break cover early to give yourself as much opportunity to overtake as possible.

In the pack

Once you are back in the pack things get a little more interesting. You need to start thinking about how the fleet is shaping up as they approach the top mark.

You will almost always find a lot of boats hitting the starboard tack lay-line early (especially in big fleets). Consider how congested the fleet is: ideally you don’t want to hit this lay-line early, for a few reasons:

  1. The earlier you hit a lay line, the harder it is to judge it exactly
  2. The earlier you hit the lay line, the more susceptible you are to windshifts leading to you overstanding or not laying the mark
  3. The earlier you hit the lay line, the more other boats positioning is likely to affect your approach to the mark

For most club racing and a lot of big fleet racing there tends to be other options. If you think there may be gaps to sail into in the ‘starboard tack parade’ then you should continue to play the shifts as you approach the mark, making sure that you keep clear air. All the time you do this you are making gains on those that are on the lay line – they can’t tack on headers, and if they are in bad air so much the worse for them. Try to keep to the left of the fleet until the last moments, then approach on port and find a gap: you may be able to tack in below boats that have overstood the mark, or duck a stern or two before tacking onto starboard and rounding the buoy. This is an area where four things become important:

1)      The type of boat you’re sailing

a)      Some boats handle bad air better than others: if your boat slips sideways a lot in bad air then you need to take this affect into account before tacking below overstanding boats. Even if you aren’t originally in bad air, remember that they may be sailing slightly freer (and therefore faster) than you, and if they roll you then you are stuck in bad air and with a wake that is gently nudging you below the mark.

b)      Some boats (generally high-performance boats) foot very well. If your boat foots well then it can be well worth while overstanding by a boatlength or two and footing to the mark rather than trying to pinch from below the pack. However, if this isn’t the case, your better option may be to tack on the layline below the pack.

c)       If you are sailing in a mixed fleet, think about your boat’s characteristics as compared with the other boats: good at pointing/pinching – tack underneath; good at footing – duck sterns.

2)      Your confidence in your boathandling

a)      Don’t attempt to pull off the perfect tack, just on someone’s lee bow, inside the two/three boatlength circle if you can’t do it 19 times out of 20. You are very vulnerable to being called for tacking in an opponent’s water, and 720s aren’t good for race results

b)      That said, don’t be afraid, though, of tacking tightly under other boats. If you’ve practiced your tacks enough, and are confident of laying the mark, then go for it – it is a good way of picking up valuable positions.

3)      The windshift phase you are in

a)      If you think the ‘starboard tack parade’ are on a header and laying the mark, and you expect the wind to oscillate them onto a lift, then you can tack under them reasonably confident that you will be able to fetch the mark

b)      If you think they are on a lift that will change into a header, then ducking sterns can help you roll boats as they realise they aren’t going to make the mark and start pinching

4)      Your plan for the next leg

a)      If you want to go high on the reach, or right on the run, ducking sterns and overstanding slightly might be a better option if it is possible, as it will give you the freedom to go in that direction with minimal fuss

b)      Likewise, if you want to go low on the reach, or left on the run, try to tack under overstanding boats if the option is there.

Be very conscious, however, that you are very vulnerable under the rules if you enter the two/three boatlengths zone on port tack – don’t leave it that late unless you’re sure you can get around without any difficulties. Along with this, remember your momentum – if you tack right on the windward mark you may have less momentum than those that have approached on starboard, and may be susceptible to being rolled early on the next leg.

Shooting the Windward Mark

If you are just short of the lay-line you may be able to shoot the mark. It is well worth practicing this a little so that you are aware of what you can do, and also when you will need to throw in a double tack. Heavier boats tend to shoot better as their momentum carries them further, whilst lighter boats tend to slow more quickly. Also, some boats are better at pinching: a lot of modern boats tend to slow a lot when pinching above their best course, leading to less foil grip and therefore sideways slippage. In these cases pinching is counter-productive as the distance you gain from pinching is more than lost in sideway slippage and lack of speed. If you think you can shoot the mark then generally the best method is to continue sailing normally until the last second, then heeling the boat to leeward to assist the boat pinching up to windward. As you bring the boat flat the squirt of speed should be enough to squeeze you pas the windward mark.

One final thing to remember: even if you are in the right, do your best to stay out of trouble. Being in a collision, even a minor one, is slow, so avoid them. By all means know and use the rules, but not at the expense of your race position.

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