Laylines for Dinghy Sailing

Avoid hitting laylines too early, but never leave it too late.

What the Experts Say

Stuart Walker - "Smart Roundings at the Top Mark" - Sailing World
The shorter the distance remaining to the mark (but never less than three boatlengths), the smoother the water, the stronger the air, and the more favorable the current, the more daring can be the tack into the layline parade.

David Dellenbaugh - Smart Moves Near the Laylines (
The layline is a critical part of any windward leg because every boat has to get there eventually and, once they do, it’s a tactical dead-end. The closer you come to a layline, the fewer options you have, so you need smart tactics whenever you are approaching (or avoiding) it.

Jon Emmett - How to Hit the Right Layline (
It’s tight at the top mark so you don’t want to sail any extra distance if you can help it.

Andrew Campbell - Stay Out of "No Man's Land" - (
Picking laylines from a distance is a challenge. Even with the best technologies, laylines are a fickle concept. They change as the breeze shifts and they’re affected by current.

Andrew Kerr - Laylines Revisited (
A team is certainly not going to nail every lay line but they can have a set of principles that can help them increase their chances of making a good call.

Videos for Laylines

Jon Emmett with a short video on laylines

First windward mark in the Laser Radial Olympic Medal Race, 2012. The Irish boat judges the Port layline prefectly and gets around the mark ahead of the fleet. A risky approach, but superbly executed. She also pulls off a good port tack approach at the second windward mark, finding a nice gap to round in second.

The USA get their Layline wrong in this clip and it costs them a lot of places

Some Optimists demonstrate the effect current can have on laylines, and the mayhem that can ensue when you get it wrong. Slower boats in a strong current can really struggle with this kind of situation.

Books with information on Laylines

Websites and online articles for Laylines

Stuart Walker talks about approaching the windward mark (and avoiding joining the starboard tack parade too early)

Jon Emmett writes a great article on how to hit the right layline...and updates it here

A really good piece on approaching laylines

There is a good description of the dangers of hitting either layline too early at the beginning of this article.

A good article on laylines, with help for three common layline scenarios

Judith Krimski on learning to love laylines...

...and here talking about using laylines at the start

This article on rounding the windward mark has some good stuff about how close to get to laylines, and how soon to do it

A nice post about keeping clear air and room to manoeuvre on the approach to the top mark.

This helmsman looks at approaching laylines, and some of the tactics needed for a good windward mark approach

Find a brief description of Laylines here

What We Learned...

Well, the first thing we learned is there is a lot more to laylines than we'd thought, and this piece took a lot longer to put together than we'd thought it would.


What is a layline? A layline is the straight line course you would sail to fetch an object, normally a mark of the course. Generally when people refer to laylines they are talking about the approach to the windward mark, but it also applies to the leeward mark (especially in the case boats with asymmetric spinnakers) and even startline buoys.

For most of the fleet, laylines are not our friend. The leader of the race wants to get the boats behind him to the layline for the windward mark as soon as possible, while sailors that want to overtake boats that are ahead want to get to the layline as late as possible, within reason.

And here is why: assuming the windward mark is a port rounding, the starboard tack layline is like a mini finish line. Or perhaps a better description might be that you have given yourself a "best achievable position" - i.e. you have established that you can't overtake anyone that is ahead of you - you can only drop positions from where you are to the windward mark. Once you reach this layline you can't take advantage of any shifts or changes in pressure. Worse than this, though, is the fact that boats you were ahead of, but that haven't yet reached the starboard tack layline, can take advantage of shifts and pressure, and can potentially overtake you before the mark.

The other problem with hitting the starboard tack layline early is bad air from other boats. Once you are on the layline and making your approach to the windward mark you are a sitting duck for other boats to tack either above you on your wind, or on your lee bow. Both scenarios are slow, and can even lead to you failing to lay the mark as your pointing ability is affected. Not good.

Hitting the port tack layline early is also a bad idea. The same reasons for avoiding the starboard tack layline apply (inability to take advantage of shifts or pressure; bad wind from other boats), but there is the added problem of having no right-of-way. Boats coming round the windward mark ahead of you (with their heads in their boats as they hoist spinnakers and adjust sail settings) are on starboard; the boats approching from the starboard tack parade are on starboard; and if you are going to have to tack within the three-boatlengths circle then you have virtually no rights at all. It is a pretty bad idea to have a long approach to the windward mark on the port tack layline.

So What Should You Do?

The general advice is:

  • Follow the shifts until you are around five- to ten-boatlengths from the mark, then hit the starboard layline.
  • Keep an eye on the starboard tack layline as you approach, looking for suitable gaps you can slot into.
  • Don't get within five boatlengths of the starboard tack parade before that time - i.e. keep clear air by staying well below any boats that are ahead of you and already on the laylines.
  • Don't overstand by more than a boatlength. In strong winds it can be worth overstanding by a boatlength to aid your rounding - you can ease the main earlier and get the boat nice and flat for the rounding.
  • Be prepared for less wind at the mark and adjust your settings if appropriate
  • Pay attention to current, wind and swell/waves. All of these can push you below the layline (or above in the case of current). Jon Emmett suggests using a three-quarter filled water bottle near a buoy before the start of the race to get an idea of how much effect the current might have. See the box at the end of this Jon Emmett article for further information on the effect current has on how you judge laylines.
  • Know your mode - is pinching or footing quick in the prevailing conditions? Bear in mind how you want to be sailing the boat when deciding on where to tack for the mark.
  • Likewise, know if you are on a lift or a knock as you approach your final tack. If you will be tacking onto a lift, be aware that you could get headed as you approach, so consider giving yourself a little extra room to account for this. Double tacks at the top mark can be slow, and if it is busy, they can be very messy.
  • It may go without saying, but make sure your final tack is a good one - it will set you up for a good rounding. If necessary, sail half a boatlength further to tack in a flat spot.
  • Stay out of trouble - it is not worth being in the right but being tangled with another boat and going nowhere.

Tips and tricks

You need to develop a reliable method of accurately judging a layline. Remember, you are aiming to be tacking for the mark from between 3 and 10 boatlengths out. It is very difficult to accurately call a layline from further out, not least because other boats may influence your pointing ability and boatspeed (which in turn can lead to more sideways drift), so tacking onto the final layline should not be done from too far out.


  • One simple trick is looking for the windward mark over your wrong (or back) shoulder. It depends on your boat's pointing angle, but for a lot of boats, glancing over your wrong shoulder until you can see the top mark out of the corner of your eye can give you the correct time to tack.
  • Another good way to judge the layline is to check if the boats slightly ahead of you are laying the mark. But beware because...
  • ...another trick on approaching the top mark can be to have a "fake heading". As a boat crosses behind you, point your bow lower so you look as though you aren't laying the mark. This can trick the following boat to sail a couple of extra boatlengths beyond the layline, giving you a little headstart on the downwind leg, with hopefully clearer air.


  • In small fleets, or when the fleet is well spread follow the shifts right up to the three boatslengths circle, then tack for the mark
  • In big fleets, or when the fleet is converging sail to between 5 and 10 boatslengths before tacking for the mark, so you avoid the port tack layline, have time to find a spot (and you'll probably be able to squeeze in underneath the overstanders), and you'll avoid the "snowfence effect"
  • If someone tacks on your wind as you approach the windward mark on the layline, should you do two tacks for clear air or sail in the bad air?
    • It depends on the boat you sail, but the closer you are to the mark and the stronger the wind the less necessary it will be to do two tacks. The further away you are and the lighter the wind, the more likely it is that it will pay to throw in two tacks early.
  • Should you sail on to tack on another boats wind on the layline, or tack on the layline?
    • You should tack on the layline, unless they are (a) a long way from the mark; (b) not overstood by much; and (c) other boats you are racing against are not a factor. Essentially, you should tack for the layline almost every time.
  • You can practice picking laylines using this Pipeline Drill

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