6 Ways to Round the Leeward Mark

You might already know, from this previous post, that I love a good leeward mark rounding. So you can imagine my delight when I stumbled across this bit of video recorded at a GP14 championship here in Ireland:

I love this video, not least because there is so much to learn from it. It is a fairly classic mid-fleet rounding, with examples of good practice and not-so-good practice when approaching and rounding the bottom mark.

I'm certainly not criticising any of these sailors - I've made all these mistakes many times and committed far worse misdemeanours going round the leeward mark. But this video, and the perfect position of the drone camera, provide a really good opportunity to look at some different leeward mark scenarios.

The first boat

The first boat to round approaches on starboard, which can be a good idea in a big fleet. They've gone high on the run, perhaps to protect the inside lane for the mark - a tactically sound approach. The only difficulty is that they need to be sure of their boat-handling skills as this approach requires them to drop the kite, gybe and round the mark in a tidy fashion. They pull the manoeuvre off pretty nicely.

The second boat (with the white deck)

The boat behind them also approach on starboard. They have their kite down early, which is also a sound tactical move in these circumstances. Firstly, it is one less bit of boat-handling to fit in as they round the mark, but, perhaps more importantly, it slows the boat down, ensuring that they aren't outside the boat in front. As they approach the mark they are just about overlapping the boat in front. If the lead boat has a bad rounding, or slows significantly, there is a real danger that they'll be caught on the outside of the rounding and, with a boat just behind, they'd almost certainly lose at least one place.

Their rounding isn't the best and they exit a little wide, which has the potential to cost them. But, fortunately for them, it is just good enough, and the boat behind is caught in a lee-bow position and tacks off.

The third boat (with the red spinnaker)

The third boat to round appears to have a little trouble dropping their chute, which seems to distract them a bit. In an ideal situation they would have been thinking about the approach a bit earlier, and made their approach higher, forcing the boat in front to defend and therefore approach the mark from a tighter angle. If they could have achieved this, then the boat in front would have had to make a bigger turn with a wider exit, and our third place boat might have been able to exit in a good controlling position.

As it is, their approach is fast and they exit tight, but the boat in front exits just tight enough to force a lee-bow situation, and our red-spinnakered boat has to tack off. This is bad news because they are tacking straight into bad air and confused wake of the rest of the fleet coming down on the run, and lots of distracted sailors making their own leeward mark approach.

Unfortunately for them, the tack isn't great, and a problem with the jib means they lose a lot of ground very quickly.

The next three boats

The next three boats are great to watch. I'll give them labels to make it easier to talk about them:

  • Blue - Blue hull, with a white spinnaker with a green stripe
  • Black - Black hull, with a pink spinnaker with a purple stripe
  • White - White hull, with a blue and white striped spinnaker

As we join them, Blue is just about clear ahead of Black. But Blue has failed to protect the inside approach and also failed to protect her wind. This is bad news, and we can see from the collapsed spinnaker that the lack of breeze is costly - she slows enough for Black to get an inside overlap.

When an opponent gains an inside overlap as late as this it often spells trouble, and this case is no different. Having conceded the overlap, Blue's choices are limited. From where she is, it is going to be nearly impossible to slow down and let Black go ahead without also letting White past, or fouling White, or both. So, with little other option, she rounds outside Black, in bad air, and White goes past her anyway.

It is a really bad start to the beat.

As for Black, she has done well. She's approached the mark with every chance of getting the inside lane, and her starboard approach also makes the boats around her wary of getting too close. This means she can (a little bit cheekily, to be honest) make a nice wide entry and tight exit from the mark, forcing Blue wide.

White also does well out this rounding. She sits on Blue's wind which, as we know, forces Blue to round the mark outside of Black. She then takes a lovely wide, fast approach and, despite not having an overlap, rounds on the inside of Blue. Poor old Blue is not able to close the door, and as White executes a nice, tight exit, Blue is left to rue the loss of two places, and possibly more as she sits in bad air and with limited tacking options.

So what does this tell us about leeward mark roundings? Here's a few things worth remembering or practising:

  • Begin getting in position with at least a third of the run still to go - your positioning can gain or lose you many positions, so it is vital to get it right.
  • Prioritise an inside birth - going round the outside is long, slow and will almost always cost more than one position.
  • Wide in, tight out gets you heading up the beat in the best shape.
  • Practise all the boat handling skills needed for a smooth rounding. Sheeting; turning (with leeward heel); dropping the kite; dropping the kite whilst gybing, sheeting and turning with leeward heel; etc..
    - It is also worth noting that the boats that we watch here have their jibs in quicker than their mains - it should be the other way around. By sheeting the main quicker than the jib (and than the boat's turn), the boat will automatically head up into the wind with less need for the rudder; but if the jib is tighter than the main then the boat resists the windward turn, meaning more rudder, which means a slower rounding.
  • Know how to slow your boat down when on the run. Slowing down always feels easy to do when you want to go fast, but it is somehow always tricky when you want to actually go slow! Oversheet the sails (being careful not to gybe accidentally!); drop the kite early if you have one; adjust the sail settings to make it slower - tighter kicker, outhaul and cunningham; shift your weight a long way aft to dig the stern into the water; etc. The ability to slow down effectively could have saved our friend Blue at least one place.
  • Try to avoid tacking into the fleet still approaching the bottom mark. Bad wind and confused water are slow. But if you do need to tack, then pick your lane carefully and make sure it is a good tack - you have to try to minimise the damage as much as possible.

One other thing to remember when making a leeward mark rounding - never allow yourself to be caught on camera doing it - or there could be some eejit writing about it...

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