A few weeks after I had been reminded about the race with David I was sailing in a Laser event. It had been a breezy day, and by the last race I was pretty knackered. For this last race it was blowing a force 4, occasionally gusting a 5 and I was approaching the first top mark in the low teens, cursing myself for not having worked more on my fitness.
I almost invariably find myself having visions of long cycle rides and multiple crunch sessions during the last race of a breezy day.
As I was in a relatively lowly position, without many fast boats behind me, I immediately thought of that old race with David, and also of really practising the technique of going down when the breeze is up, and heading up when the breeze is down. It was a technique I used all the time, but reading about reaching speed had made me realise that I could be doing it better - with less rudder and smoother transitions.
On my approach to the first mark I could see a big gust coming in, and I knew that a good chunk of the reach was going to be in some fairly hefty wind. Just as I was about to round the gust hit, and I could see the usual mix of boats struggling to bear off properly and others taking off on a plane. I eased the sail a lot and hiked hard to keep the boat flat, letting the boat head down towards the wing mark. As so many boats had struggled to round smoothly a lot of the fleet was already quite high above the rhumb line, taking others up with them as they tried to defend their wind, so I eased more and went low, quickly moving out of any wind shadow, and on an exhilaratingly fast plane.
I carried on going low, pointing up a touch when the boat slowed a little, bearing off again as the boat accelerated. All my adjustments in direction were done using my bodyweight and the sail - I'd ease the sheet as the boat accelerated and it would naturally bear off for me, then sheet in if the boat slowed, allowing the boat to point back up a little and maintain the plane.
The temptation to head back up and mix it with the fleet was strong - it feels very risky to have so much separation on a reach. But I could also see that I was actually still only a little below the rhumb line and suddenly I could see I was making gains. The boats above me were definitely slower, and as they covered each other and defended themselves I gained more and more.
As we approached the gybe mark I was coming in on a beam reach, and although the gust had passed I was planing nicely, whilst the rest were much more marginal as they came in on a much broader angle.The leg hadn't been particularly long, but I rounded the wing mark on the inside of a couple of boats in 8th - a huge gain for one reach. Only one other boat had done something similar to me, and he rounded 4th, having been early to mid teens at the first mark.
Of course, such tactics won't always work as there are often other factors at play. But it is well worth paying attention to what is going on around you, and when the opportunity for going low presents itself take it with both hands - there's a lot to be gained by going down when the breeze is up, and up when the breeze is down.