Going Low on the Reach

A little while back I was doing a bit of research on speed on the reach. I was fast sometimes, and slow others, and I couldn't seem to find any consistency. As it turned out it was a sail set-up / trim issue, which I'll write about another time. But in the midst of doing my research I was reminded of a race I sailed in years ago, and it gave me some ideas to try in my own races.

The reach is possibly the hardest point of sail to overtake on, and they often become a bit of a procession. We tend to look at the reaches as a place to close the gap a bit on those ahead, or set up for an overlap at the gybe mark, or not lose too much to those behind (if we're above our place in the pecking order). We rarely look at it as a chance to gain a load of places, but sometimes (and more often than you'd think) it really is a good chance to jump a few spots.

Many years ago I was sailing in a major championship. We sailed the old Olympic course - a triangle-sausage-beat - and the legs were very long. The races tended to be well over an hour for the leader, so for back markers they could be a real test of endurance.

On this particular occasion I rounded the top mark mid-fleet. One of the sailors that rounded with me was good - he'd regularly get a top 5 in a race in a championship, and occasionally finish top 10 overall. He was particularly good in anything under a force 3, which happened to be the conditions that day, so he probably wasn't doing as well as he'd have liked. (Nor was I, but that wasn't anything unusual for me at an Optimist championship).

As we went round the top mark our friend (let's call him David) bore off and went very low. At first I thought he was sailing for the wrong mark, and had mistaken the leeward mark as the wing mark. I was even going to call out to him (he was one a guy I knew quite well - his club was near ours and we'd often do the same open meetings) but I could see him looking around and I could tell he was well aware of the fleet and the course.

It didn't take long for the rest of the fleet to notice, and there were a few comments from other sailors wondering what he was up to. He had clearly lost a few positions already, and it is fair to say a few of us were feeling rather smug about the whole thing.

Of course our smugness didn't last long.

The reaches were long, as I have said, and slowly but surely it became clear that he was making gains. Halfway down the reach he was clearly comfortably ahead of me, which meant he had definitely gained a few positions. and as we approached the wing mark it became obvious that he had gained massively, and was now in the top 10.

I remember there was a bit of chat from the boats around me. Some figured David had a better sail for reaching, others reckoned he'd got some lucky breeze where he was. These may have been true for all I know, but I'm certain there were other factors involved.

The Optimist fleet was (and still is, I think) a competitive place, and at the time luffing matches were de rigueur. This meant that we tended to have the famous arc above the rhumb line to the wing mark (often quite a severe one, meaning we all sailed a good bit of extra distance). By going low David probably sailed below the rhumb line, but he will have sailed less distance than everyone else.

The snow fence effect may also have played a role, as the fleet was large and still relatively compact.

But also, he was coming in to the wing mark on a hotter angle than the rest of us. The reach was fairly broad, and, having sailed high on the first part of the reach, almost all of the fleet would be approaching the wing mark nearly on a run. But David, having gone low, was approaching the mark on something closer to a beam reach - a much faster point of sail.

With better speed for the majority of the reach, and a nice inside berth on all the other boats for the rounding, David made some massive gains on that reach.

It was a bold move, but it showed that a bit of courage and some good analysis of the prevailing conditions and fleet movements can lead to some really big gains.

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