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Performance Racing Tactics

by Bill Gladstone

Chapter 7 - Upwind Strategy

7.1 Introduction to Strategy

7.2 Predicting Conditions

7.3 Wind

7.4 Wind Shifts

7.5 Current

7.6 Strategy vs. Rivals

7.7 Short Story: The Land of Opportunity

7.8 Local Knowledge - Examples and Quiz


7.1 Introduction to Strategy


Strategy vs Tactics

Strategy is our racing plan based on wind, wind shifts, and current. Tactics, on the other hand, are techniques we use for positioning and control of other boats or groups of boats. Strategy involves the big picture; tactics focuses in close. Strategy is long term and planned, tactics is more immediate and spontaneous.


Strategy is Wind, Wind shifts, and Currents

There are three factors in planning strategy. We look for better wind. We try to take advantage of wind shifts. And we try to get favorable (or not unfavorable) current. The relative importance of each factor depends on how variable each is (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 - Strategy vs Tactics. Strategy is our racing plan based on wind, wind shifts, and current. Tactics, which we cover later, involves implementing our strategy and dealing with other boats.


7.2 Predicting Conditions

Our strategy is based on the expected conditions. The more accurately we can predict the wind and current, the more confidently we can form our strategic plan. As we discussed in Chapter Two, our predictions are derived primarily from our own observations during the hour before the start, and our experience sailing in a particular area. We revise our predictions as we continue to observe conditions during the race.

The figure shows a sample Wind Graph based on our pre-race observations. By carefully tracking the wind we can more accurately predict the wind for the race (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - Plan strategy based on observed and predicted conditions. The numbers listed here show a history of conditions prior to the start and during the first leg of a race. This information will help us plan and update our strategy. We plot the numbers to get a visual image of the wind pattern. This particular wind chart shows a very regular pattern of oscillations.


Predictable vs Unpredictable

One issue in our strategic planning is our confidence in our forecast. When conditions are highly predictable, we can pursue our strategy with conviction. When we are unsure of what to expect, our strategy will change. First, we would not pursue the strategy as wholeheartedly. Second, we would devote more than the usual amount of attention to watching for changing conditions which might require us to change our strategy.

Our strategy will depend on the predicted conditions and our confidence in that prediction. When we are able to predict conditions accurately and confidently, our strategic planning is relatively easy. In practice our predictions often prove less than accurate, and our planning boils down to playing the odds to reduce risks and increase possible gains.


Strategy and Conditions

As we said, our strategic planning revolves around the expected conditions. When we know what to expect, we will be able to make a firm plan. When our forecast is uncertain, then our plan will be less well defined.

Strategy and conditions are related in another way. The more variable the wind and current, the more important strategy will be to our success. In stable conditions boat speed will be the dominant concern. Our focus depends on what we see as the key to success in today's conditions.


7.3 Wind


Wind Strength

Find more wind. Sail in stronger wind more of the time and you can't lose. There are several things to look for to find more wind.

Look for wind on the water. Stand up in your boat and look upwind. Puffs create dark patches on the water. It is tricky to distinguish shadows, changes in bottom color, and differences due to sunlight; but the wind is there if you can pick it out.

The wind changes near shore. Most of our racing is done close enough to shore that winds vary across the course. Often there is better wind near shore. When the wind is blowing onshore the thermals near shore create more wind. In an offshore wind the thermal mixing near shore sometimes pushes the stronger winds from aloft down to the surface. At other times the wind is lighter near shore. By paying attention and keeping records, you will be able to anticipate the change in wind as you get near shore.

Clouds often bring more wind. In partly cloudy conditions, check under the clouds to see if there is more wind. In a clearing northwest wind with rows of cumulus clouds, there are usually down drafts of stronger wind around the clouds. If you see frontal clouds or building cumulus go to them-they are associated with wind.


The Favored Side

A windward leg will often have a favored side. Boats sailing to one side will have an advantage due to favorable wind, wind shifts, or current. Sometimes it is difficult to anticipate which side is favored. After observing the first leg we will have a better idea for the second time around. If conditions don't change, then we would expect the same side to be favored again. Also, after seeing particular conditions in a local area a number of times, we will be able to anticipate which side will be favored (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 - We divide the windward leg into left, middle, and right segments. Often there is a favored side. We sail to the favored side of middle, but avoid the corners.


Time Out for Terminology

Before we go on about the favored side a few details of terminology must be cleared up: The favored side of the course carries some strategic advantage. The favored tack takes you to the favored side. This should not be confused with the long tack, which is the predominant tack on a skewed beat, (i.e. a beat where we spend more time on one tack than the other. Often it is strategically correct to sail the long tack first - that is, the long tack is often the favored tack. At other times the favored tack might be the short tack (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 - Don't confuse the long tack with the favored tack


Why is This Side Favored?

Hopefully we will know not only which side is favored, but why. Knowing the reason will help us determine if conditions have changed and the advantage has changed as well. If current is the factor, for example, then a change in the tide can reverse the advantage. If the advantage is due to the geography of the surrounding shore, then the advantage will endure until the wind changes (or, if you race on the west coast, the shore line is re-configured by an earthquake).


Right, Left, & Middle

In our discussion of strategy we will divide the windward leg into three vertical segments; representing the left, right, and middle of the course. When our strategy favors one side or the other it is generally best to sail to the right or left of the middle, but not beyond. There are several reasons to avoid the extreme sides. For one, our strategy may prove to be wrong and a total commitment would make it difficult to recover. Second, as we shall see, there are strategic and tactical reasons to avoid the corners, since they can leave us out of position and with few options. We would only sail to the extreme sides if:


  • We are confident about our strategy and
  • We must go to the extreme to get the advantage.



    Caught on the Wrong Side: Now What?

    What should you do if you sail to the favored side, get half way up the beat, and realize it is not the favored side after all? That is a tough question. Often it is surprising how close you end up to the leaders if you bail out half way up the leg and cut your losses. On the other hand, the ultimate frustration is bailing out early and then seeing those who stuck with it come out ahead in the end. Curses.

    Of course, never having made such a mistake myself, it is hard to offer insights. I can offer a few ideas based purely on the experience of others:

  • Don't overcommit to begin with-play the middle. (Now you tell me!)
  • Hedge your bets. When in doubt stay with the pack.
  • Be realistic about how things are going; don't kid yourself.
  • While you ponder what to do sail toward the middle, not further into the corner.
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