Sailing upwind is sometimes the most difficult aspect of boat-for-boat positioning to manage, but it's also the most straight forward. In almost every situation, you will have to weigh the consequences of getting out of a bad lane based on the traffic around your boat and where you are relative to the next mark of the course. For instance, if you are sailing all alone and a boat comes along and tacks on your wind, your next move is an easy choiceyou need to tack. To resume sailing "normally" upwind, tacking is usually the best option for getting out of a bad lane.
Conventional logic dictates that any boat's wind shadow extends downwind and aft roughly 12 times the length of that vessel's mast. That measurement diminishes in strong breezes, but the rule of thumb still holds that if you're less than eight boatlengths from the boat ahead, your progress is going to be adversely affected by its wind shadow. Still, there might be a reason why you shouldn't, or couldn't, tack when in a bad lane. Consider these possibilities:
- Would you would be tacking right into the bad air of a boat already on the new tack?
- Are you already making the mark and the bad air you're getting won't cause that to change?
- Do other boats around you have you pinned in so that you can't tack?
- Would tacking cause you to sail away from the mark and lose even more ground?
If any of the above situations happens to be the case, you can take some comfort in knowing that the best racers make bad lanes work for them. To pick a good bail-out spot from a bad lane, these sailors continue for a little while in that lane as they keep an eye out for a better opportunity to get into a good lane. But they don't just sit complacently in that bad lane in the mean time, they alter the way they're sailing the boat to minimize the effect of the other boat's wind shadow. These sailors will either sheet in and pinch their boat higher or ease sheets and drive lower to "live" in that lane a little longer. Pinching up out of someone's bad air or footing through it are weapons every sailor needs to practice and have in his or her arsenal to deal with the inevitability of bad lanes.
One sailor I race against, Terry Hutchinson, has an incredible knack for escaping bad lanes. At the 1998 J/24 North American Championships in Newport, RI, Terry was leading the event, and our boat was about eight points back in the standings. Going upwind in one of the races, two-thirds of the way up the course, we saw Terry coming at us about six boatlengths behind. We purposefully let him set up to windward and behind on a long starboard tack toward the mark. Then we took two tacks to go "hit" him, and put him directly into our disturbed air. Terry (whom I remember being fairly animated that we would do such a thing), pinched up to a position directly in our wake, and somehow managed to hang in there in that mediocre lane. By doing that he minimized his loss and remained on the closest tack to the mark.
The other thing that Terry had going for him by making that move was that, by staying just off of our hip (read "quarter" if you're steeped in traditional sailing terminology), he used us as a "blocker." Boats that crossed behind us but ahead of him didn't want to tack in our bad air, so they continued past Terry to a lane where they couldn't affect his boat with their bad air. Through communication with his tactician, Terry was able to make the correct decision and avoid losing a lot of positions by tacking and over-standing the mark.
It's just that kind of heads-up thinking regarding boat-for-boat positioning that can make for real gains on the racecourse. The next time you're out racing in a fleet of boats, pay close attention to the boat-for-boat dynamics and you'll see how the most successful sailors use their positioning to great advantage. After you do this for a while, you'll begin to see the chess element of the sport at work where sailors are thinking several moves ahead to anticipate what their options will be further up the leg.
In the mean time, here's a quick reference chart that you can consult for understanding the relative merits of a particular position on the racecourse:
How We Won the J/24 Worlds by Brad Read
Handling Leeward Gates by Brad Read
Executing a Successful Duck by Dan Dickison
Buying Guide: Headsail Sheet Lead Systems
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