Ever had one of those races that you'd just as soon forget? One where almost every mark rounding is atrocious and the straight-line performance somehow isn't much better? Though most are loathe to admit it, almost every sailor has endured races like that, and it's what you take away from those experiences in terms of lessons that can make you a better racer and your team a more cohesive unit on the water.
We had one of those less-than-memorable races a while ago. The wind was barely in the eight and nine-knot range, so we knew our 14,000-pound, 38-foot PHRF racer would be a little starved for speed. Nonetheless, we caught a couple of good windshifts on the first beat, and managed to hang with the majority of our class going around the weather mark. That's when the wheels started to come off.
Somehow, our usual caliber of crew work just wasn't in place that night. It was as if Mr. Hyde had slipped aboard to replace Dr. Jeckyll. At the mark, we bore away and I called for the hoist, but our bowman yelled back, "Wait!" He had the shackle for the starboard spinnaker gear in his hand, a full five feet from the clew of the sail, and was struggling to get it back around the headstay and onto the sail. (Somebody had woven it through the bow pulpit when running the gear before the race, and he was just then remedying the situation.) When the spinnaker pole finally went up, the guy was twisted around the jaw fitting, so it took the efforts and the attention of five people to sort it out and get the kite hoisted properly. I looked up after all of this to realize that several of the boats we rounded with were now four-plus boatlengths ahead.
Our misfortune seemed to subside for the long downwind leg, and we began to regain our composure as our performance improved. After catching up to our competitors, we even nosed slightly ahead, but lost that advantage about 200 yards from the leeward mark. As we closed on the mark, it was clear that we'd be rounding close to three other boats. No problem—I was thinking—we've done this so many times before. We'll just hang back, let them round ahead as we go wide early and close late to get our bow above their transoms for the first part of the next leg.
Without providing too much detail, just let me say that the ensuing fiasco was probably just as embarrassing as it was costly to our standing in the race. We waited until the last instant to get the kite down, and in its slow descent to the deck, it blocked our driver's visibility so much that he nearly plowed into one of our competitors. As the other crew repeatedly hailed "No room," we swerved up, then down, and then back up into one of the most poorly executed tacks in the short history of our program. Finally we jibed and rounded the mark, 60-some yards astern of the competition.
As the tactician, the blame for most of what went wrong in that rounding resides squarely with yours truly—I'll own up to that rap. But the thing is, all of those mishaps could easily have been avoided, and instead of losing time and distance we could have come out ahead. Like a lot of sports, most of sailboat racing consists of long periods of downtime that are punctuated by moments of intense action. Often it's the corners—or mark roundings—on a racecourse that provide those moments. If you take the attitude that these situations are also opportunities to make gains (or consolidate gains you've already made), you'll be well on your way toward making the most of mark roundings on the racecourse.
Whether you're rounding an upwind mark, a leeward mark, or a jibe mark, the main objective is to maintain your speed and momentum. This starts with carving a smooth, gradual turn around the mark rather than an abrupt, tight turn. Remember, the more you move the rudder off centerline, and the faster you do it, the more the boat will slow down. So, for weather-mark roundings where you plan to execute a bearaway set—or even if you aren't racing with a spinnaker—try to position your boat slightly above the layline so that you can pass close to the far side of the mark as you turn downwind gradually and ease the sails. Even if the crew has a problem getting the spinnaker up, at least you've maintained your boat speed and are still making progress down the track.
The same principle of maintaining your boat speed should apply around the jibe mark and the leeward mark as well, though it's inevitable that you'll gradually slow down as you come up to a close-hauled course after the leeward mark. Remember to set up your approach so that you can round in a gradual turn without making abrupt course changes. The other important aspect about getting the most out of a mark rounding is to remember that rounding wide early in the turn and tight late in the turn will put you closer to the next mark of the course. Having boats around you, of course, will affect these maneuvers, so if there's any doubt about who has the right of way, or there is the possibility of a collision, err on the conservative side and maintain your speed by rounding wide. Fouling someone is always slow; it's better to lose a boat than to have to do turns to exonerate yourself from a penalty.
Of course nothing can improve your mark roundings more than a concentrated practice session where you go around upwind and downwind marks over and over again. Until you and your crew get a chance to go out and do that, here are a few pointers to keep in mind when you're out on the racecourse heading into a mark rounding:
| ||Anticipate the rounding and the leg ahead—know what angle you will be sailing after the turn.|
| ||Remember that a smooth turn helps you maintain boat speed more than a rapid, abrupt turn.|
| ||Have a quick look at the boats around you so you know where you're likely to end up in the rounding.|
| ||In close quarters with other boats, the driver needs to react right away, so make sure everyone knows his visibility is a priority.|
| ||Make sure your sail trim matches your boat heading through the turn; if both are done gradually in a coordinated fashion, you'll have better acceleration out of the turn.|
| ||If something goes wrong, it shouldn't take everyone on the boat to fix it. Whoever isn't directly involved should concentrate on keeping the boat moving.|