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Executing a Successful Duck
The wind piped up to the mid-20 knots for the first day of Chicagos annual Verve Cup regatta this year, and a passing low-pressure system from the day before left Lake Michigan looking like an aquatic version of a World War I battlefield. On board Flash Gordon, we were making our way up the second beat of Race Two in fine form on port tack when we encountered some unexpected obstacles. To leeward, and coming our way on starboard like a freight train, was a Great Lakes 70. To weather and ahead was a J/120, barreling downwind with all 1,300 square feet of its asymmetrical spinnaker drawing. No problem, we could easily cross the bows of both boats, first the 120, and then the 70.
Thats the thing about converging sailboatsyoure never really certain what the other person is going to do. At about 50 yards away, the J/120 began to head up, presumably responding to a lift, which meant that we wouldnt cross him, but would have to make sure we passed safely behind him. For the moment, we focused on that task, but that same lift meant that the Great Lakes 70 beating upwind on starboard was headed, and now we wouldnt cross him either. In the span of 20 seconds, our prospects in that encounter went from looking great to looking extremely dicey. Our helmsman responded, gradually bringing the bow of Flash Gordon up above the transom of the 120, and then down sharply to duck beneath the 70. We had lost a little distance and fair bit of boat speed as we emerged from behind the 70, but we (and the other two boats) were unscatheda successful if not a perfect duck.
Any experienced helmsperson will tell you that in close-crossing situations, the key to a perfectly executed duck is anticipation and starting early. Most often, the need to duck a starboard-tack boat comes along unexpectedly, and thats when it becomes a crash-and-burn maneuver. For racing sailboats, a well-executed duck is critical. It can mean that youll be able to pursue your game plan and not be controlled by the other boat if you had had to perform a last-second crash tack to starboard. But for any sailor, having the ability to execute a clean duck in a port-starboard crossing can be a valuable component of your boat-handling arsenal.
Its important to carve a smooth arc through the water throughout the duck. Beginning the duck too late will require an abrupt turn, so start heading down when youre roughly two of your own boatlengths away from the other vessel. (Of course this distance will ultimately be determined by the length of the vessel youre duckingif its a maxi boat, start early and allow enough distance to duck the boat easily without having to turn down beyond a close reach.) The entire maneuver needs to be a coordinated effort, which actually involves the whole crew. As the helmsperson begins to bear away, the sail trimmers (main and headsail) will need to ease the sails. The trimmers have two objectives hereallowing the boat to make its initial turn down, and keeping the sails trimmed for optimum performance all the way through the duck. As the helmsman bears away, the remainder of the crew should continue to hike hard to keep the boat flat. As the bow of the boat clears the other boats transom, the helmsman should be steering the boat back up to a close-hauled course. Depending upon the strength of the wind, the crew may need to heel the boat slightly to help it get through the other boats wake and bad air, but immediately after that they should hike the boat flat again.
Be aware that the boat on starboard tack boat may not know that youre there. Its always a good idea to hail the crew of that boat and ask them: "Tack or cross!" This will get their attention, let them know that youre there, and prompt a response regarding what theyd like you to do. Not everyone executes a duck in the same way, so we decided to check in with some experienced drivers to see what they advise on this topic:
Chris Larson (professional racing skipper, tactician, and project manager) "When you're getting ready to duck someone, it's important to already have a game plan for the crossing situation. You must decide if you're happy staying on port tack, or if you want to take the opportunity to get onto starboard tack. Therefore, having a game plan regarding racecourse management is important well in advance of the ducking situation. When weighing your options, be sure to consider that the starboard-tack boat might want to tack on top of you. What's important here is that you go into the situation with an offensive mindset, and not be strictly on the defensive.
"One of the best port-tack offensives is to stay on a close-hauled course as long as possible and start the ducking process late. This tactic forces the starboard-tack boat to make up its mind regarding where they want to position their boat and increases the chances of the port tack boat shifting to the right side of the course. But normally, if you don't think the guy is going to tack on you, start your duck approximately one to three boatlengths away from the starboard tacker, depending on the conditions. Then, make sure that by the time your bow is crossing his transom, you're back up on a close-hauled course." Brad Read (professional sailor, tactician, skipper, and Executive Director of Sail Newport) "First, youve got to figure out if anything else is going to affect you, like another boat already to leeward, because you dont want to duck into bad air. If what youre doing is simply a standard duck with no other boats involved, you should use the duck as a speed build. Of course you have to do it so the other boat wont have an opportunity to tack on you, so that means waiting until almost the last moment. Then the headsail trimmer has to ease the jibsheet out just a few inches (on most boats) and the rest of the duck requires easing the mainsheet.
"The other key thing to remember is that you have to be back up on a close-hauled course by the time your bow is beginning to cross the starboard boats transom. No matter what kind of boat youre sailing, youve got to know where your bow is. This stuff comes with practice. Its not unlike docking, you just get better the more you do it, and that teaches you how close you can come."
So, the next time youre out on the waterin a race or just out among other boatsconsider working on this skill. Just sail along on port tack until someone comes along on starboard, then you can bear off slightly aiming at their transom, and then come back up gradually as their boat goes by. Start out crossing by a conservative margin so that you dont get the people aboard the other boat too worked up, and youll be on your way toward mastering the art of the duck.