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Handling Leeward Gates

This article was originally published in November, 2000 on SailNet.

Leeward gates can add an entirely new dynamic to the concept of course management, and they can also be a lot of fun for the competitors.
Iíve often thought that racing sailors really donít give the folks who work on race committees enough credit. About a decade ago, one-design sailors started asking for windward-leeward courses and the race organizers obliged. Then, to make the racing better, race-management types started using offset marks to spread out the traffic around the windward mark. And roughly seven years ago, race organizers introduced the concept of the leeward gate to alleviate the congestion caused by big fleets compressing at leeward marks and to make these roundings more fun and more equitable. All of these changes have made around-the-buoys racing a better, more enjoyable experience, so before this goes any further, let me just say thanks to race committees everywhere.

Used in lieu of a single leeward mark, leeward gates are a great addition to the sport because they help to eliminate some of the problems associated with overcrowded mark roundings by offering competitors a choice of rounding either the left or the right-hand mark. Additionally, the use of a leeward gate also has the potential to reward those sailors who arrive first, as well as those capable of better boathandling, so itís really an enhancement of the game on a number of levels.

Leeward gates offer the option of rounding to port or to starboard.
But going around a course that has leeward gates takes some getting used to because of the additional complexity that comes from having a choice of marks to round. What follows is a rundown on the basic aspects of settting up for and negotiating leeward gates.

When you are leading a race, deciding which gate to round is one of the most stressful parts of your day. Pick correctly and you stay ahead, pick incorrectly and all the gains youíve made go down the tube. If the race committee is using a leeward gate on your racecourse, the first thing to do is to determine if the gate has been set prior to your start. If so, sail over to the gate and do a wind check between the marks. Just turn the boat head to wind so that you can judge which of the gate marks is most upwind. (When your boat is head-to-wind, if your bow is pointing more toward the left-hand mark, then the right-hand one is more upwind, and vice versa. Barring any change by the committee, you now know which mark sits closer to the weather mark, and all things being equal, thatís the mark you should choose to round when you come downwind.

If the gate is not set until after the start, it will likely be much tougher for you to discern which mark to round after the run. The following are some of the things I look for as I approach a leeward gate:

  • Which side of the course will be favored upwind? If there are no other concerns, thatís the side of the gate to pick.
  • Do you have to go one particular way on the upcoming beat (say thereís a boat you need to cover or the current is stronger on one side of the course than the other)? If so, work hard to get inside at the gate mark on that particular side for the upwind leg.
  • Is one gate mark noticeably more upwind than the other? If so, work toward the inside of that particular mark.
  • Is there a large pack of boats ahead of you intent on rounding one particular mark? If so, then go to the gate mark with the fewest boats and youíll escape the congestion earlier.

The best option for boat A is to avoid the congestion by jibing and rounding the gate mark to starboard.
From a tactical standpoint, itís always a good idea to leave your options open as long as you can. If you look at a tightly packed fleet of boats heading into a leeward gate, you will notice that some of the best teams opt to take their spinnaker poles off (if they have boats with conventional poles) early while heading into the rounding. This gives them the option of picking the mark they want to go to as late as possible. Youíll find that this maneuver is popular with bow people who are constantly imploring the guys in the back of the boat "Which mark are we going to round?" For them, itís an opportunity to take control of their own destiny by learning how to strip the pole early and free-fly the spinnaker on the sheets with someone acting like a human pole as they push out the windward sheet or afterguy at the shrouds.

I donít recommend that novice racers try this right away. Itís a much better idea for them to start out by selecting a mark well ahead of time and then hoping it remains the least congested mark. After youíve had a chance to get accustomed to being among a crowd of boats rounding leeward gate marks, then you can attempt to get fancy and try making those last-second decisions.

Keep in mind what your choice of marks will mean. The boat in the foreground that's just now rounding the mark will end up squarely in the windshadow of the boat on the left and may not have the option of tacking.
Now, a few words about heading back upwind after the leeward gate. Itís important to keep in mind what the consequences of your choice of marks will be. If you round the left-hand mark and need to tack right away because someone ahead is giving you bad air, youíll be tacking onto the right-of-way starboard tack. If you round the right-hand mark and need to tack shortly after rounding, youíll be tacking onto port, and you wonít have rights. And if you go through the leeward gates in front of a big fleet, chances are you wonít want to tack right away regardless of the mark you chose because doing so would send you back into the fray of boats traveling downwind.

Keep these simple prescriptions in mind, and over time, youíll find that the use of leeward gates really does enhance the sport.

Suggested Reading List

Negotiating Leeward Gates by Dobbs Davis

Making Mark Roundings Work for You by Dan Dickison

Optimizing Your Practice Time by Carol Cronin


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