So you’ve done your homework. The boat is well-prepared. It’s got a clean bottom, the rig is tuned, and the sails are good. You have good crew and you’ve been out practicing. Your team is sailing well, better than ever before, and now you are approaching the final leeward mark, with one last beat to go before the finish. So how do you stay ahead of all those other boats you’ve now put behind you? You’ve done all this work to gain distance around the racecourse, so how do you protect those precious gains and finish out in front?
That’s a question that every racing sailor needs to ask him or herself when they get to this stage. It ulimately leads to a set of fairly specific questions, the answers to which will help you figure out how to play the final beat: Which side has paid off on the previous beats? And has anything changed (current, shifts, etc.) to alter the favored side?
If one side has gained every time, you’ll need a compelling reason not to favor that side on the last beat. Ask yourself, have there been any major persistent shifts? Is there more pressure on the other side of the course now? Has the current changed? The answers to these these questions will help you formulate a game plan, which you should have firmly in mind before you round the last leeward mark. In other words, map out your strategy.
At the beginning of the final beat, you’ll also need to keep an eye on boats around you. This is where tactics come into play. You'll want to know which are the boats you need to worry about? If it is late in the regatta, you should know the overall scores. If there is a boat just behind you in the regatta standings, you’ll have to think twice before letting them split off behind you to other side of the racecourse. That would be one of those times when tactics takes precedence over strategy. The right may be favored, but if the boats you need to beat are all going left, you need to have a very good reason not to cover them.
Right after rounding the last leeward mark, I always like to take note of the boats that round just in front of my boat, and the ones that round just behind. That way I have a list of boats that I can use to gauge how my boat is going on the final beat. And, if you do this, you’ll have a pack of boats to focus on passing and a pack of boats to focus on defending against. Someone on your boat should be responsible for keeping track of where these boats are on the racecourse.
Here are a few basic rules of thumb for consolidating the gains you’ve made up until this point in the race:
- Cross when you can. You’ll need to keep in mind when to let strategy determine your moves and when to let tactics dictate. If you’re going upwind with boats on the same tack on your windward hip and you really want to cross them, pick the right time to do so. Ideally, you should tack when you are in pressure and the boat is slightly headed, and it helps if the other boats are pointing a little bow down at you. Remember, you are never technically ahead of a boat until you cross it.
- Protect the starboard-tack advantage. The further you go up the last leg, the more you should be aware of preserving the starboard- tack advantage in the last crossing situation.
- If the wind is oscillating, treat the last shift like it is persistent, since it is likely to be your last shift of the race.
- Avoid the laylines. On the final beat, this has more meaning than it does at any previous weather mark, since there are two marks making up the finish line, and therefore, four laylines. Ideally, try to stay inside the two "inside" laylines (the port-tack layline to the right end of the line and the starboard-tack layline to left end) as long as possible. This maximizes your options as you move up the racecourse.
Now, as you close in on the finish line, keep these basic points in mind:
- Determine the favored end of the line. Consider, has the starting line moved? If not, which end was favored at the start? The opposite end will be favored at the finish, if the line has not moved.
- Use every clue available to figure out what is happening with the wind near the finish. Flags on a race committee boat or other boats sailing further up the course than you are the classic clues. If you’re racing near land, look for flagpoles, smoke stacks, etc. Also, an anchored race committee boat will tell you something about the current at the finish.
"If you’re racing near land, look for flagpoles and smoke stacks for clues about he wind."
- Finish at an end of the line instead of the middle. If you do that, it will be easier to determine the timing for shooting the line.
- Avoid sailing in the wind shadow of any boats that have already finished. Also, boats that have already finished can cause a lot of choppy, disturbed water.
Finally, there are a few strong tactical moves that you should have in your arsenal as you get closer to the finish. These can help you drive the last nail in the coffin of your nearest rivals and consolidate your spot in the race. There’s nothing new about these moves, and I should add that Dave Perry’s classic book, Winning in One Designs, covers them in great detail. It really is a must read for all racing sailors, and several of the topics I’m discussing here appear in that book. So, with apologies to Mr. Perry:
- When you are on port tack approaching the starboard-tack layline to the favored left end, make sure you tack right on layline. If someone were to come along and tack on your lee bow, they will have difficulty laying the mark, and if they duck you, you’ll cross the line ahead of them since you are sailing directly at the favored end.
If you tack on another boat’s lee bow that is on the starboard tack layline to the left end, try to force them to tack by way of some hard luffs or if there’s sufficient distane left to the finish, try to pinch them off. Now, if they tack and you are still not laying the line, tack immediately along with them so that you minimize the chances of being on the wrong side of a port/starboard situation during the next exchange of tacks.
- Once you have tacked with them onto port, make sure to stay close enough so that they cannot execute a tack back onto starboard without fouling you. If you give that leeward boat enough room, its crew may try to tack back onto starboard, forcing you to tack before you can lay the finish.
- With the finish line just ahead, you're on starboard tack with a boat just to weather. You find that you can’t force that boat to tack, so maintain your speed and make sure to shoot the line before the other boat does. In this situation you are entitled to room at the mark, so going head to wind to coast across the line is legal. Just don’t shoot past head to wind!
- If you’re on starboard tack but not laying the line and a boat tacks on your lee bow, feel free to take them well past the port tack layline before tacking. That way they will be forced to follow you into the finish. Keep in mind, though, that once that boat reaches the two-length zone, it is entitled to room.
- Now if you are on port tack approaching a starboard tacker that is not laying the finish, you should execute a good duck, keep your speed, and when your two boats come together after the next exchange of tacks, you'll have the starboard-tack advantage.
I know that the foregoing is a lot of information to keep in mind as you head into the final leeward mark rounding, but once you’ve done this enough, those considerations will run through your mind almost automatically. Remember, you and your crew have put so much effort into your boat and your performance, this is small stuff—small, but critical. All you need to do is follow a few basic points and you’ll be home free. Just stay focused, breathe deeply, keep your head out of the boat, and you’ll make it happen. Good luck and sail fast!
Good Lanes and Bad Lanes by Brad Read
Executing a Successful Duck by Dan Dickison
Seeing the Wind by Bob Merrick
Buying Guide: Personal Flotation Devices
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