One of the early chapters in Stuart Walker's book Positioning: The Logic of Sailboat Racing is Big Fleets and Small Fleets in which he discusses the difference in approach that a racing sailor should take when racing in large and small fleets. It's not something I think about consciously very much when racing in different fleets so let's see what he says...
But before summarizing his advice let's understand what Walker sees as inherently different about these two race situations...
- Small fleet racing often takes place near the shore, or in rivers or bays with strong currents.
- In small fleets, typically club racing, there are usually only a few races. In a large fleet, a major regatta perhaps, there will be many races.
- In a small fleet, one place one point may determine the outcome of the regatta. In a large fleet one point means very little.
Walker's main advice is that in big fleets you should be conservative and in small fleets be daring. Why is that I wonder and what are the implications for strategy around the course?
Take the start for example. In a big fleet, getting clear air is what matters. The ends of the line will be crowded and carry all kinds of risks. So make a conservative start away from the crowds, away from the ends, find some clear air and sail fast.
On the other hand in a small fleet, clear air means little because most boats will have clear air. So start at the end near the advantaged side of the course and avoid getting blocked by the opposition from getting there first.
Similar argument for the beat. Walker argues that in big fleets rarely is one side of the course obviously advantaged, nor is the wind oscillating so you can play the shifts. (I guess he is assuming here that a big fleet will be racing in open water away from any effects of land or variable currents that would create those conditions.) So he says that in big fleets, you should "play the fleet". This means you should avoid the laylines, keep inside and to windward on the tack away from the rhumb line, ahead and to leeward on the tack back, dig back in towards the rhumb line when you have an opportunity. (There's at least one chapter in this book about why all these moves make sense.)
Whereas in small fleets on a short course often one side is advantaged (assuming you are near the shore I suppose) so get over there first.
On the reaches he says that in a big fleet you should avoid luffing matches and work for clear air, to leeward if necessary. Whereas in small fleets you need to go as high as necessary to protect a lead from an attacker; that one point may win the regatta.
In other words, in a big fleet go for a "good" finish. Consistency usually wins the regatta. In a small fleet go for the win every race.
Walker has another interesting point about the difference between small and big fleets. In a big fleet someone will "have it right" and be sailing fast. In a small fleet everyone may be slow and nobody even knows it. So if you want to improve your boat speed you need to race in big fleets.
So what do you think? Does that make sense? Is that how you race in big and small fleets? Any other tips for how too handle the different scenarios?