Wednesday, April 15, 2009


At the Kurt Taulbee Sailfit Laser Clinic back in March I learned of many ways in which I need to improve my racing skills. Or to be more accurate, I confirmed that there are many aspects of my game at which I totally suck... and one or two of them were areas where I didn't even know I sucked before. This is progress. I think.

Anyway, one of the areas where I realized I need to improve is what you might call tactical positioning: how to position yourself relative to the rest of the fleet or your closest competition, especially on a beat, to maximize the potential to gain on the opposition. I'm not talking about strategic issues like which side of the course to favor or whether to tack on a shift or not; this "positioning" issue is all about where to place your boat relative to the other boats in the race.

Of course it's relatively easy if you're in the lead, right? Cover your main opposition. Stay between them and the mark. But what if you're not in the lead? What if you're in a pack of boats heading up the beat together, where do you place yourself relative to the others?

It dawned on me that this is a blank spot for me when Kurt debriefed me after the last practice race on Day 1. The winds were light and patchy and we were racing to a windward mark close in by the shore. Port tack was more directly towards the shore so I figured you wouldn't want to sail too long on port because you would be heading into iffier winds close to shore. As luck would have it, I muffed the start and tacked on to port to clear my air as the rest of the fleet went left. About halfway to the layline, I sailed into a header so I tacked and looked like I would cross the fleet. Woo hoo.

I had this idea in my head that I wanted to stay away from the shore so I was feeling fat, dumb and happy that I was now sailing more or less parallel to the shore on a lifted tack and crossing the fleet. After a while it seemed that maybe I wouldn't cross all the other boats so I ducked a few transoms in the hope of better wind the way I was going.

Wrong choice. I was beaten easily by all the boats I ducked.

Afterwards Kurt told me, "You know you could still have won that race if you had tacked to leeward and ahead of that pack instead of ducking them."


"Yeah. That way you would be perfectly positioned for the next shift."


And I made several other similar but different tactical mistakes in the rest of the clinic that Kurt was happy to point out to me.

Now it's not that I can't see the logic of what Kurt was saying once he explained it to me after the race. It's just that I'm not in the habit of thinking that way when I'm in the middle of a race. Maybe it's all the small lake sailing I've done where it's pretty much all about finding the pressure or a big shift. Whatever the reason, this art of tactical positioning is definitely a weakness in my game.

So what to do about it? I'd appreciate your suggestions...

Should I
  1. Play a lot of Sailx the online tactical simulator?

  2. Re-read Stuart Walker's book on Positioning and write a gazillion blog posts here attempting to translate his turgid prose into understandable English and explaining in simple terms how he won that race in 1971 against Melges and Curtis and Perry and the like through his superior brainpower and tactical brilliance?

  3. Don't overthink it dude. Just remember, "Cross 'em if you can" and "Don't let 'em cross you" and you will be right 99% of the time.

  4. All of the above?

  5. None of the above?
Answers please...


Tim said...

I think you need to know what the wind and currents are doing in the race area before you canmake that sort of decision.
With oscillating shifts it helps to know where in the cycle of the oscillation you are to make a decision.
Sometimes positioning is more tactical than strategic. This is where knowledge of the rules is needed.

jbushkey said...

Definitely "Don't overthink it dude."

Chapter 1: Was it really necessary for me to write such a long comment?

The best athletes don't think they react. I read about this someplace. One of the many things that makes them so good is they do not have to take the time to think practice has trained simply to do. "Show me paint the fence!" - Mr. Miyagi

We used to do "read & react" drills where the coach would explain what you were supposed to do based on what the opponent was doing.

You need training so you will instictively do during the race without having to think about it. How could you train yourself on tactics for a given situation based on the wind, waves, position relative to the fleet, and whether or not you still need an embarrassing anecdote for the next blog post?

Tillerman said...

jubushkey - I am sure you are right. I need to train myself to react instinctively the right way in all these situations. I think Sailx might actually be quote good at this... Oops, I was actually going to explain all the ways why Sailx would be good but I think I'll save them for another blog post.

It has occurred to me already that your last point might be true. It's so much fun writing here about my incompetence and embarrassments that I might be subconsciously making these bad things happen to me. Hmmmm.

MJ said...

"After a while it seemed that maybe I wouldn't cross all the other boats so I ducked a few transoms in the hope of better wind the way I was going."

Did you SEE better wind the way you were going or did you HOPE there was better wind the way you were going?

Tillerman said...

HOPE. My eyes aren't so good at actually seeing where I'm going or spotting wind any more, so I have developed a strategy of guessing where the wind is. It works almost 50% of the time.

MJ said...

So you were "naviguessing" and Kurt was right. If you weren't 90% sure that there was an advantage to continuing left, you shouldn't have let 'em cross you. A better phrase might be "don't let 'em cross you, unless you're sure they are going the wrong way." A really good (and under the radar) book on all this is Race Winning Strategies by Tom Linskey. His main point is that you can't predict the wind 90% of the time - so sail conservatively. The book contains a lot of good advice on how to do that.

JP said...

Sounds like the laser clinic was gold dust.

I guess the more you sail the more you do the mechanics automatically and so have more time you have to think about things like this and so one day ideas like this might just go click.

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