Thursday, January 31, 2013

Words of Wisdom on Sailing Upwind in a Large Fleet

How do you sail the first beat of a race in a large fleet? How do you decide when to tack? How do you manage the groups of boats around you on the course?

This is an aspect of racing that I have always had trouble with. So I was pleased to come across these Words of Wisdom from Bill Brangiforte. Bill is one of the best Sunfish sailors on the planet. He won the North Americans in 2010. But he does show up at Laser regattas in New England from time to time and he's incredibly fast in a Laser too. In any case, the tips below apply to any boat.

Bill prefaced these words of wisdom by saying that on the first day of a major regatta his goal was to be in striking range of the leaders without taking too many chances. Hey, I would be delighted to be in "striking range of the leaders" in any race on any day of a regatta.

So how does he do it? (Bill's tips in bold. My insane ramblings about them not in bold.)

1. Until you are sure there is an advantage to one side, start near the middle of the line. A line sight is very helpful here. I have found that traditional line sights are not that useful in big fleets, because boats at the pin are often over early and block your sight. A better approach is to sight from the transom of the committee boat. This will give you a “safety sight” and a good reference of where you are on the line, and when to pull the trigger. 

Hmmm. I should try that. I hardly ever know which side of the course is advantaged so I should go for the middle of the line more often.

2. Always tack back after you gain on boats to weather. When their bows start to point towards you, tack and consolidate your gain. This especially true right after the start, but generally works for the rest of the race as well. 

Makes sense. Either there has been a header, or (less likely for me than for Bill) you are just sailing higher and faster than the boats to weather. Either way a tack consolidates your lead.

3. Cross boats when you can. 


4. Don’t let a big pack of boats cross you- tack ahead and to leeward of them.  

I guess the logic here is that if you let them cross you, you may never get ahead of them. If you tack ahead and to leeward you have a chance to cross them if you all get headed?

5. When you find yourself heading close to a lay line, start looking for any excuse to get back toward the middle- any small header will do. I like to use more pressure, as it gets you back in faster. 

I do know that I can't make any more gains in lifts and headers after I have reached the layline. But I need to get better at looking for headers or pressure to find excuses to get back towards the middle.

6. If you are heading towards the middle, don’t tack until the boats to leeward tack. 

I guess he is saying that you are minimizing risk by heading towards the middle, and if you tack away from a group to leeward you are giving them a chance to gain on you if they get headed later or they find a gust? Better to stay between them and the windward mark. You will get any puffs before they do. In a lift you will gain. And if there is a header you will all tack together and you will still be ahead of them.

7. Avoid the lay lines, but in big fleets, once you are close to the weather mark, try to over stand slightly. There are often big groups of slow moving boats pinching to get around the mark. By slightly over standing, you can maintain your speed and make a fast transition to downwind.

I do try to do this. Actually it's probably a fault that I do it too well, if that is possible. I have a pathological fear of being trapped below a group of boats at the windward mark and failing to lay the mark, to the extent that I tend not to tack below the starboard layline parade even when they are overstanding. And I have a fault of overstanding too far. It's all about improving my judgment of laylines I guess.

Anyway, much food for thought.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Bill's tips?

Does my rationalization of them make sense - or am I talking utter nonsense as usual?

Do you have any words of wisdom on your own on this topic?

Full text of Bill's random thoughts on the 2010 season (from which the tips above are extracted) at ...


Keep Reaching said...

Good tips. I particularly sympathize with you about waiting to tack onto starboard at the weather mark - I have the same problem. I remember when our Kiwi sailor first joined us (he is our best Laser sailor) he was giving us some tips and he said that generally all of us were waiting too long to tack onto the laylines. So, while I admit to have been immensely smug a few times to see competitors in irons near the windward mark while I zip by a bit less than close-hauled, I think our Kiwi is right and Brangiforte's remarks are applicable to a large fleet, not our little fleet.

Anonymous said...

I think those are all very good and pretty much right out of Stuart Walker's books. There may be occasional weather or current factors that override these, but for the most part if you can follow them it will help. I would add one other, especially for large fleets; work really hard to go fast for the first minute or two. This will usually get you ahead of alot of the flotsam and jetsam and make it easier to find clear lanes.

yarg said...

Tips 2 - 7 seem to be the old Stuart Walker tactics. I find it hard to pay attention to them when I have screwed up step 1 - getting a good start. They all still apply, but the best of tactics can't beat a good start and better boat speed.

In sailing against Bill on occasion I find his best tactic is to go faster than anyone else. That works for him even on the rare occasions he has a mediocre start (never seen him have a really bad one).

An upwind trick he uses in light to moderate wind and relatively flat water is to steer with the tiller behind him and held firmly on the deck. It feels awkward, but apparently the elimination of rudder wobble more than makes up for its awkwardness. The really fast guys just have to be reducing rudder drag better than us also-rans.
Steering with weight and sails is also a part of reduced rudder drag.

Another key to Bill's success seems to be an ability to find a little more pressure than the other guys. When I've watched him sail down wind he seems to use very small differences in pressure more than sailing angles and active sail trim to pass other boats or pull away.

Tillerman said...

Hmmm. "Flotsam and jetsam"? I think he's talking about me.

As for it all being in Walker's books, somehow Bill makes it much easier to understand than Stuart Walker ever did.

And yarg, I first learned about that trick for steering in light winds at one of Kurt Taulbee's SailFit seminars in Florida. It really does work. Can definitely recommend SailFit to anyone wanting to improve their Laser (or Sunfish) skills.

Judith Krimski said...

Great tips from Bill! I use the transom sighting quite a bit and I teach it to my kids as well.

O Docker said...

You'll never learn how to hit the layline right unless you try it too early a few times and are forced to luff up and tack.

It is better to have luffed and lost than never to have luffed at all.

Tillerman said...

There's a lot of truth in that O Docker and I have been trying to follow your advice. I still have the delusion that I am getting better at that part of the game.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

I like rule #6 the best. In non-one design fleets, this conforms to rule #39: when you find yourself in front of faster boats, stay between them and the next mark.

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