Racing Basics – Common Language

Over the coming weeks I will be writing about racing strategy and tactics in preparation for our December 1, 2012 Strategy and Tactics Seminar that I’ll be giving here in Annapolis.  Our day long seminars explore the basics and advanced concepts that help racers better understand racing and improve.  There are still a few seats available for this informative, interactive and fun seminar that I guarantee is well worth the cost and the day.  Call the office to join us!

I am fond of telling my racing students that the least experienced racer should be the “tactician” onboard the boat.  If there is a clearly defined, strategy driven decision making matrix; then anyone can make the right tactical call.  In order for this untraditional thinking to work on the boat, we have to first have a common language that we are all using, agree upon a strategy, monitor the strategic elements that create the material of success and then stick to the game plan that is developed.

Let’s begin by looking at the race course and develop a language to understand the “anatomy” of the sailing race course.  While there are dozens of course configurations for most racing, we sail on a “drop buoy” windward/leeward course.  All this means is that a group of volunteers drop floating buoys, called marks, in the water.  The buoys are arranged so that they are almost perfectly aligned with the direction of the wind.  The result is that we have an upwind or “windward” mark and a downwind or “leeward” mark.  While other marks may be included, for the sake of this post we will keep it simple and only discuss windward and leeward  courses.

Races have beginnings and endings, therefore we need a start and finish line.  To make it easy on the race committee (and to keep it simple for competitors) the start and finish line is often the same.    One end of the line is often indicated by an orange flag on an anchored committee boat, and the other end is typically a floating buoy that is a different color or shape than the windward and leewards marks.  There are many nicknames for the ends of the starting line, but I prefer to call the starboard end of the line (look upwind) the committee boat end or just “boat end” and the other end of the line the “pin end.”  Other names for the committee boat end of the line include windward, starboard or right and are derived from the fact that most sailors think of the race course in “plan view” looking down on it from above with the wind coming from the top of the page.  Therefore the “pin end” of the line is sometimes called the leeward, port or left end.

Click in the image to see a more detailed diagram of the race course.

The course itself has many parts, each with distinct names that help clarify our discussions.  Thinking in the “plan view” discussed above we can divide the space between the windward and leeward marks both laterally and longitudinally.  For instance if we divide the course into thirds there are left, middle and right sections – or sides – of the race course.  Moving from the leeward mark or start line to the windward mark we have the bottom, middle and upper thirds of the course.  These sections of the courses are important to know and understand because each dictates certain strategic and tactical considerations.  Simply put you need to know where you are and were you are going in order to make a smart choice about how to do it.  Moreover, each section of the course has some pitfalls and opportunities.

To new sailors, this might leave them a little dumbfounded at the multitude of  options a boat could take to get to the windward mark.  But if we think about how boats sail, some invisible boundaries begin to form on our course that make it a little easier to see what is in play and what isn’t.  First, and easiest to understand is the RHUMBLINE.  A rhumbline is simply a straight line between two points.  For instance the line between the windward and leeward marks is a rhumbline.  While no sailboat can sail directly into the wind, most boats including dinghies, keelboats, catamarans, cruisers and racers sail upwind, close-hauled at about 35-45 degrees “off the wind.”  This means that at some point, we can tack and sail our close hauled angle and “fetch” or arrive at a certain point – such as the windward mark.  If we take these courses we would sail to fetch the marks we create another component of the race course – the layline.  These imaginary lines create the “out of bounds” lines for our race course, because any boat that is sailing to a windward mark that sails beyond the lay line is sailing unnecessary extra distance.  Each boat has its own unique tacking angle – or angle between laylines – that will shift the laylines for individual boats.  For instance, an Etchells has a different tacking angle than a Beetle Cat and therefore they have slightly different race courses.  It is important to mention that tacking angles for every boat change with wind velocity and sea state too!

If we turn the course on its head – or round the windward mark and head for the leeward mark – then another set of laylines are formed by the angle between our two optimal gybes.  Because different boats have different optimal gybing angles and because the optimal gybing angle changes radically depending on windspeed the downwind laylines are very fluid.

Now that you have some understanding of the different parts of the race course and the language we use to define it we can begin to discuss how we build a strategic plan that leads to success.  More on the difference between strategy and tactics in my next post.


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