Jun 15, 2022
Here is a common situation that requires an important decision. You are sailing upwind on port tack, converging with another boat on starboard tack (S). If you keep sailing straight you will hit the other boat, so you must make a choice about how you will keep clear of S. Should you tack in front of S, or bear off to pass behind her?
This is a tactical decision because you are maneuvering relative to another boat, but it also has a big impact on strategy. If you avoid S by tacking you will end up on starboard tack sailing toward the left side of the course. If you duck behind S, you will remain on port tack heading toward the right side of the course.
This decision is critical because you must choose between two completely different courses of action. Therefore, you don’t want to make this choice by flipping a coin, or by doing whichever maneuver seems easier at the last second. The key is to have a strategic plan first and then make the tactical choice that allows you to follow your strategy (not vice versa). Do this by thinking as far ahead as possible about decisions you will have to make.
When you need to make an important decision, would you rather have 5 seconds to think about it or a whole minute? In almost every case, more time produces a better result, so try to increase the amount of time you have to consider your options.
Very few port-starboard crossing situations appear suddenly out of the blue. In most cases, the port tacker (P) can see an approaching starboard tacker (S) from pretty far away (assuming P is keeping a good lookout in that direction). As soon as P realizes there may be an issue, her crew should begin making an action plan. Here’s what that conversation might sound like:
Tactician: We may have a problem with a starboard tacker in about 10 lengths.
Helm: Can we cross them?
Tactician: Not sure but I don’t think so.
Helm: If we can’t cross cleanly, what do you want to do?
Tactician: It looks like there is good pressure straight ahead. Do you still like the right?
Helm: It seems the boats on that side have been doing pretty well.
Tactician: OK, if we can’t cross in front, bear off behind them.
By making this choice early, you avoid impulsive decisions at the last minute that don’t work out so well. And if it turns out that S does not become a problem, planning ahead hasn’t cost you anything more than a bit of thinking time.
At position 1, Red and Green are sailing along happily on parallel courses. Red is the give-way boat, and she is keeping clear because the boats are not converging.
As long as the boats continue like this, should Red think about Green at all?
The answer is a definitive Yes. If and when Green tacks, the boats will definitely be on a collision course and Red will have to take evasive action. Since the boats are so close together, Red will not have much time to think between the moment when Green tacks and the moment she (Red) has to start avoiding Green. If Red waits until Green tacks before choosing what to do, her decision will be rushed and, most likely, ill-conceived.
Therefore, before Green tacks Red should decide what she will do if Green does indeed tack. This is called making a ‘contingency plan.’ By starting to think about this contingency at position 1 (or earlier if possible), Red creates time to make a thoughtful decision about what she will do if Green tacks. Then, if Green does tack, Red simply executes her plan. Of course, Red’s contingency plan may need to change if she sees something new up the course before Green tacks.
Dave Dellenbaugh is the publisher, editor and author of Speed & Smarts, the racing newsletter. He was the tactician and starting helmsman on America3 during her successful defense of the America’s Cup in 1992 and sailed in three other America’s Cup campaigns from 1986 to 2007. David is also two-time winner of the Canada’s Cup, a Lightning world champion, two-time Congressional Cup winner, seven-time Thistle national champion, three-time Prince of Wales U.S. match racing champion and past winner of the U.S. Team Racing Championship for the Hinman Trophy. He is currently a member of the US Sailing Racing Rules Committee (and was its chairman from 2005-2008).
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