September 14, 2022
The marks of the course are often critical in determining how boats cross the finish line. That’s because mark roundings bring the entire fleet together into one small, congested spot.
Sailors typically have to make substantial turns and major sailhandling maneuvers to get around marks. At the same time, they must avoid fouling (or getting fouled by) other competitors, maintain clear air, follow their strategy, sort out boathandling schemes, keep their boat going fast and more!
As a result of all this, it’s not uncommon for competitors to make big gains or losses in the process of going around marks. When you add in the fact that a typical race can have four or more mark roundings, it’s clear that these maneuvers have a disproportionately large impact on the race’s outcome.
Therefore, it’s important to have consistently good mark roundings. This requires practice, smooth boathandling, smart tactics, sound strategic planning, knowledge of the rules, skill
to maintain speed while turning in a crowd, plus the ability to accurately assess risk versus reward.
Minimize risk at marks
Marks usually involve a relatively high degree of risk because boats converge with each other there, the fleet gets very compressed, and the stakes are high. Therefore, before you get to a mark it’s helpful to think a little about how much risk are you willing to take. For example, would you be willing to try cutting inside the boats ahead if that meant a 50% chance of fouling? What if it was 20%?
The level of risk you should take at a mark (or anywhere else) depends on a number of factors including: a) how far you are from the finish; b) how you are doing in the race; and c) how you are doing overall in the series. For example, if you’re at the first mark of the first race in a series, you shouldn’t take a very big chance. But if it’s the last mark of the last race, and you need to pass three boats to finish on the podium, then the risk of cutting inside the boats ahead might well be worth taking.
Before rounding each mark, locate the next one
Before you round any mark, it’s valuable to locate the next mark visually. This is a critical ingredient for your next-leg strategy, and it may have a large impact on your mark rounding. For example, should you round inside other boats at the windward mark so you can do a jibe set, or outside so you can do a bearaway set and continue on starboard jibe with clear air? The answer to this and similar questions is largely dependent on the location of the next mark.
The last thing you should do is round a mark and then start looking for the next one. When this happens, the chances are good that you did not optimize your rounding or your strategy for the new leg. A classic mistake is not realizing when the next leg is a ‘fetch’ (i.e. when you can fetch the next mark on one tack or jibe). If you go around the windward mark and do a bearaway set, for example, you will lose a lot of boats if you later realize that your competitors are jibe-setting and fetching the mark on port.
On my boat, finding the next mark is so important that one team member has this specific responsibility every time we approach a mark. Their job is to locate the next mark (visually, if possible) while there is still time to plan our upcoming rounding and strategy for the next leg. Then they must quickly describe that mark’s location to the rest of the crew. There are several good ways to do this:
Identify a visual reference point – A great guide for the mark’s position is a unique geographic feature on shore behind the mark. For example, the mark might be just to the right or left of a particular building, tree, house, etc. Reference points like these are very useful because the entire crew can see them easily and quickly with minimal distraction from their job.
Calculate a compass bearing – If your boat has a compass, it can be very helpful to give the helmsperson a bearing to the next mark, especially if you can’t see that mark. It’s usually easy to figure this out ahead of time; for example, on a windward-leeward course the bearing for the run is the inverse (plus or minus 180°) of the bearing to the windward mark.
The location of the next mark is important, but the critical step is predicting how that mark’s position will affect your strategy for the next leg and therefore the nature of your upcoming rounding. Stay tuned for Part 2.
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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