September 07, 2012

Laser Cheat Sheet - Sailing Fast - Angles: Better than Boatspeed

By Doug
Laser Cheat Sheet. Half way up the first beat of the Laser medal race I made the comment that this was the "key moment in the race." Pavlos Kontides (CYP) was not going to beat Tom Slingsby (AUS) by the required 7 places to win the gold medal, so it was just a race to see who would beat who in front of the large crowd. The boats were even with CYP in the controlling right position (because tacking would have given him the right of way). And then this happened.

AUS got the dreaded (or wonderful) "inside lift" and the advantage immediately reversed so that when CYP tacked, AUS could cross and then tack on top of CYP. The race was over.

During the inside lift, AUS gained about one boat length on CYP every 5 seconds. No one has this speed advantage, not even Tom Slingsby, and is why I believe that sailing angles are more important than boat speed.

CYP did have a defense but did not use it - he could have immediately tacked and the inside lift advantage that AUS had would have been negated, plus CYP would have maintained his right-hand starboard tack control.

This happens time and time again with all sailors and was really obvious from the excellent aerial coverage at the Olympics. Here are some more examples from the women's match racing.

For me, the amazing thing about these photos is that no one on the outside boat is aware of what is going on. Absolutely amazing!

Now, I can understand how it's hard for a Laser sailor to keep looking around to spot this, but when there is a crew on board, then someone has to keep track of the other boat(s) to windward. Not doing so is a huge waste of boat speed, training, sponsorship, time away from family, and everything else that prepares Olympic athletes.

In each case, the outside boat must tack to negate this disadvantage, and if the inside boat also tacks, the inside advantage switches to the other boat for as long as this temporary breeze stays the same.

So, let's review: if someone told you how you could gain one boat length on your competition every five seconds, would you be interested? What could you possibly do to have such boat speed? The answer is never with boat speed – it’s just not possible in one-design classes. The answer is in something that few people understand – what I refer to as sailing angles.

Here, two boats are going to windward in a steady breeze. Neither has an advantage and either can go in any direction without gaining or losing.
Steady wind, and rare!
The good news is that in these conditions boat speed is the best way to gain, so you can go out and buy a new sail and polish your blades. The bad news is that the wind is never like this on the race course. So, before you spend any more money, spend some time understanding how these angles change.

In a race, one of two things happens. If the wind is spreading out and the boats are on starboard, the one on the left gains as shown by the color of the lines. All other things being equal, the one on the right must tack immediately and the one on the left must hope that he or she does not. If right delays tacking for just 5 seconds, it will lose 1 boat length. If the boats are on port, the one on the right gains and the one on the left must tack.
Wind is spreading out, common in puffs.
The key to sailing angles is sailing with your head out of the boat – looking around to watch the angles of the boats around you because they constantly change. This is important in match racing, and also how you can pick a specific person who you want to beat, something that I wrote about here. The best of the best have amazing boat speed, and this is one of the few  ways to beat them if that's your game plan:
Two campers are walking through the forest when they suddenly encounter a grizzly bear. The bear rears up on his hind legs and lets out a terrifying roar. Both campers are frozen in their tracks.

The first camper whispers, "I'm sure glad I wore my running shoes today."

"It doesn't matter what kind of shoes you're wearing, you're not gonna outrun that bear," replies the second.

"I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."

In sailing, I don’t have to hit every shift perfectly – if you're my target, I just have to beat you!
Sailing angles is how you can do this. If my game plan is beating a specific person, I’m much more interested in getting the angles right than where I am on the course or what my compass says. In fact, the very best sailors I get to compete against do not even own a compass. Sailing angles tell you what the wind is doing to your boat as well as everyone that you’re sailing with. No compass can do this.
Of course, the other thing that happens is the wind may be converging. For me, this does not make sense but it happens all the time and is what creates the inside lift. If the boats are on starboard, the one on the left loses as shown by the color of the lines. All other things being equal, the one on the left must tack. If the boats are on port, the one on the left gains and the one on the right must tack.
Wind is converging - strange, but happens all the time.
This is a scenario that is fairly common after rounding a leeward mark, where the inside boat gets the inside lift.
Red has his head inside the boat...
The lead boat has to keep looking over his or her shoulder and must tack if the inside boat is on a lift. In spite of this, very good sailors will focus on boat speed and not look around to see what’s really happening to their lead.
...and pays the price.
These diagrams show the boats side-by-side for illustration purposes, but sailing angles work for all boats at all times. In this next example, the boat in the lead on starboard should hope that the boat behind on the left does not tack. If it does, the lead boat should only cover with the understanding that it will lose until the angles improve.
Sailing angles work in any combination.

One way for the lead boat to ensure this is less of a factor is to sail directly to windward of the boat that it is targeting to ensure they both get the same wind with the understanding that the angles may sometimes be different as the boats sail into wind shifts. This favors the boat that is behind because it can force the lead boat to sail into headers for a few seconds per shift. The way that the lead boat defends against this is to tack on the shifts and hope that the boat behind does the same. The way that the boat behind defends against this is to sail into the header and hope to get some separation and its own angles.

Sailing angles are more important when the wind strength is less than 10 knots because the shifts and resulting angles are more pronounced.

To benefit from these sailing angles, you have to learn to tack quickly and to sail with your head out of the boat. The best way to do this is by sailing at night to enhance your feeling of the boat. A good daytime drill is to watch something upwind and be able to tack several times without taking your eyes off this object.

For me, there are three ways to sail upwind: by the course, by the wind patterns that you have, and by the competition. Sailing angles is purely by the competition. During any windward leg, the importance of these three strategies changes and it all boils down to one thing - when to tack. What works for me will be in another post. 

This is an update of original post on Butterfly Fleet 20 blog


  1. On 7/07/2012 MJ asked on another blog:
    Bethwaite's High Performance Sailing has some examples of when converging winds occur. Included in these are when wind rises and when wind rolls downs off cliffs or bluffs that are parallell to the general wind direction.

    This is a neat concept. I will try to employ it this season. It seems like there are times when this could get you into trouble, though - when the shifts are oscillating. In the example of rounding the leeward mark and having the inside boat lifting away - the boat on right would be out of phase if it tacked onto starboard, wouldn't it (if the winds goes back right)?

    On 7/19/2012 MJ asked on another blog:
    Does this work in an oscillating breeze? In your example of two boats rounding the leeward mark and the inside boat lifting away - wouldn't the outside boat get out of phase if he/she tacks over?

    My apologies MJ, I did not see these.

    For me, angles is for sailing the competition and staying in phase is for sailing the wind patterns. What is good for one is occasionally not good for another, so it's a question of priorities. I like sailing the competition because that person is good and I enjoy watching and learning. That person usually manages shifts well, so probably I won't get out of phase too much. But the choice of sailing the competition means that some shifts will be missed.

    A word of caution. Because of the close proximity of the boats, the advantage from sailing angles often only lasts for a few seconds, so you have to (1) be constantly aware of what is going on and (2) be prepared to act on them immediately.

  2. I hear your argument that the boat not lifted could tack and negate the advantage. However I see a few issues with you comments there. First I completely disagree with this "Not doing so is a huge waste of boat speed, training, sponsorship, time away from family, and everything else that prepares Olympic athletes." That statement being your comment on the leeward boat not seeing the lifted boat. This is an insult to the sailors involved. The leeward boat is completely aware of what the windward boat is doing even if they are not staring at them. To suggest that they are not based on a picture and the strength of your argument is flawed reasoning. At this level of sailing all the sailor needs is to glance out of the corner of their eye and they are aware. You cannot judge this based on a picture.
    Next, it is a fluid situation that cannot be analyzed by a snap shot. The puff could be moving across the course and the leeward boat will get the lift quickly as well.
    Furthermore, the boat to leeward can be at a disadvantage if they tack or if they hold. If they tack they are sailing a headed tack while the other boat is sailing a lifted tack. Instant disadvantage. Often the shift itself is enough to allow the windward boat to cross. In this case the leeward boat has only the option to hold and hope the lift gets to them or the windward boat looses it. Tacking in this situation puts them behind the other boat and firmly in their control. To tack here is to wave your opponent by.
    You argue that they then have starboard advantage. Strbrd is only an advantage if they can get to the other boat and force them to tack. Assuming they can, the leeward boat has two chances. One to force the windward boat to tack and prevent them from ducking to stay on the lifted tack. They need to be close to do this but not so close that they are tacking to close. If they can't do this that leads to scenario two. Two, execute a lee bow onto port tack and stay on the lifted tack.
    So to review, you only tack if you can execute strbrd advantage. Otherwise you are essentially giving up as you are consolidating your loss and letting you opponent get ahead of you. Better to keep some leverage and wait for it to go back. That is what the sailor is thinking when they don't tack.

  3. Anonymous, I'm with you on Doug's statement being a strong one and possibly being offensive to the very talented Olympic sailors. We discussed that statement and I considered toning it down but he had already toned it down from where he started. He watched almost every race of the Olympics start to finish and saw this particular error repeated many times. Doug also said when he sails at the World level, few sailors make big mistakes but angles is one mistake he consistently sees the best sailors in the World make and it has helped him quite often.

    Of course, it's just one man's opinion and he could be a complete dumbass ... I sometimes think that myself but then the arrogant dumbass goes and proves he's right and I finally have to admit he might have a point. It's annoying but kind of sexy too.

    1. Anonymous, I appreciate the time that you took to write your comment and I invite you to check out to BBC coverage from which these screenshots were taken. The pictures shown were from sequences that lasted much longer than you may realize. Look at the foam behind the boats.

      I did not see people on the leeward boats look over their shoulders in reasonable amounts of time, so unless they have eyes in the back or their heads they were unaware of the losses being shown. Even if someone looked every 15 seconds, they stood to lose up to 3 boat lengths - a brutal amount at this level of competition.

      I disagree that tacking puts you on a header (check out the "wind is converging" diagram in my post). Tacking at this moment is the entire purpose of this post.

      I also disagree with your use of the word "hope" and that tacking only makes sense if you're still in or are able to regain control. I'm a cut-your-losses-and-stay-in-contention kind of guy rather than hoping the situation will somehow improve, and it did not for any of these boats.

      There are many ways to win and lose a race. This blog is merely my opinion and I strongly feel that this is a basic mistake. However, I welcome conflicting observations and comments.

  4. Doug,

    In full fair disclosure, I competed in the london Olympics which is part of the reason I feel so strongly about this. I think your missing something here so i'll write a bit about it. This is just opinion of a sailor so take it as you will. I enjoy a good debate. Its a bit of a ramble, I didn't edit. I saw several of these scenarios first hand. Ill start with the wind diagrams. All the races in question were sailed on the Nothe course in Weymouth bay. This course was very close (as you know) to land and as such had a lot of sheer. IF you were the leeward boat in many of these scenarios you could tack and would sail about a boat length before crossing into the sheer and being headed. You were never lifted long enough to gain against your opponent in the sheer or new shift. Your wind diagrams do not reflect the nature of the wind on that course. Simply because it was not a breeze a or breeze b situation but one very much in flux. Furthermore you need to take into account what the average breeze direction is at the time. Talking about two different breeze directions on that shifty course without taking into account the relative oscillations, pressure differences and average breeze direction is making a judgment with only a small portion of the information. Often the windward boat would get lifted for a very short time then headed and the leeward boat would come out ahead. Quick sheer puffs that were relatively short lived. Yes sometimes the shifts were longer than at other time. I watched quite a lot of the coverage and felt that often you were not able to see the whole picture of what was going on on the course. To properly evaluate the choice being made in each situations you must take into account all of these variable. Also with fleet racing it is very relevant what the other boats are doing (majority of boats), perhaps more so depending on the situation.

    Talking about being to the right of your opponent and headed. (jumping between tense here, Sorry) If you do not get to your opponent on strbrd you are directly behind your competitor. This applies in any situation like this between two boats on port. The two boats on strbrd is a different situation. Looking at match racing being behind is the very last position you want to be in as you are in a controlled position. It is better to be to leeward and forward with leverage and a change to get back to your opponent than behind, especially since by staying where you are you hold on to a potential strbrd advantage if you can get to your opponent. Going behind them is giving up they will slam you and just push you back. This is match racing 101. Two boat on strbrd is different because the leeward boat needs to be able to cross or they will be stuck in a controlled position. They are obviously other reasons to tack but I won't get into the nuances of match racing now. Basically what I am getting at is that in these cases tacking is not cutting your losses it is increasing them. You are going from a position with leverage and a chance to get in front to one that is controlled. To me that is a bigger loss.

  5. CONTINUED....

    In The AUS, CYP situation, CYP would gain nothing going behind, getting in a tacking duel or getting tangled with Tom in any way. He needed to get leverage and get ahead in a controlling situation to push tom back with boats between. A lot of boats too. Frankly his best chance was to push Tom over at the start or draw a foul. It was over before the situation in question.

    In both cases being discussed the strategic choice was to keep leverage and wait/hope/roll the dice that something shifted allowing them to get the top position. Going behind is giving up. By waiting they are playing what they feel are the best odds. Debatable big time in a fleet race. Less so in the AUS/CYP situation and no debate at all in match racing if the choice is go behind or wait. However lets discount fleet racing because thats not what is being discussed.

    I can ensure you that the boats know exactly what the other boat is doing. They wouldn't be there if they didn't. Bottom line, you'd have to ask the sailors involved but knowing them and sailing against them I very much believe this.

    Also remember that there are a lot more variable in play with regards to the conditions, wind shifts ect. than what we are discussing here. These could potentially dictate the choice made, so there is a chance we aren't even debating the right variables. Its not a simple cut and dry situation.

    Anyway just my thoughts here, enjoy!

    1. Thanks again for the thoughtful comments, and congratulations for making the Olympics. That is a huge accomplishment.

      We can all appreciate that making the racing more spectator-friendly meant sailing close to shore and there was no way to understand how this affected the sailing from the aerial coverage, so your points are well taken.

      And I agree that sailing angles need special considerations in fleet racing (I had to learn angles because of my poor vision at the time and my need to pick one person to sail with/learn from).

      Your thoughts about not tacking and waiting for a header are really interesting. Not tacking to me is sort of like waiting for a Hail Mary. But if you're on a header relative to the other boat, then tacking puts you onto a lift relative to the other boat if only for a few seconds. And if/when you run into a header on the new tack then you can tack back again in a Laser and not have lost anything, and will have at least tried.

      But the main point here that's interesting is that it's all about sailing styles. Not tacking and waiting for something good to happen keeps me out of control. Tacking and taking my chances puts me in control, even if the result is I end up a little behind. I prefer to stay connected and in contention but that's my style.

      But there is one more factor, in my opinion, that makes it better to be in contention even if a little behind. All of the courses were a downwind finish (or downwind with a short reach). Being a little behind at the windward mark and then getting aggressive downwind is much better than waiting/hoping/rolling the dice and then being too far back to be in contention to use the from-behind advantage on the run. In the races from which I grabbed the shots, this rolling of the dice did not work because by the time the leeward boat tacked, it was too far behind to be in contention.

      So, my style is to stay in contention by tacking and engaging rather than waiting for a shift that may never come. By engaging, I'm within a couple of boat lengths and since all finishes were downwind, I'd be in contention on the next run. If, however, all finishes were upwind and it was the last leg of the race, then my sailing style could well change.

      I really appreciate your perspective. As I like to say to Pam, if two people always agree, then one in redundant.

  6. I've been enjoying the exchange of ideas here. Thanks to both of you for keeping your comments on topic and civil. I am neither a former world champion or an olympic sailor. I am a decent club sailor, looking for tips to improve my racing. In short, I believe I am the intended audience of this blog. Obviously, my opinions on tactics bear less weight than your own. I tried to think of this problem from the perspective of the lead boat. If I was getting an inside lift on an opponent I was ahead of, what would I want my opponent to do? If I had equal or better boatspeed I think I would foot through the lift to prevent him from getting leverage on me (conservative approach). If the boat below me was someone like Doug (an admittedly unlikely possibility) I would probably take the lift and try to increase my lead. In general, I think I'd feel more comfortable if the boat below me keeps heading toward a layline. Wouldn't engaging the lead boat in a tacking duel be just as valid a comeback strategy as going for leverage and waiting for a shift? I suppose it depends on the probability of getting your shift. In a way, I'm glad there is no easy answer. If the game was simple, it wouldn't as much fun to play.

    1. Dennis, we've been working in the yard today and I've been asking 'what if' on various scenarios all day. If Doug were the inside boat on a lift, he would always sail the lift unless it was in waves and he was losing speed through the waves and needed to foot through them. If he were the outside boat being headed (relative to the inside boat), he would always tack unless he saw something developing ahead that would he would get to in no more than 30 seconds. Otherwise, he is 100% certain that staying on that tack means he's going the wrong way and losing ground and it would be difficult to get back.

      Like you, I don't sail at that level and don't know if he's right or not. But, I do know that I had his brain tested and on spatial concepts and perceptive reasoning, he tested in the superior range. Not above average or high average but superior, as in damn close to perfect. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Mainly, because for me, tacking relative to my angle to another boat is something even I can understand.

      Of course, Doug makes contradictory statements. First, he says that not tacking is a basic mistake. Second, he says that it's the one mistake that even the best in the world make. So if the best in the world make the mistake then how can it be basic?

      This next year, Doug is going to have to work hard to prove he's right. I'm sending him to compete in the open fleets (not just Masters) and we'll see if experience is a match for youth. Just because I'm curious.

  7. I'm looking forward to Doug's upcoming post on when to tack. This blog has been a fantastic resource for me this year. I've seen an improvement in my race results this season, and I believe some of the credit is due to concepts that I've read about on this blog. Please keep up the good work, and Thank you.

  8. Hi there ...awesome information Doug/Pam thank you . Just an observation of the Slingby / Kontides Kontides dumping main or sheeting to foot away? cheers

    1. Thanks Kev.

      Both tended to sail by footing and played the main quite a lot, so it's hard to know at the moment this frame was grabbed.

      I do not think that the difference in sheeting accounts for the difference in the headings. Tom is known for his ability to foot quickly and used it to cover Pavlos (see Day 9 Observations), but he has clearly chosen to take advantage of the different wind, IMHO.

  9. I'm thinking that I should try swapping myself off the helm after starting. At the wheel, my mind is just concentration on telltales and water. I can't keep that focus and be looking around. That might be better than depending on my MVP to make the course-changing calls.

    1. Great comment. It reminds me of a comment many years ago from Frank Bethwaite at an NS14 State Championship when he said, "we won the race at the wrong mark." In other words, we had speed but went the wrong way.

      Driving a boat is a science and knowing where to sail is more of an art. Some people are so good at this art that it's scary (check out an example from Paul Foerster in an upcoming article on When to Tack). In the conditions described in this post, boat speed is in my opinion secondary to catching the shifts, so your idea has merit.

      Of course, we Laser sailors have to do all of this ourselves. I was bad at sailing with my head out of the boat until I learned how to sail at night. This taught me how to sail by the feel and by the sound of my boat going through the water.

  10. I recently watched the medal race again, hoping to learn something new from it. I remembered your post and thought I would revisit it. What seems more clear to me now is that Cyp saw something that he liked and footed off. In the shot, he has moved back in the boat and dumped sheet, ie. he is reaching. Clearly, what Cyp saw, or thought he saw, didn't work out and the rest is history. You called it, it was indeed a defining moment.

    1. Yes, and Tom decided to work the angle rather than chase him. Angles are almost always better than boatspeed.


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