January 26, 2015

Reaching Tricks

By Doug

Green has just rounded the windward mark in first place and red is just behind, and there are lots of others following. Red heads up, sails faster, and tries to pass green. One of two things will most likely happen:
  • Green says, "hey, let's head straight for the mark and get ahead of these others." Meaning, let's make sure we come first and second, and we'll decide who wins later (another example of how the game is played at the front of the fleet). Consider yourself lucky if you hear this on the race course.
  • Green defends against red by also heading up. 
The first example is a rare treat because it means that green is experienced and is good at percentage sailing. This post is about the more common second example.

Would you rather be green or red?

I prefer being in red's position because green almost always defends by also heading up, so at the end of the reach it has to bear off to head for the mark. The more green defends by heading up, the better red will be at the end of the leg. This is how I won a national championship last year in another class.

In this case, green was being sailed by a very experienced, very fast, multiple national championWe were tied in the standings and a pass would give me a 2-point gain on him (which turned out to be the winning margin for the championship).

Even though green was well ahead, it defended by also going so high that we were almost on a run as we approached the mark. This gave me the advantage, the pass, and the win.

So if red has the advantage, how does green defend?

If there are waves, the one best one at catching them will most likely win. But what if it's flat water or the boats have the same speed? This is when it gets really tactical. Green winning depends on two things:
  • keeping track of the apparent wind, and
  • playing the different changes in the wind pressure that can be seen on the water.
Let's go back to the moment when green has make the decision.

If green bears off, it immediately slows down while red is picking up speed.

Looking at the wind shadows, green is already in trouble because of its lost speed plus less wind.

Trying to escape by bearing off more just slows green down more.

Advantage red, which gets and easy pass. But green bearing off is actually a winning move if done properly:
  • Green can use the technique described in this post to determine exactly where the apparent wind is coming from. It's not coming straight down the course but has shifted forward.
  • But this is still dangerous. For this to work, green still needs a little more speed.
  • To get this, green waits for a little more pressure that can be seen ahead on the water.
  • With the pressure, green and red both speed up and the apparent wind shifts further forward.
  • If green bears off slightly now, it has a little more room to work with before it's affected by red's shadow.
  • Bearing off in pressure has another advantage. Because green is going more with the wind, the pressure will last slightly longer, so green gets more time in the pressure. Some call this "stretching" the puff.
  • If the red starts to roll green, green heads up to even the speed, shift the apparent wind a little forward, and hold its position.
  • Each time green has a little extra pressure, it bears off slightly again.
  • While this is happening, red might have its hands full from boats right behind it, and red may have to head up just to defend against them. Advantage green.
  • It's tricky, but if done properly green can get low enough so that red's wind shadow is minimal and green can sail its own race.
If green is able to sail lower it gets more separation, clearer air, and more speed.

At the end of the reach, green is in a great position because:
  • it's on a closer reach and going faster,
  • it has clear air because its apparent wind is way forward, and
  • it has all of the rights against the red boats because its the leeward boat at the mark.
The key to this working is knowing and feeling where the apparent wind is coming from and using the slight differences in the wind pressure. It's tricky and something that we all get wrong occasionally, even at the national championship level.


  1. Thanks for this. That last piece of advice was something I hadn't heard before. I will have to to try it next time I am in this situation.

    1. You'e welcome. Going low is tricky because you have to wait until the end of the reach to see if it's working - definitely worth trying.

  2. Thanks for xplaining this. I have often wondered how ot handle this kind of situation (as green boat).

    1. It's tricky because you often don't know if going low is going to work until the very end of the reach. The best sailors are really good at this.

      It's the same upwind with persistent shifts. You don't know if taking an early header to get inside the shift is going to work until the end of the beat.

  3. I thought you won the "National Championship" because he hit you?

    1. The was contact you may be referring to was in race 5 and that was also a key moment, but the mark rounding I was referring to in this post was in race 3.

      This person is a perfect gentleman and did his circles.


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