February 05, 2019 4 min read

10 Ways to Win Pursuit Races and Handicap Events

Sailing Chandlery sponsored sailor George Cousins is back with another article, this time focussing on winning pursuit and handicap events.

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With more new dinghy classes being released every few years, one design racing is quickly being replaced by large handicap or pursuit race events. In contrast much of the existing sailing literature, coaching, articles and books focus on one design racing, yet most of us spend the majority of our time racing in menagerie club fleets or at the ever popular handicap/pursuit events such as the Sail Juice Winter series.

Handicap/Pursuit events present different challenges compared to one design racing and there are also subtle differences between a mass-start handicap event and the pursuit race.

This article outlines 10 ways to improve your sailing in this style of racing.

  1. Know the differences between a handicap event and a pursuit race. In a handicap event everyone starts at once with finish times being logged and places calculated after the race. This means competitors are effectively racing against the clock. Accordingly you must to some extent sail your own race and stick to your pre race strategy and it matters less if faster boats overtake you. Therefore do not waste time and distance trying to defend against boats which are considerably faster than you on handicap. Instead focus on getting ahead of those boats which you know are slower than you and consolidating your position using the tactics we have discussed in the previous articles.
  2. For Pursuit races you must always have an eye on those boats behind you and consolidate your position, while at the same time looking ahead for opportunities to pass those ahead. This can be done upwind, by staying between the fleet and the mark but also sticking to your strategy.
  3. Know how your boat compares to the fleet and have an awareness of how other boats will sail the course. This is probably the hardest part of mixed-class racing. Knowing which boats will plane upwind compared to those boats which point high but go slow etc should influence where you position your boat on the course. For example, the course a Skiff will take around the racetrack will be different to a Laser or a Catamaran and will change as the wind changes also! By having an awareness of this it means you can think ahead and predict where the faster boats will be relative to you in 1-2 minutes time, allowing you to position your boat in clean air because you can predict the course other boats will take.
  4. If you are in a slow boat ensure you have clean air when going upwind by tacking just above the faster boats. This means as they overtake you, you wont be subjected to their dirty wind and they will be forced to go to leeward of you.
  5. Generally in the early stages of a handicap or pursuit race, you must sail your own race focusing on sailing fast and using favourable tide and shifts. In the last 1/3 of the race it makes sense to sail more tactically covering boats where possible to try to slow them down or at least stop them overtaking you.
  6. If you are in a fast boat, then the challenge is trying to find passing lanes to overtake those ahead of you while maintaining clear wind. Try not to get embroiled into a luffing match or tacking duel with a slower boat. Slower boats (Laser, Enterprise, Finn, Aero, D,Zero, Nat 12 etc) have a higher tacking frequency than skiffs and cats so they can easily out manoeuvre them. Accordingly try to find clear are and space on the course so you can sail fast. 
  7. Big gains and losses are often made at the leeward and windward marks. At the leeward mark it can be easy to get forced out to one side if there are quicker boats chasing you down and you cannot tack. Accordingly do two quick tacks soon after run ding the mark to position yourself just upwind of those behind you, ensuring you have clean air and options. This allows you to tack off if needed or continue on in clean air as the boat behind are forced to sail below you.
  8. At the windward mark know the differences in how boats will round. Skiffs and Cats which lose distance during a tack will often over-stand the mark. This means for slower boats with a high tacking frequency there are opportunities to either come in on port tack or approach the lay lines late.
  9. Sail your own race. Try not to commit too much focus on the handicap of other boats. Obviously it is important to sail your boat as fast as possible and use the wind shifts to your favour. So don't commit undue time focusing on other boats especially in the early stages of the race.
  10. The last leg or lap is often the most interesting especially for pursuit races. This is where it is important to defend aggressively those boats behind. This can be done by tacking on them, forcing them into an unwanted manoeuvre or luffing them out to the lay line so they cannot overtake you.

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