George Cousins is a freelance sailing/race coach and a Sailing Chandlery sponsored sailor. In this series of articles he is covering his Sailing Rules of Thumb walking us through the race course and what you should be trying to do.
In the previous two articles we outlined how to develop a pre race routine and how to achieve a good start, now we will focus on the first beat. Hopefully you will have some idea of which side will pay and this will have influenced which end of the line to start. However it may be unclear which side will pay during the first beat only becoming apparent on the subsequent laps, therefore sail a conservative first beat avoiding the laylines.
If you lose your lane off the start you must tack off immediately. Distance lost just after the start will have a compounded effect later up the beat so you must get clear, ducking starboard boats can work well especially if the right side of the beat looks to be favoured.
Unless you are very sure of a side try to stay well within the laylines. Remember laylines can shift with a progressive wind shift as well as tide/current making the laylines skewed. E.g. in a wind-over tide situation the laylines become narrower making an over stand more likely and vice versa. A second example, in a Northerly wind with current going from East to West the laylines become skewed making it more likely to over stand on the Port layline but harder to lay the mark on Starboard tack. Top sailors are mindful of this and use this knowledge to inform their strategy and tactics.
By staying beneath the laylines you can use every windshift to your advantage, often called playing the percentages. Conversely if you are on the layline and get headed you have no choice but to continue on which is bad.
If you have a good start and are sailing in clear air try to sail your own race, being confident in your boat speed and the numbers on your digital sailing compass, but always stay in touch with the fleet. A good rule of thumb is to be on the same tack as the majority of the fleet. Avoid sailing away from the fleet. If you are sure the left will pay but the fleet has gone right you must follow the fleet but position yourself to the left of the fleet.
If you are in the lead or in a strong position stay between the windward mark and those boats behind you. This makes it very hard for other boats to pass you and will consolidate your position. By doing this and staying between the laylines you consolidate you position while being able to capitalise on any wind shift.
Big gains and losses can be made at the final approach to the mark. In large fleets there will be a raft of starboard tack boats on the Starboard layline, so there is opportunity to come in late on port but this is risky. Avoid tacking within the 3 boat lengths of the mark as the rules (Rule 18) will not be on your side.
Before you round the mark ensure you mainsheet is not tangled and apply the information you learnt up the beat first beat to the down wind. E.g. favourable tide upwind will become unfavourable down wind. If the left of the beat payed because of more pressure then it is likely that same side will pay downwind as well.
Read the previous article in the series - Sailing Rules of Thumb: Rule #2 The Start
Read the next article in the series - Sailing Rules of Thumb: Rules #4 The Reach
Read the other articles in the series, Sailing Rules of Thumb.
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