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 article we discussed the first beat and windward mark. Now we move onto the reach, examining tactics, strategy and some boat speed tips.
For the purpose of this article I will not touch specifics of individual classes, but look at what common threads make up good reaching. Being fast on the reach is often about blending tactical and strategic decisions. Strategy is the fastest course you would take in absence of other boats eg sailing minimal distance while catching waves but going high in the lulls and down in the gusts to keep the boat planning with the apparent wind forward. However with other boats present you must sail tactically to protect your position and not be shadowed by boats to windward, in addition to trying to overtake boats when possible. Sometimes what would be good strategically is at odds with tactics eg there is a dying breeze and wind with tide so your strategy was to go low, but the fleet behind you has gone high so you must go sufficiently high to defend your position and keep clear air. Top sailors blend these two to gain places and distance on the reach.
The biggest tactical mistake people make in fleet racing on the reach is going too high. This is so obvious when viewed from the vantage point of the coach boat, but as the red mist descends the fleet will often punch very high, sailing considerably more distance than needed. If you are confident in your boat speed then be restrained in how high you go. Remember the higher you sail initially the lower you will have to sail when approaching the mark, meaning you will have to sail on a very deep broad reach and be shadowed by the boats behind you.
As you round the mark adjust your controls quickly. Sailing Chandlery are able to advise you on control lines and blocks which will work exceptionally well with little friction, allowing the rope to run smoothly. After rounding the windward mark sail high for a couple of boat lengths to bring the apparent wind forward and pop the boat on the plane, then aim at the mark.
Forward planing. If you can see gusts approaching and the latter half of the reach looks to be winder than the first then gains will be made by sailing high so you get to the gust sooner. Once the gust hits bare away to the mark. Conversely, In a dying breeze go low if possible.
On very broad reaches, big gains can be made by sailing low, but ensure you are not being shadowed. Also be very vigilant for gusts. If there is a big gust approaching and you have gone low, you risk the fleet overtaking you to windward.
On tight reaches it very rarely pays to go low because you will be in the turbulent wind from boats ahead.
Know where the wind shadow of other boats actually is. No sailor likes the feeling of a boat nipping at their stern when reaching, but sailors often over estimate how big the wind shadow extends especially from boat level astern, meaning they sail too much distance and get drawn into luffing matches unnecessarily.
Law of diminishing returns: The bigger your angles the more distance you sail for proportionally less increase in boat speed. In marginal planing conditions sail high enough to plane and catch waves but as soon as the boat is surfing you must point back to the mark.
In big fleets or large handicap races you will often find yourself being shadowed by boats behind or to windward. Some times the extra distance sailed to try to find clear wind is too much and would offset any gain, so be patient, this is especially true if you are in the lead as you approach the mark.
Tide: Be mindful of what the tide is doing. A wind with tide scenario will push the fleet high of the mark meaning a big arc is sailed. So look for opportunities to go low and sail less distance. Conversely if the tide or current is with the wind, then avoid sailing too low.
If you are in the lead then sail your own race. Focus on strategy above tactics. Sail as little distance is is required; high in the lulls and down in the gusts to keep the boat on the plane.
Course skew. It is rare that the course is set perfectly. On triangular courses if the top reach is very tight then the next reach will be very broad and vice versa. This catches a lot of people out, so be aware of where the mark actually is and try to avoid sailing excessive distance.
Practice: Reaching often gets overlooked. Accordingly try to spend some time practicing it. A good exercise for medium winds is to try to keep the boat on the plane at all costs by experimenting with boat trim, heel and radical angles. Another is to practise sailing on broad reaches without using the rudder, this will get you comfortable turning the boat with minimal drag from the rudder and develop the skill of using heel and and sail trim to turn.
Read the previous article in the series - Sailing Rules of Thumb: Rule #3 The First Beat
Read the next article in the series - Sailing Rules of Thumb: Rule #5 The Run
Read the other articles in the series, Sailing Rules of Thumb.
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