Tactical and Boat Handling Priorities

By Andrew Kerr

One of the many challenges that a team faces is coming up with a game plan or set of priorities for the different conditions that each race or series can present.

Here are some ideas - both general and specific that your team can utilize to help simplify what can be very often difficult and challenging scenarios on the race course.

Let’s look at a fairly wide variety of wind and seas conditions and also factor in the location – be it a lake or the ocean – flat water, choppy or big waves.

For your own team’s location I would suggest you add in your own localized considerations and priorities – be they local knowledge, established weather patterns, geographic and current influences and other tactical influences where applicable. Let’s look at each condition with a check list series of priorities and tactical considerations.

Light air- fairly flat water:

At the start:

Full speed and clear air is the maxim.

Start in an area of the line that gets you to the most velocity.

Stay near the line – don’t wander away. Avoid any sharp turns on the final approach.

Don’t tack within a minute and 30 seconds.

Build speed and trims the sails for every point of sail.

Roll tack and jibe around the line to maintain speed.

The team should be as smooth and deliberate as possible.

The Beats:

Minimal tacks – sail toward velocity and tack in velocity. Ignore minor oscillations to get to more velocity.

Sailing in the velocity is the top priority.

Avoid packs of boats – sail in wide lanes with plenty of space. Don’t lee bow anyone – you will get rolled! If in doubt – duck! When you do tack – roll tack the boat as smoothly as you can. The

Downwind Legs:

Sail in the velocity – what worked upwind? Go to that side downwind. Don’t sail too low in the lulls or too high in the puffs – constantly talk about the pressure on the spinnaker sheet to sail the correct angle. Work to keep your air clear from boats around you.

Jibe to stay in the velocity.

When you jibe try to do it in velocity to minimize the loss and roll jibe the boat smoothly.

On the jibes the goal is to keep the spinnaker filling all the time or as much as is possible in the conditions.

Protect the inside on the approach to the leeward mark.

Medium air:

The Start:

Research the line – how long is it? Which end is favored (farther upwind)? Pick a section of the line that gets you going to the better side of the course.

Where are the safe lay line approaches?

How do the other fleets ahead of us look in there start and race?

Do a minimum of 5 head to wind readings to track the wind.

If the wind is oscillating – consider a mid line start to avoid being damaged by a shift. If the wind is oscillating the option to tack and get in phase with the wind shift is likely the biggest priority.

If the wind is persistently shifting in one direction then pick a section on the line that gets you going that way.

Always remember that the start is a means to an end – where do we want to be 4 minutes after the start?

The Beats:

Work on speed and pointing as hard as you can.

Focus on going faster than the boat to leeward and the boat to windward so you can jump out into a space in the front row with tactical options.

Pay attention to the compass – tack on the shifts and keep your bow pointed toward the weather mark as much as you can. The angles you sail are now becoming high on the priority list. Keep in touch with the bulk of the fleet – don’t go to a corner by yourself.

When you tack – look ahead and make sure you are not tacking away from velocity. Consolidate when you can – tack and cross as many boats in your area as possible to consolidate your gains. Stay between the fleet and the next shift .

Go to a late lay line to make your judgment of when to tack for it better.

If choppy or with bigger waves:

Tack less and when you do tack either tack in flat spot or on the top of the wave if possible.

If you are going to lee bow another boat in chop you need to be able to cross them to be able to make it work otherwise your team gets rolled.

Usually a duck is a safer option !

The Downwind Legs:

Get your self on the closest (headed Jibe). The angles you sail are becoming more and more of a priority.

Keep your air clear.

Monitor the compass – jibe on the lifts and watch the velocity behind you to stay in it. Avoid luffing duels! Negotiate early!

Go to a later/ closer lay line to the leeward mark to avoid misjudging the approach.

Protect the inside on the final third of the leg.

Take the spinnaker down early and capitalize on the errors of other boats.

Heavy Air:

The Start:

Make sure you are perfectly set up for the beat with sufficient rig tension, Backstay & aft lower tension and Jib Halyard tension.

Avoid boats that appear to be out of control.

Pick a section of the line to start on – defend it. Really work on sailing the boat level (Min. heel) to maintain a gap to leeward off the line.

The Beats:

Minimize tacks – particularly if it is choppy. Focus on a constant minimum angle of heel and anticipate the blasts.

Monitor the compass – the angles take precedent over velocity as you have more than enough wind for max performance. The shifts can be subtle (sometimes substantial too) and the compass will help a lot with this.

Avoid an early lay line to the windward mark so you can play the shifts and reduce the tendency to over stand the mark.

Downwind Legs:

Make sure you are on the correct jibe.

Keeping the boat under control is the key element.

Watch behind you very carefully for the gusts and shifts.

If too windy consider another mode of sailing – wing on wing with the jib. Get the spinnaker down early – very early!!

Leeward Gate marks:

At events like the North sails race Week in Long Beach – (the venue for the S20 Western regionals) and the Nationals, (at the same venue) your team will encounter two leeward marks.

Here is a quick checklist to help decide which one to round: Go to the leeward mark which is closer, (further upwind).

Go the mark that takes your team to the favored side of the course.

If in a pack of boats – go to the mark with the least traffic for clear air and freedom.


Each location will have it’s own set of priorities that you will need to add in the various conditions your team sails in – the important aspect though is to try and have a set of consolidated priorities – both boat handling and tactical so that your team can get more of an overall grasp on what to focus on. We have found that particularly as we travel to new locations that this is a never ending process of constant learning, note taking and observations that keep us all coming back for more!

It is very easy (way too easy!) to make the same mistake numerous times – another intriguing aspect of the sport! Best of luck and have fun at your next S20 regatta.