Tactical Changes

Old School VS Innovative Tactics

The evolution of sails and hulls has probably seen greater progress over the past 50 years than in the previous several centuries.  Sailing boat speed has increased by a massive factor, and with it the impact on tactical racing has changed enormously.  Reading books from the 1960’s by Uffa Fox and other legends is probably informative, but we can realize the differences that have taken place since those times.  We now view these old school tactics as defensive plays.  Let’s look at some basics:

It could be argued that fleet racing tactics are intellectual and interesting – a form of chess on water.  Not only must the racer achieve race pace and technical superiority to win races, but they must also defend their position and deal with probability.  Nothing changes, BUT ……..

As sailing boats get faster the cost of a tack or gibe increases.  In other words a tack in a sail boat moving at five knots will give the opposition an advantage of max half a boat length as the momentum needs to be recovered of the tacking boat.  However, a sail boat moving at twenty knots will take longer to recover their momentum and the tack will often cost the tacking boat between 5 and twenty boat lengths depending on the class of boat.  The reason to tack must therefore be much more profitable to the faster moving boat, whereas the slower boat may speculate without too much risk.

In this way sail boat racing tactics have changed fundamentally.  Even in classes like 470 where boat speed has increased due to rig technology improvement, the game has changed.

If we consider some more basics on the beat:  At any one time the majority of a fleet in a side of the course is on the same tack.  Any boat on the opposite tack may be considered to be attacking the fleet, as they are presumably seeing some benefit of their action, or are experiencing different micro conditions to the rest of the fleet.

The “micro” conditions referred to may be a different pressure than the rest of the fleet are experiencing.  The importance to the sailor of differentiating between a velocity lift and angle change has increased as sail boat speed increases.  Any sailing boat can be sailed higher in greater wind-speed, but as apparent wind increases the sail boat can be sailed substantially higher than a sail boat which simply takes the pressure towards the mark without accelerating.  We are now beginning to see a relationship between technique and tactics where the sailor who sails the sailing boat faster can sail a better angle than the high mode sailor who simply takes the velocity lift as per an angle change.

The gains from understanding the effects of speed on height are potentially massive, depending on the class.  There is a valid argument that the inability of the sailor to hold a lane from the start-line for the boat that is set up for speed (low mode).  The benefits of a good start (maybe 20 boat lengths) have to be weighed against the ability of the boat to get round the course as rapidly as possible.  So often we hear that the start is critical to the outcome of a race, but this may be because it simplifies life for the good starting boat.

Our view is this:  In any fleet the dominant sailors will get some bad starts, yet still be at the front 45 minutes later.  The less able sailors will often get good race scores from good starts, and falsely assume that a good start is critical to success.  Yes – it helps to make life simple, but NO – in a 45 minute race the start is a mere profit or loss over a minute or so.  The first tack is so often the key to escaping consequences of a poor start, yet so often little attention is paid to this in training.

We may conclude that tactics have changed dramatically.  The front running sailors especially in the faster classes will attack at every REAL opportunity – not a false start or situation that passes quickly, but when the going gets tough, tacking is a key skill according to most pundits.  These attacks when launched by the bog so often coincide with a pressure patch rather than an angle change.  Their basic concern is to find the quickest way round the course may be, not how to defend their position and maybe pass the boats close to them as in the old school tactical thinking.  The ability to defend a lead against other fast sailors is reduced – if the other fast sailor finds a pressure patch their gains can be huge if the leading sailor is getting across the course on a header to get between the second place and the mark, as in conventional racing tactics.

So if we explore the complexities of the velocity lift, we used to be able to estimate the effect on angle.  Now the sailing boats can generate so much apparent wind that estimating is near impossible, so we rapidly arrive at the point where defensive tactics are not a real option against the fleet, but in the latter stages of a regatta are often critical to success in terms of match racing skills with one or two boats.

The interesting part about these pondering is that fleet management, boat on boat tactics and the ancient art of covering are now rarely used, or indeed sensible to use in the faster classes.  The understanding of momentum, driving the foils and using angles simply to get around the course in the fastest possible time are definitely “in”, yet behind these factors is the knowledge that on some days, light wind and maybe towards the end of the regatta, old school tactics still work.

At Toplevel Sailing (formerly WSA) we have developed a “language” for tactics and plays, so we practice all the moves and converse in the language with our sailors.  The concepts of attacking for speed round the course, choosing the moments to attack, risk management and mathematical probabilities are all coached.  Our sailors will know all about good VMG and how to use it to their advantage in the modern game of being fastest round the course.

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