Consolidation: Safe or Stupid?
To consolidate a position, whether it be in business or sport, is a well known play to minimize risk of loss. Usually we throw a little profit away to protect a larger gain. Sometimes we are lucky and can keep all the profit whilst securing the gains.
In sailing consolidation is a very important part of our winning plays. The logic of jamming ourselves between our major opposition and the top mark (or bottom mark) is obvious. For a boat to sail around the leader would need a lot of pace advantage, which normally will not happen.
So here at Toplevel Sailing we teach and coach consolidation as an essential skill for winning regattas. Now lets sound the caution gun!
Very often we can be half way or more up the first beat and know we are leading, or in the top group. How do we consolidate?
Usually the consolidation takes place over our closest rivals. It usually involves a tack and gaining the position between the opposition and the top mark. Fine…. Until you realize you have to take a header to get there. That’s when “cost” comes into the process. What will it cost you in your lead to consolidate? Is it possible to consolidate without losing the lead? Is it worth consolidation or are we confident enough that we’re on the fast path anyway so we’ll just race as fast as possible to the mark. All these questions and sometimes more must be answered.
The main ingredients are dialogue, judgement of cost, judgement of current position.
When to Consolidate
On the bottom half of the first beat the fleet is diverging (usually all over the course). Consolidation is impossible in a diverging fleet when the leaders are not yet evident and positions get jumbled very easily. For this reason consolidation takes place on the upper part of the course when positions are obvious and the goals of freezing out boats become achievable.
Of course there is little point in paying a price to consolidate over a group only to find the cost has allowed the group behind to get past you. The mathematics of position must be going through your head subliminally at all times!
On the second beat usually the fleet is strung out sufficiently that you can consolidate from the bottom mark on wards. Doing this involves a hitch followed by total concentration on the boats you seek to capture. The warnings here are clear – you must also have eyes for boats making gains on the other side, or even leveraging wind shifts should the boats you are covering fail to nail them. Should that happen the choice must be made to take shifts and “loose cover” your original target, or to simply break away as you know they are likely to take a big hit with their strategy.
When NOT to Consolidate
There are many factors to consider in this section.
Firstly, the faster the boat, the more authoritative a position you need to consolidate. This means that whilst in a Laser class or even 470 class you can be happy with a small advantage, the cost of missing pressures in a fast boat is so great that often consolidation can go very wrong indeed whilst trying to gain the dominant position. We can say that whilst fast boats can benefit from consolidation, the price paid can be massive and therefore caution in decision making must be applied. The cost of the extra tacks needed is approximately 8 boat lengths in wiring conditions, as against maybe 2 in a 470 and a lot less in Laser. A major consideration to add to the judgement!
When its a full on “pressure” day, and gains are made through pressure spotting and handling gusts effectively rather than wind-shifts, then we rarely consolidate. We have to hit pressures, and risk is not managed too well against the fleet if someone else is dictating the route we will sail up the beat – on days such as these your result depends 90% on pressure seeking, which can only be achieved by making your own routing decisions.
At Toplevel Sailing we talk a lot about risk management to our International and Olympic sailors. There is absolutely no reason whatever why sailors lower down the ladder cannot begin to understand the management of risk. Consolidation is a brilliant tool for managing risk, one that any sailor struggles to escape when trapped, but equally a tool that the sailor must understand the costs and implications of in order to use it effectively.