Racing involves going around the course – strength is required upwind and down. There is no point in being a star going upwind without the ability to come downwind with similar abilities. Whilst technique is really critical to success, very often tactical decisions are able to get you back from an impossible position and back into the race. Whilst there is undoubtedly more gains to be made in skiff sailing with asymmetric spinnakers, the gains that can be made in conventional boats are huge. This was brought home to me in a conversation with my buddy Kevin Burnham, multi Olympic Gold crew. In Athens they were struggling for position on the first beat of a race, and rounded in 16th. They were fighting for the big medal and it was looking potentially disastrous. They were both charged up, and Kevin said there wasn’t a word exchanged until very close to the drop at the leeward mark. He said that Paul (Foster, his skipper), sailed one of the greatest downwind ever, and Kevin didn’t have a clue what had happened until the mark, because he had been solely focused on the spinnaker, squeezing every ounce of performance out off it. For those who don’t sail 470s, in a top class fleet a great downwind would be taking five boats. Being totally zoned in, they took 13, and rounded the bottom mark third, and went on to win the Gold. That’s a pretty big tool to have in the bag – to be able to perform downwind under pressure!
Generally the responsibility for making the boat go fast downwind rests with the crew. The power developed from the spinnaker is huge, and needs to be as millimetre perfect as possible in order to compete with the boats in your area of the course. The helm has to both steer in a very narrow channel of maximum speed and depth, and also look around for making good tactical calls. These tactical calls vary depending on conditions.
Let’s look at the fundamentals. Approaching the windward mark upwind is the time to get your head in gear for the downwind. Look both upwind to see what’s coming down either side, and back down the course and check where any wind bands or pressure patches may have moved to, and have a mental check whether the pressures are fast or slow moving. You should have been in tune with whether they’re fast or slow moving pressures (do they last a long time or blow through quickly) from the pre-start, and they’re probably the same now, but check. If they’re fast moving, you can’t chase them too hard. If they’re slow, especially in a skiff you can plot a course and a gybe through them. A gybe in pressure gives massive gains – the quicker the boat, the more massive the gain. Which is the gybe that takes you nearer to the leeward mark from the top mark?
You need to know if you are headed or lifted on starboard tack approaching the top mark. If you’re headed, there is little likelihood of a gybe/set being needed at the mark if the pressures are fast moving, or if the pressure side is to the right looking downwind. If you know irrefutably there is more pressure on one side of the downwind, then you set the boat up to round the mark to get to that pressure as quickly as possible. If the pressures are fast moving, you take the gybe that takes you closer to the leeward mark, and wait patiently for the golden lane to open up with the next pressure, when a gybe is probably on. Extra pressure gives significantly better angles. These should be your thoughts and strategy whilst approaching and rounding the top mark. An important decision to be made if you need a gybe/set is where to do it. If you’re towards the front of a long line of starboard tack boats, you want to get clear of their dirt before gybing. A perfect gybe/st into an area of water covered by dirty air coming from a line of boats coming upwind is a rookie error, and one we see far too often.
At the mark a smart hoist is needed. Many places are lost by better boat handling and launching, and if you get rolled, you’ll probably lose more than one boat, so always consider your easiest position and strongest way of hoisting.
The approach to the mark and setting your mental strategy is critical to a good downwind. Having rounded the mark and hoisted and set, we are now go from a strategy to an opportunist mindset. We know roughly what our strategy is, and now we are in a profit and loss situation. If an opportunity to do better presents itself we have a split second to decide on whether it is better than the strategy, or whether its a big risk with a likelihood of loss. For example, we’re going towards the side that we want, reasonably clear air in a line of boats. We know the side is paying, but we get a gust that takes us forward on the boat in front and appears to favor a gybe. If we gybe we go away from the favored side. If we don’t gybe we probably at best only take one boat. The strategy in this form of decision making is to assess very rapidly how many boats you could take if it goes well, and how many you could lose if it goes badly. Generally if you could take 2 (paying off) or lose 1 (going wrong), its worth risking. Any combination of that 2 to 1 ratio is acceptable. Anything less in your favor than that becomes a high risk, and usually not worthwhile.
The other priority skill to work on is when to gybe if you’re sticking to your strategy. Even in a case there is a marginal gain from gybing in pressure. In a 470 that gain becomes maybe 2 boat lengths compared to a boat that gybes in normal breeze, or maybe 4 boat lengths compared to one that gybes in a wind hole. In a skiff, we are looking at potential gains of between 5 and 15 boat lengths through selecting the spot to gybe with care. In many cases we need to develop a nose for pressure. So going into the favored side is one part of the strategy. The gains (or losses) are made by choosing the correct (or wrong) lane out of that side. Gybing in pressure and building apparent wind as soon as possible is key to making a strategy pay. One of the elements we focus on at Toplevel Sailing is developing this feel for pressure driven angle changes, and capitalizing on them. Yes, it takes a lot of practice, but becomes second nature and a huge winning tool when you master it.
Finally, coming to the leeward mark in a group of boats is always a pressure situation. Being totally cool and developing the will to secure the position of inside boat is a massive part of a successful downwind. If you’ve had a sensational downwind and approach the leeward mark as the outside boat of 3, not only are you likely to get rolled at the mark, but you’re also likely to come away from the mark in a frustratingly low position, where the boats on top of you always seem to be lifting and going faster because of the dirty air you’re eating. When you can’t get that inside position, give a bit up and just make sure you’re in a position to come away from the mark on the main road, NOT underneath it. Even if it means letting two boat through and luffing aggressively for your lane, it is better than taking that low lane.
Downwind success is a combination of speed advantage and organization in the boat, but above all it is developed by an ability to think clearly and identify and assess opportunities as they happen. At Toplevel Sailing we will walk you through this process until you master it. We pride ourselves on allowing sailors to develop their own talents, and downwind is the best area that these talents can shine through.