Reaching High or Low

Whilst many asymmetric kite boats struggle to reach effectively and the reaching legs have been dropped from their courses, the skills of reaching are still very important for traditional classes such as Laser, 420, 470 etc. This blog is aimed at those classes, and hopefully some of the information here will also help our asymmetric sailors when they have overlaid a downwind mark! The potential losses and gains on a reach, particularly rounding the top mark and approaching the reach mark, are huge.

The secret to going fast is to never go slow, so the main goal is firstly to maintain speed throughout the reach. This is usually achieved by altering the course to sail somewhat higher in a lull and somewhat lower in a gust as it allows the boat to stay relatively fast the entire duration of the reach.


The question ‘should I reach high or should I reach low?’ comes up naturally since it might have a big impact on the outcome of the reach.

In order for us to be able to determine when it is better to go high and when it is better to go low we must look into the following factors:

  • Wind conditions
  • Fleet size / length of reach
  • Waves
  • Tight or broad reach
  • Our position in the fleet

Let’s first take a look at the wind conditions.

In gusty conditions the higher boats will get the gust before the lower boats, in case the pressure is fast moving this might not make a big difference since the lower boats will get the gust pretty close to the higher boats. In case the pressure is moving slow it might prove a big advantage to be high as the ability to cover the lower boats using the gust is relatively high.

The fleet size to reach length factor is very important, naturally the bigger the fleet the longer the reach but that is not always the case, in smaller fleet the risk of being covered by other boats is significantly low so can be worth a while to sail low; in bigger fleets in case the reach is short there might not be enough gap opening between the high boats and the low boats, so the low boats end up with bad wind most of the reach, so again being the high boat is the percentage move.

As we mentioned before the secret to going fast is to never go slow, staying on waves for longer than other boats, and more importantly not bashing the wave in front, will most likely ensure you being faster. In many conditions this means you will be taking the wave pointing lower than the mark and eventually end up taking the low route of the reach, the bigger the waves the bigger advantage it has as the boats who will be going high might end up losing a lot of wave time on the later stages of the reach when they are forced to sail low towards the mark.

Is the reach tight or broad? The tighter the reach the easier it is to stay on the high end of the reach since the speed loss is relatively low at the late stages of the reach and there is also the risk of being covered by the higher boats which in turn will generate a big loss of speed as you might get passed by a train of boats covering you.

Our position in the fleet has a big impact on the lane we choose for the reach, as the closer we are to the front of the fleet risk becomes a bigger factor so actually staying with the majority of the group will ensure you hold on to your position. In many cases this will mean taking the higher lane of the reach as to prevent the risk of being covered by other boats, again depending on the conditions. When we are either at the middle or the back of the fleet the conditions should determine the lane we are taking as to maximize our gains during the leg, paying particular regard to the high lanes just ahead. It is often possible for the back of the fleet to sail the rhumb line (the straight line towards the reach mark) and make huge distance gains just because the middle and front of the fleet have taken each other so high. The challenge then is finding a gap to get into the line of boats without getting rolled.

In general the advice is to go high on the top reach, as being rolled over by a single boat is so punishing to speed that you will lose a lot more boats and keep being rolled over. A good risk strategy is to observe both in front and behind if you are considering going low or the rhumb line. On the bottom reach as a default position again go high, though often if only two or three boats ahead are having a luffing battle to become windward boat, a lane may well exist under them that allows you to sneak through. Generally the fleet is split further apart by the time you make the bottom reach, so more opportunities exist.


Speed on the reach is dictated by how far you can hike out of the boat, combined with maintaining good airflow over the sail. If you take notice of your tell tales, and especially the leech ones, you will see that you need a much greater twist in the sail than going upwind. This twist is dictated largely by your kicker settings, which must be played with until you achieve good airflow.

A lot of sheeting adjustments are needed on a reach, as the apparent wind becomes sensitive and you need to sheet almost to each wave, gust or even chop.

On a symmetric kite boat, the luff of the kite must be long – so drop the pole. Again a good twist is needed, so barber-hauls are slow when reaching! Use your eyes on the kite, look where it appears a little floppy (depowered) and sheet very precisely with the luff just curling. Remember also that pumping within the rules is permitted, and this can make a huge difference to speed when you can accelerate through small obstacles such as wind holes and waves.

Pumping on all kinds of boats, always within the rules, on reaches is hugely beneficial. Don’t be afraid to do this on waves, and remember that one good pump has the effectiveness of several not so good ones.


Because of the large losses and gains the reach is a skill that needs to be practiced a lot. Most sailors treat it as a procession, but the good ones who practice reaching skills invariably benefit from that practice.

At Toplevel Sailing we spend time on reaching skills when a sailor is at a good competitive level. It’s fun, often fast and very easy to make speed gains whilst practicing.

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