21st Century Tactics

21st Century Tactics

As boat speeds increase, the wisdom of conventional tactics become far less relevant that they have ever been. For example, in a fast boat, covering one of the opposition can create an opening for 10 boats to get past you. Not what is needed…..

For any sailor in the 1990’s, windsurfing was an eye opener. Shifts were no longer critical, pressure was king of the gains. Yet in sub 6 knots, the accomplished windsurfer had to be fully up to speed in traditional tactics. Dinghy sailors were bemused, and also intrigued, and to an extent unbelieving. The popularity and subsequent accessibility of skiff sailing led to a total rethink of tactical plays. No longer could “conservative” moves be considered good risk management – a whole new breed of tactical plays was created. This is extending through to foiling, where tactics and pressure spotting is even more critical.

It could be argued that conventional fleet racing tactics are intellectual and interesting – a form of chess on water. We certainly subscribe to this school of thought. Not only must the racer achieve race pace and technical superiority to win races, but they must also defend their position and employ risk management. Nothing changes in the need for good risk management, aside from understanding the changes in the nature of the risk for fast boats!

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 15 boat lengths depending on the class of boat and the pressure they tack in. The reason to tack must therefore be much more profitable to the faster moving boat, whereas the slower boat may execute a speculative or covering tack without too much risk.

In this way sail boat racing tactics have changed fundamentally. Even in classes like 470 where higher wind boat speed has increased due to rig technology improvement, the game has changed, and the cost of the tack in breeze has to be weighed against the distance lost.

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. Either way at some point the attacking boat must tack to consolidate their gain (or sometimes minimise their loss). The cost of that tack can be massive, because unless there is pressure to tack in, the gains made, and sometimes more, will be lost. Attacking the fleet is therefore a much bigger decision than it once was, because of the potential losses to consolidate, OR because of the risk involved by splitting and waiting for favourable pressure to tack back.

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 commonly seeing velocity lifts in faster boats of between 10 and 15 degrees – indeed downwind that angle difference can be doubled. The gains through velocity lifts are therefore massive in conventional terms.

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.

Another interesting change of priorities is the importance of the start in a fast boat. The benefits of a good start, often in high mode, 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. If the high mode sailor has no fast forward gears, they will be swamped by the fleet pretty quickly, unlike in displacement classes. Critically, in fast boat racing, the speed at which divergence of the fleet occurs is such that a solid start is a necessity, a great start is often pretty irrelevant to the result. What has a critical effect on the outcome of a race is where the sailor makes the first tack.

Our view is this: In any fleet the dominant sailors will get some bad starts, yet still be at the front 30 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 – a good start helps to make life simple, but NO – in a 30 minute race the start is a mere profit or loss, rarely over a minute or so. What is critical is the first shift, or the first pressure patch. The first shift is so often the key to escaping consequences of a poor start, yet so often little attention is paid to this in training. At Toplevel sailing we focus far more on the first shift (opportunity to tack) than on the start.

We may conclude that tactics have changed dramatically for faster boats. The front running sailors especially in the faster classes will attack at every REAL opportunity – spotting that opportunity requires far more heads out of the boat than in displacement classes. These attacks when launched by the big hitters so often coincide with a pressure patch rather than an angle change. Their basic concern is to find the quickest way round the course, and not as in conventional dinghies how to defend their position and maybe pass the boats close to them. 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. At the same time if the leaders are nowhere near pressure, the changes in position are both big and quite frustrating for the low pressure boat. Observation of pressure patches and areas where they are more likely to happen have become more important than ever.

So if we explore the complexities of the velocity lift, we find that we used to be able to estimate the effect on angle. Now the sailing boats can generate so much apparent wind that estimating the lift is nearly impossible, so we rapidly arrive at the point where defensive tactics are not a real option against the fleet. As the regatta unrolls however, effective match racing skills are still of paramount importance.

Despite the opinions of some staid old sailors, tactics have evolved and become more complex. Yes, they are different, less defensive, often more risky, but they are no longer simple, and the priority of consolidation has given way to the priority of pressure spotting.

At Toplevel Sailing the concepts of attacking for the gains of speed (and therefore height) around 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. We still coach conventional tactics in Laser and other displacement boats, but we try to introduce a more positive and attacking mindset in pressure spotting even in these classes. Sailing is evolving, and we keep our sailors at the sharp end of the knowledge evolution.

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