The Golden Lane
We practise speed, tuning and fine tuning, fitness and observation, but without the golden doors we are not going to win those medals. This blog is about an important part of racing to win, building a systematic approach to tactical decision making, and of course introducing the golden door!
Racing is a process where you are looking for any advantage over the opposition. We tend to coach tactics by likening it to a walk down a corridor, and there are various doors in the wall. You know that one door will lead to a better corridor than another, Which will get you to the top (or bottom) mark quicker, but you can only see a few metres through the door. At that point you have to understand what is happening – is the pressure changing, or the angle, or both, and how long will the change last for? Every now and again you spot a door that you must go through, and sometimes this gives you a lane across the course which is golden – better pressure and better angles than everyone else has got – we then refer to that successful process as “finding the golden door”. Obviously, the golden door leads to the “golden lane”. This blog is about decision making to find those golden doors. Nobody can do it every time, but obviously some sailors find the golden door a lot more than others – and those are the ones we’re interested in beating!
It should be stated that in fast boat racing, once you find the golden lane, you usually stay on it until the layline. In slower boats, you tend to stay on it until you need to consolidate, or the lane runs out. The cost and risk of tacking in fast boats far exceeds any benefit that you may discover by finding another golden lane higher up the course where things are converging, so the advantage is not as great, which is why you stick with it and try to maximise your advantage. In slower boat racing the cost of tacking is negligible, so we can afford to look for another golden lane further up the course. With this as an overview, the importance of being correct in your choice of door is much more critical in a fast boat, yet your observation and anticipation skills are used more often in a slower boat.
Beginning with the prestart, we have to make time to establish patterns. It is the patterns that dictate our judgement for selecting the golden door leading to the golden lane. If the wind is shifting every half minute, or is not in any form of pattern, then we have to resort to “sail with what you’ve got” – in other words tack on shifts or if needs be in pressures.
The patterns we pick up in a prestart may be shifts and gathering information as to how big the shifts are. Essentially we begin with the knowledge that on a 15 degree shift the VMG we make on the lifted tack is twice as fast as the VMG on the headed tack. Now, 15 degree shifts as part of a pattern are not too common, but 8 to 12 degree shifts are. So we know that on a day with big shifts, regardless of the boat we are sailing, if the shift holds for more than a minute we must be on the lifted tack. In order to find those golden doors, is the shift pattern measured in 3 or 4 minute shifts (extreme right to extreme left), or is it one minute periods? The longer the shift holds the more opportunity there is to make big gains depending on the timing you decide to tack onto the lift. Then you think a step ahead and say when the wind goes back the other way, which side of the fleet do you need to be? So shifts can be a major player in the search for the golden door, but a lot more pre-start information is needed than most sailors gather in order to decide which shift is the golden one.
One of the key observations is which side of the course pressure is coming from. Whilst the course may be set at a given angle, usually in the N hemisphere the gusts will be coming from the right of the top mark. This is important, because if the wind is coming from the right, when we are on port we will sail through the gusts and enjoy the benefits of increased pressure for less time than someone hitting the gusts on starboard. Note that in some locations, especially with a course moderately close to land, the gusts can come from the left – pre start observation is key!! Naturally an increase in pressure from the right usually leads to a right shift, so tacking into pressure may also lead you to take a header. That’s not too healthy, especially when you run out of pressure, you’ve gone across to the starboard side of the course, and the wind drops – as it drops it goes left, and as it goes left you’re stuck on the starboard layline on a header with reduced pressure with no way back to the fleet.
The other key gust/pressure observations are how fast the gust travels across the water, and how long do they last. Gusts will come down from the boundary layer (where they are created over open sea) at different angles. If the gusts are dumping – coming nearly straight down on to the surface of the water – they don’t move very fast across the water surface, and they will disappear usually quicker than the gusts coming down from a shallow angle. If the gust is at a shallow angle, they typically will be from the right of the surface winds in the Northern Hemisphere, and from the left of the surface winds in the Southern Hemisphere. It is important to know this so the racer can select their path up the course, taking the gusts with the lifts.
The importance of the prestart for tactical purposes becomes apparent. Equally you may or may not use a compass too much to race, but knowing the size of the shifts from prestart observations is key to forming tactical strategies. Observation is everything, unless of course you’re happy to rely on luck! At Toplevel Sailing we systemise everything that we can to manage risk, and allow talent and judgement to establish the winners. Sailing is a great sport of almost infinite variables, so the more information that you have leading to probably making the best decisions, the more often you will win.