Reaching may be thought of as a dying art. However it is still extremely critical to results in many classes of boats, and even in asymmetric spinnaker classes sailing windward leeward courses, the same skills apply to an extent when you are in a group of boats that overstand the mark. This blog is about how to be smarter than the opposition on a reach, and deals with various scenarios that need thought, and a lot of practise that gives judgement through experience.
We will talk about the top reach (on starboard) first. Why does the leader usually take the rhumb line (the straight line between the two marks) and each boat following in the top sailor fleets go higher and higher?
The reason is this: The higher you go on the reach, the more likely you are to get the gusts of wind first – gusts travel across the water from upwind, so the advantage of being first into pressure (the gust) far outweighs the extra distance covered because you get that extra half knot or more of boat speed sooner compared to the boat to leeward of you. This is a massive factor in successful reaching. The challenge comes to know how far you can go up to make the advantage outweigh the extra distance. The black straight line on the diagram represents the leaders course. The turquoise line at the top will represent around the 30th place sailor in a big fleet. If you have a poor first beat in a big fleet, and you’re outside the top 30 (approximately) when you reach the mark you have a decision to make – do you go high and go a massive extra distance, or do you sink low to clear your air, and then have a relatively short course to the reach mark? This is where experience kicks in – different wind conditions, wave angle and reaching angle come into play. Generally if you look ahead when you are high, and people are turning dead downwind to make the reach mark, you know that low boats will beat you. Play with it and learn! As a general rule, you can go much higher than you think and gain by being first into the pressure, but then you must work your way down in order not to suffer the lack of boat speed going dead downwind toward the reach mark.
If you have the luxury created by the leader, or if you are leading a big group after a gap has formed, then the straight line is cool. However, it is NOT a straight line. Wherever you are in the fleet, a priority on the reach is clean air. As soon as you get rolled by a boat you park up and become hugely vulnerable to losing a lot of places before you get going again, so the “ideal” course described here is only ever selected subject to you having clear wind. The ideal course consists of going up (sailing a tighter angle) in the lulls, and down (sailing a broader angle) in the gusts. This gives you the benefit of extra boat speed in the lulls compared to your opposition, and staying in pressure longer in the gusts as you follow them down the course. The angle change cannot be huge, but you will be surprised at how much ground you can make up employing this strategy.
For the bottom (finishing) reach sailors tend to go very high to protect their lane and clean air. If the reach is not short, and you are outside the top 10, it is worth taking a look at going low – all the gains will be made near the line as the other boats struggle to get down from the position they have luffed themselves into. The broader the finish reach, the more opportunity exists taking the low lane.
At Toplevel sailing we pay attention to detail. Obviously there are far more reaching gains to be made, but these are the basics that everything else is developed from. Understanding the nature of pressures is massively important, and improving reaching tactics allows you to do this – which will then benefit your entire tactical thinking.