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re­ally al­lowed us to make in­cre­men­tal gains through­out the race. When each shift came, we tacked early enough to be lifted for as long as pos­si­ble and also to get in a good po­si­tion — ahead and to lee­ward — for the next shift, sev­eral min­utes away. Here’s how you can have sim­i­lar suc­cess.


Let’s take a look at our most ba­sic com­pass les­son, Os­cil­lat­ing Winds 101, which is what we ex­pe­ri­enced that day. The first step is to es­tab­lish the me­dian wind di­rec­tion. There is al­ways in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the me­dian, and that’s where pre-start home­work is crit­i­cal. Be­fore the start, spend at least 30 min­utes “rac­ing” up­wind and down­wind to be­come fa­mil­iar with the com­pass range on that day. Dur­ing this time, race the course so the an­gles are true, and tack on shifts. Re­mem­ber (or write down) the num­ber you tacked off so you can cor­re­late num­bers on both tacks af­ter you have re­turned to the start­ing line. Note the max­i­mum high and low on each board.

The mid­dle of each will be your me­dian. Write the num­bers on the deck or on the boom where you can see them. You’ll ap­pre­ci­ate hav­ing the writ­ten ref­er­ence when in the heat of bat­tle. Once back on the start­ing line, get a head-to-wind bear­ing, then sail up­wind on each tack once again, just long enough to get a solid num­ber. Keep do­ing this pe­ri­od­i­cally so you stay in touch with the phase of the wind lead­ing up to the start.

With a me­dian es­tab­lished, the goal is to al­ways be on the tack that is on the lifted side of the me­dian. When the wind is right of the me­dian, the boat should be on star­board tack; when the wind is left of the me­dian, the boat should be on port tack. The for­mula is sim­ple: Spend more time lifted above the me­dian than your com­peti­tors, and you’ll gain more dis­tance.

Boat per­for­mance and the char­ac­ter of the wind on each day can be sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors, but the fun­da­men­tal rule is to sail into the shift only as far as me­dian, and then tack. Do not wait un­til you reach the fully headed num­bers. If you do, you will look great when you tack ( maybe even win­ning the race), but for the re­main­der of that board, you will see boats on your lee bow edg­ing out, ap­pear­ing to be higher and faster, as the wind heads to me­dian from your max lifted num­ber. No one likes that look and, worst of all, it might en­cour­age you to pinch to avoid ap­pear­ing lower and slower than the other boats. When you cross me­dian and the wind is still head­ing, then you must tack.

If you’re ever con­cerned that the wind won’t go from me­dian back to lift, wait un­til you are just a lit­tle bit headed of me­dian, but no more than nec­es­sary. In the J/70, for ex­am­ple, we don’t want to tack too much be­cause the boat slows from turn­ing, so I like to wait un­til we are a lit­tle bit headed, to be sure of what phase we are in. If you are sure about the con­sis­tency of the os­cil­la­tions, like in a sta­ble on­shore gra­di­ent day (low stra­tocu­mu­lus clouds or light haze), then tack when you re­turn to the me­dian num­ber af­ter be­ing lifted.

When you tack at the right time on the shift, it will ini­tially look like you are gain­ing on the boat to lee­ward and los­ing on the boat wind­ward. Then, it will be­gin to look like

A no­table ex­cep­tion to the “tack on the me­dian” rule is if it’s the last shift on the beat. Then you can break the rule about tack­ing when you reach me­dian. Play the last shift like a per­sis­tent shift.

you’re los­ing a lit­tle bit of your gain. Don’t be con­cerned about that. It’s all part of the wind re­turn­ing to me­dian be­fore you tack.

A no­table ex­cep­tion to the “tack on the me­dian” rule is if it’s the last shift on the beat. Then you can break the rule about tack­ing when you reach me­dian. Play the last shift like a per­sis­tent shift, dig­ging all the way into it.

Stay alert to any per­sis­tent trends, have a re­li­able fore­cast, and if you’re within the fore­cast range and there are no other dom­i­nant ge­o­graphic fac­tors that would lead to a per­sis­tent ad­van­tage, as­sume the wind is os­cil­lat­ing and play the shifts ac­cord­ingly — go by the num­bers.


Two other fac­tors are crit­i­cal and re­quire more in­tu­ition than math: the char­ac­ter of the wind and per­for­mance of the boat. For this part of rac­ing, you can tap into that sixth sense you have gained from years of ex­pe­ri­ence. Trust the gut in­stinct that seems to be telling you some­thing. I like to de­fine the char­ac­ter of the wind by qual­i­ties of its ve­loc­ity and an­gle: —Ve­loc­ity dif­fer­ence be­tween puff and lull; —How abruptly ve­loc­ity hits or dies (slow build or quick hit);

— How quickly puffs or lulls move on the course; —The amount of an­gle change on that day; —The speed that the wind an­gle changes (quick shift or slowly de­vel­op­ing); —How fre­quently the an­gle changes; and —“Noise,” which is the ran­dom or short shifts within the real os­cil­la­tions.

Those fac­tors will mod­ify your strict ad­her­ence to the com­pass num­bers. Some­times the shifts are so big ( 40 de­grees) that no amount of ve­loc­ity and boat­speed gain will over­come the shorter dis­tance from sail­ing lifted. Other times you should eat a lit­tle bit of header to get in the zone of more pres­sure. You’ll have to use your senses (re­fined in your pre- race sail­ing) to es­tab­lish the pri­or­ity on that day.

Of­ten your re­sponse to the puffs and shifts should be dif­fer­ent from tack to tack. My 470 crew Dave Hughes likes to talk about a dom­i­nant shift on the beat. For ex­am­ple, you might want to tack as soon as a right puff and shift comes, but sail into the left puff and shift be­fore tack­ing. On that day, the puffs moved right to left on the sur­face, so the left shift and ve­loc­ity felt sta­tion­ary, while the right shift and ve­loc­ity came and passed quickly.

Boat per­for­mance also dic­tates how to use the com­pass. Some boats re­spond more to pres­sure, and oth­ers re­spond more to an­gle. If the boat has a per­for­mance thresh­old where a lit­tle more pres­sure can al­low it to plane or foil, it is of­ten worth sail­ing a header to get to an area of the course where you can sail at that higher per­for­mance thresh­old. Once in higher winds, sail by the com­pass. For in­stance, on a 470 in mar­ginal plan­ing con­di­tions, it’s all about find­ing more ve­loc­ity. One more knot al­lows plan­ing, and one less knot means push­ing wa­ter. How­ever, once it’s 20 knots and the boat planes all race, then it’s all about com­pass and an­gle again.

On the other hand, on a heavy dis­place­ment keel­boat that goes roughly the same speed no mat­ter the wind, an­gles are the pri­or­ity. There­fore, it’s all about the com­pass. You also might no­tice that some boats in cer­tain con­di­tions have sub­stan­tially su­pe­rior VMG when their wind and wa­ter is clear. In such cases you might want to sail through a shift to get to a clear area of the course, and then re­sume your ad­her­ence to the com­pass. Set the pri­or­i­ties for each day, and strike a bal­ance be­tween your tools, com­pass and in­tu­ition.

Re­mem­ber the no­table ex­cep­tion of when there is only one more os­cil­la­tion be­fore you get to the wind­ward mark. Sail all the way into that os­cil­la­tion as if it were a per­sis­tent shift. Of course, look for the clear lanes and open­ings in traf­fic as well. Q

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