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.
SAILING BY THE NUMBERS
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.
SAILING BY INTUITION
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