TAC­TICS

The long tack helps you min­i­mize your mileage and keeps you out of the cor­ners.

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The long tack, says Mike Ing­ham, helps you min­i­mize your mileage and keeps you out of the cor­ners.

O “Are we on the long tack?”

I ask be­cause our tac­ti­cian is hav­ing a no­tice­ably hard time fig­ur­ing out what to do. “Uh … no,” our tac­ti­cian re­sponds. “OK,” I say. “Let’s tack, then we can sort it out.”

It’s not that he is do­ing any­thing wrong, but the tac­ti­cian’s job is tough, and it’s a tricky day. “Agreed. Tack when you’re ready,” he says, sound­ing re­lieved.

The long tack is a way to en­sure we are sail­ing the short­est dis­tance to the mark. It’s also a con­ser­va­tive move, a way to bring us back to­ward the cen­ter of the race­course when un­sure of the best move, which is sur­pris­ingly of­ten. But while we as­sess what to do, at least we are not hurl­ing our­selves to­ward the corner for no clear rea­son.

I de­fine the long tack or long jibe as “the tack that points your boat clos­est to the next mark from your cur­rent lo­ca­tion.” It’s the tack or jibe that takes you back to­ward course cen­ter. The cen­ter of the course is the wind cen­ter. It is di­rectly down­wind of the weather mark on a beat and di­rectly up­wind of the lee­ward mark on a run. It ig­nores the pre­vi­ous mark and in­stead only re­lates to where you are rel­a­tive to the next mark and the wind di­rec­tion. If you are go­ing up­wind and left of the wind cen­ter, then you are on the left side and port is the long tack. If you are right of wind cen­ter, you are on the right side and star­board is the long tack.

The long tack can change two ways: ei­ther by your boat cross­ing the cen­ter of the course, or the wind shift­ing from one side of the mark to the other. Sup­pose, for ex­am­ple, you are go­ing up­wind on the right side of the course on star­board, which is the long tack. Even­tu­ally, that will take you to the cen­ter, and as you cross down­wind of the mark, it will change from the long to short tack, even though you have not tacked. Sup­pose, in that same sce­nario of be­ing on star­board on the long tack, this time you get a header. If the header is enough so that the wind shifts from right of the mark to left of the mark, then sud­denly you are on the short tack even though you have nei­ther tacked nor gone very far.

The best way to tell if you are on the long tack is sim­ply to look at the next mark and gauge how far off the bow it is. If it is more or less in your for­ward line of sight, you are on the long tack. If you have to look way over your shoul­der to find it, you are on the short tack. To train your sight, make your best guess at find­ing the cen­ter of the course and then look over your shoul­der to see how far you have to look to see the mark. Tack and see if you are look­ing at the mark with the same head and body twist as on the other tack.

The goal is to learn the scale of the short tack to long tack. I like to put it in a ra­tio:

At 1-to-2, the mark is eas­ily in your field of vi­sion. If it’s more like 1-to-3 or 1-to-4, you barely need to look from your jib tell­tales to see it. Ei­ther way, you are solidly on the long tack head­ing to­ward the cen­ter — it feels right.

At 1-to-1, both tacks are equal. You are di­rectly to lee­ward of the mark. You can see it by turn­ing you head, but it’s not a stretch. You are com­fort­ably in the mid­dle of the course, with all op­tions open.

At 2-to-1, you will have to look well over your shoul­der to see the mark. You are solidly on the short tack. It should be a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in your tac­ti­cal con­ver­sa­tion — you should start to feel un­easy.

At 3- to- 1 or more, you have to all but turn around to see the mark. You are way off the cen­ter of the course. You had bet­ter have a re­ally good rea­son to keep go­ing into the corner — you should be get­ting re­ally ner­vous.

The long tack is so pow­er­ful be­cause you are trav­el­ing the short­est dis­tance to the mark while avoid­ing big risk. More of­ten than not, it’s the win­ning move. Here are some ex­am­ples.

Ran­domly shifty day: When it’s shifty and we have not nailed down a pat­tern, stay­ing on the long tack may be our pri­mary

strat­egy. We might say, “If we are not pointed near the mark, we are prob­a­bly on the wrong tack.”

Tack­ing in the big shifts to stay on the long tack cen­ters us up to take ad­van­tage of the next shift, all while head­ing more or less to­ward the mark and mak­ing ve­loc­i­ty­made-good gains up the course. If we find our­selves get­ting to­ward an edge, us­ing the long tack com­pels us to take a smaller shift to­ward the cen­ter of the course, even if we take what we would have con­sid­ered a header if we were watch­ing the com­pass. By us­ing the long tack to de­fine a lift in­stead of a com­pass head­ing, we are al­ways sail­ing the short­est dis­tance and avoid get­ting stuck on an edge where we can no longer take ad­van­tage of those big shifts.

Os­cil­lat­ing-breeze day: Even if the wind is os­cil­lat­ing and we think we have a han­dle on the shifts, the long tack serves as a san­ity check. In th­ese con­di­tions, play­ing the shifts by watch­ing the com­pass ought to more or less keep us on the long tack. “Up 10, on the long tack” is what I like to hear. “Up 10, but we are on the short tack” sounds an alarm. We might have de­cided on the wrong mean com­pass head­ing, or maybe the wind has changed and there is a new mean. Ei­ther way, once we get on the short tack by 2-to-1 while still on a lifted head­ing, we start look­ing for any ex­cuse to tack. Our tac­ti­cian might say, “We are no longer up 10, but we are up 5 and sig­nif­i­cantly on the short tack. Let’s tack and hedge our way back to­ward cen­ter.” This is a tricky move since we have to eat what we think is a header. But it is a con­ser­va­tive move that can be a re­gatta saver. Once back on the long tack, head­ing to­ward the cen­ter, it’s a good time to re- es­tab­lish the mean.

Lay­line avoid­ance: Noth­ing good hap­pens on a long lay­line. If headed, we can’t tack to take ad­van­tage of a lift. Get lifted, and we over­stand and sail ex­tra dis­tance. Even if there is no shift, there is a high prob­a­bil­ity we will get tacked on and have to sail in dirty air with no good op­tion to es­cape. All three sce­nar­ios we lose.

Spi­ral­ing in: An­other lay­line is­sue is “spi­ral­ing in” on the mark. It is a frus­trat­ing sit­u­a­tion that hap­pens when we are sig­nif­i­cantly on the short tack and get lifted just when we were count­ing on a header. We des­per­ately want to tack be­cause we are ap­proach­ing the lay­line, but hes­i­tate be­cause of the lift. Be­fore we know it, we are well on the short tack and run­ning out of op­tions. In­stead, if we had the dis­cus­sion when it was 2- to- 1 and hedged our way back even part way, we would have avoided the prob­lem — an­other re­gat­tasav­ing move.

In­de­ci­sion: When we are un­sure what to do, the long tack gives us time to re­group and fig­ure things out. If we are con­fused and in­stead sail the short tack, we are com­mit­ting to a side. We had bet­ter be right. The weather is go­ing to do what it is go­ing to do. Some­times we can fig­ure it out, but many times we can­not. The long tack keeps our op­tions open while giv­ing us time to think — it’s all good.

Great way to start each leg: The long tack is a solid con­ser­va­tive first move off the start or at the be­gin­ning of any leg. Tak­ing the short tack early in a leg quickly and un­nec­es­sar­ily com­mits us to a side, and that is risky. The long tack early leaves all op­tions open be­cause we can still de­cide to get on the short tack in time to take ad­van­tage of that side, or we can con­tinue on the long tack and cen­ter up. The long tack for the first leg is easy to tell with a wind shot be­fore the start. Be­fore round­ing the mark

onto sub­se­quent legs, you should dis­cuss which tack will be longer. You of­ten will be able to tell based on what shift you are on, and which tack you just spent the most time on.

Cur­rent: Race com­mit­tees don’t al­ways square up the race­course to the cur­rent be­cause they set it to the true wind, as seen on their an­chored com­mit­tee boat. If there is a side cur­rent, it will sig­nif­i­cantly skew one tack to be the long tack. The safe move is to take that long tack first. In cur­rent, we can tell which is the long tack for the leg by do­ing a head to wind be­fore the start. Our ap­par­ent wind is what we sail in, not what the race com­mit­tee is read­ing. If in doubt, sail­ing the tack that takes us more up-cur­rent than the other tack is typ­i­cally the long tack.

Down­wind: Sail­ing the long tack is ar­guably even more pow­er­ful down­wind. As when sail­ing up­wind, it helps when it’s su­per shifty, is a san­ity check for play­ing os­cil­la­tions and helps avoid lay­line is­sues. When un­sure what to do, it brings us back to the cen­ter, where we have op­tions. It can be even more sig­nif­i­cant down­wind be­cause

jib­ing an­gles are typ­i­cally so much tighter than tack­ing an­gles.

In strong winds, if port is the long tack for the leg, we have to jibe right away to port be­cause we will al­ready be over­stood. Any time sailed on star­board is just over­stand­ing more. And it gets worse. Once we jibe to port, the fleet will in­evitably jibe on us — all bad.

Does the long tack al­ways work? Nope. There are plenty of good rea­sons to sail the short tack, but keep in the fore­front of your mind that any­time you choose to sail the tack tak­ing you on a longer dis­tance (the short tack), there bet­ter be a big­ger gain to be had than the dis­tance you are sac­ri­fic­ing. Below are some sit­u­a­tions in which sail­ing the short tack is the right thing to do.

Rac­ing to a side: Some days dic­tate go­ing to a side. This could be a per­sis­tent shift, a geo­graphic ef­fect (shift, waves state, and more wind) or cur­rent (re­lief or help). In each case, head­ing to a side means we will likely be sail­ing on the short tack to get to the side we want. There is noth­ing wrong with this strat­egy if we are pretty con­fi­dent it will pay off.

Sail­ing to pres­sure: We all but ig­nore the long- tack con­cept in light wind be­cause sail­ing to pres­sure dom­i­nates our strat­egy. Some­times the win­ning play will be con­nect­ing puffs, other times we will race all the way to a side where we see more wind. Ei­ther way, we do not hes­i­tate to take the short tack if it means get­ting to greater wind ve­loc­ity.

Near­ing a mark: As we ap­proach the next mark, the long tack be­comes less use­ful be­cause the lever­age from one side to the other is so much less. The closer we get, the more we pri­or­i­tize plan­ning our fi­nal ap­proach based on traf­fic man­age­ment. Sure, the long tack is re­lated to the lay­line. But as we ap­proach the mark, we change our focus to the win­ning move to the mark in­stead of us­ing the long tack to cen­ter us.

Our orig­i­nal con­ver­sa­tion at the be­gin­ning of this story could have been quite dif­fer­ent: “Are we on the long tack?” I would ask. “No, but there is a line of pres­sure ahead I want to get into be­fore we tack,” our tac­ti­cian might re­spond with con­fi­dence. That is a great rea­son to sail the short tack. But more of­ten than not, sail­ing the long tack works. First and fore­most, by sail­ing the long tack, you are sail­ing a short race. As a bonus, it keeps you head­ing to the cen­ter, where you still have choices, and avoids the trou­ble of the cor­ners. Sure, by sail­ing the long tack you can miss out on be­ing a hero with a big gain in the corner. But on the whole, the long tack helps you sail a se­ries of solid races rather than dom­i­nat­ing one race and bomb­ing the rest. Q

Tack­ing in the big shifts to stay on the long tack cen­ters us up to take ad­van­tage of the next shift, all while head­ing more or less to­ward the mark and mak­ing ve­loc­ity-made-good gains up the course.

ZEROGRADINORD

The big­ger the course, the more im­por­tant it is to grasp the long tack. One quick way to tell whether you’re on the long tack is the an­gle of your bow to the next mark. P H O T O : M AU R O M E L A N D R I /

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