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When a Port Tact Approach Can Pay Off

Hutchinson Article Published in November 1998 Issue of Sailing World

Webmaster's Note: One of AmericaOne's newest team members, Terry Hutchinson, is a regularly featured author in the popular racing magazine, Sailing World. The following article, published in the November issue, discusses what to do in a common, yet challenging situation under the 1998 U.S. Sailing "new rules" governing windward roundings (reprinted with permission):

by Terry Hutchinson

Under the new rules, a port-tack approach to the weather mark can be tricky. But is it realistic to think youíll always come in on the starboard layline? I donít think so. Tactical considerations, such as a windshift or searching for a clear lane on a crowded course, may send you to that left side.

When you approach the weather mark on port, or on starboard but below the layline, the risk of fouling out as you round the mark is real. But the prospect of significant gain is just as real, if you can pull it off. How do you decide when itís an appropriate risk?

Photo by Peter Bentley, Kostecki crosses Baird in Malaysia First, you need to understand the rules that apply to this situation. When I look at Rules 10, 18.1b and 18.3, I think itís pretty clear. The boat that comes in on port must keep clear of starboard tackers; it has no right to buoy room, and if it tacks inside the two-length zone, itíd better make darn sure it doesnít get in the way of other boats.

That said, hereís one important subtlety to Rule 18. Letís say you decide to risk approaching on the port-tack layline. There are starboard tackers on the other layline, and more importantly, theyíre reaching in, overstood. If you tack close to leeward of a starboard tacker Ė close enough that the starboard tacker has to subsequently head up to avoid a collision Ė you donít necessarily commit a foul. As long as you complete your tack cleanly (Rule 13) and the reaching starboard tacker isnít forced above closehauled to avoid you, then thereís no foul. But if that starboard tacker has to luff above close-hauledóat any time when both of you are inside two boatlengths from the markóyouíd better pull an I-flag or spin a 720, because youíve fouled.

Coming In on the Port Layline

Youíre approaching the weather mark on the port layline. What are your options? First, look at the starboard tackers and ask yourself. "Can I cross cleanly ahead?" If so, just cross ahead and delay your tack to round the mark until youíre well clear of the starboard tackers. Youíll be rounding on the outside at the weather mark, but this isnít necessarily bad. This position sets you up high for the passing lane downwind. In most cases, I try to stay high and away from the fleet because I want to be able to get a jump on passing boats and this allow me to do so.

But what if you canít cross cleanly? Well, if itís close, I ask the starboard tacker for permission to cross. If that starboard tacker is planning a jibe-set at the mark, it would be smart for him to wave a port tacker across, because that allow him to round the mark and jibe without interference. If the port boat tacks on his leebow, the starboard tacker is locked outóhe canít jibe, and that means he canít set his chute. The fact that the port tacker might fouled and be forced to take a penalty is small consolation.

Certainly, if youíre bow-to-bow with a starboard tacker who is hard on the wind, donít bother to ask for room to cross and donít tack inside the two-length zone. Just bear off early and wait for your space in the starboard-tack lineup. If it looks really crowded, you can ease your sails to slow down and wait for a space.

This sounds simple, but remember that a starboard tacker doesnít have to hold its course; a starboard tacker can adjust its course to deter someone one the port layline from tacking inside or in front of them at the mark. A late left-hand windshift will do you no good if you canít pass through the starboard tackers cleanly. Make your tactical decision before youíre five boatlength from the port layline.

Letís say you come in on port outside the two-length zone. The next choice is: lee bow the approaching starboard tackers, or dip behind them. The one thing I look at, as a helmsman, is the telltales on the genoa of the lead boat. If the outside telltale is fluttering, you know that the boat is bow down with a lot of boatspeed. When I see that, I quickly assess whether or not I can make a leebow stick, or if Iím going to get rolled by tacking to leeward. In this situation, you really have to know your boat. If you donít think the leebow will work, youíd better duck.

It would be safe to say that 80 percent of my final approaches to the weather mark are from the port side when Iím deep in a race. The farther back in the fleet you get, the more boats gravitate toward the starboard-tack layline. A port approach will give you a good view of how the starboard-tack traffic is setting up. Watch for current effects and multi-boat raft-ups.

In adverse current, itís difficult to call the starboard layline correctly and many boats will have to pinch up to get around the mark. This is when you see the big log jams or raft-ups at the windward mark. Coming in from port will allow you to dip the bluster of boats stuck on the mark and then tack to round the mark. When a favorable tide is sweeping boats past the mark, approach on port and tack underneath all the starboard tackers that have overstood. Remember, you can legally tack inside the two-boat length zone as long as you donít cause the boats to go above a closehauled course.

Another reason to head left when youíre deep is to find clean air. The farther back in the pack you get, the more disturbed is the breeze. To avoid big groups of boats and the disturbed air around and behind them, go against the grain. By this I mean that you should try to sail the final 200 yards of the beat on the opposite tack of the fleet around you. This does two things for you. First, it keeps you in clean air longer (and regardless of the shift, I would always go for the clean air at the end of the beat). Second, it keeps you away from being trapped by quarter waves of slower boats.

If youíre in the front of the fleet, traffic isnít your concern. Youíll have enough clear air to play windshifts right up to the mark. If you come in on a left shift, you should be able to round the mark cleanly because the traffic is light. This is not the time to take unnecessary chances at the mark; when in doubt, duck a starboard tacker.

Coming in Short of the Starboard Layline

I always come in short of the starboard layline, unless Iím winning the race. Once on the layline, youíre no longer in control of your own destiny. Youíll be forced to sail the course of the boat that tacks in front of you. Youíll also only go the speed of the boat in front of you because youíll be locked into its quarter wave.

Itís better to approach the mark a few lengths short of starboard lay and wave port tackers acrossóyou donít want them to tacking on your leebow. You want them to go across and stack up on the layline because a group of boats together goes slower then one sailing all by itself. Your goal is to sail as long as possible on starboard while the crowd on the layline slows itself down.

Iíll make my move up to the layline as early as six or seven lengths from the mark if I see an opening. The latest I wait is up to three lengths. From then on, you become too vulnerable under the rules and run a high risk of fouling out if youíre in a big crowd.

There are a couple of final things to consider as you go bombing through the starboard tackers in search of a place to tack. Once you find a hold through the crowd, go a little beyond the starboard layline to avoid the pileup as other boats pinch around the mark. Second, and most important, always go into the crowd with a way out. Donít aim for a marginal space when you are walled in by a fellow port tacker. Minimize the risk to maximize the gain.

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