Defense vs Offense: A Game of Inches

By Charlie Pendleton

This year’s National Championship was determined by a point. ONE POINT! When sailing in regattas like Race Week, the East Coasts or the Nationals, points are precious. Nothing is more frustrating than getting “nipped at the finish? – losing a boat that you were ahead of. But, nothing is more fun than gaining a boat at the finish and pick-pocketing a point. In the Rhodes fleet, we generally finish down wind, but upwind finishes are not unheard of – in both situations the tactics are similar.

When you’re on the final leg of a race and approaching the finish, chances are there are other boats finishing around you. Do you have a chance to catch the boat that is front of you? Is the boat behind you too close for comfort? Depending on your answer you will need to decide whether or not to attack and try to gain a boat or defend and hold your position.

It’s easy to defend when you’re sailing upwind – loose cover. Stay between your competition and the finish line. Cover from above when you’re sailing into a lift – you should position yourself directly upwind of your nearest competitor. Cover from in front when sailing into a header – you should position yourself on the same tack leading your competitor to the header. This style of “loose covering? lets you stay in control and discourages tacking duels which will only let the other competitors catch up to you both. It’s rarely necessary to “slam dunk? or “tightly cover? a competitor (deliberately tacking on and sailing in your competitor’s wind) unless they are sailing faster than you and it’s the only way to hold your position late in the race.

Downwind, it’s harder to defend a slim lead but the principals are the same. Stay between your competition and the finish line. If a competitor attacks (tries to take your wind), head up and keep your air clear if you’re on the favored jibe. Otherwise jibe away and clear your air but don’t lose touch with your competitor. While defending, don’t let your competitor push you to sail beyond the lay lines to the finish – a big mistake. Also, be careful; attacking downwind is not always a good idea. It usually involves sailing extra distance. If there are other boats nearby, you will likely take yourself and the boat you’re attacking, out of the race.

As you approach the finish, upwind or downwind, know which end of the line is the favored. This is usually the end that is closer to the wind when finishing downwind. When finishing upwind, this is usually the end that is further downwind. Sometimes one end of the finish can be significant boat lengths less distance to sail to, saving you boat lengths and getting you to finish faster. Determining which end is favored is sometimes easier said than done and you will need to get pretty close to tell. You can wait until the last minute to decide as long as you don’t overstand either end.

When finishing in a pack, shoot the line! This means turning toward the finish line at the exact right moment to allow your bow to cross the finish line perpendicularly at max speed. Turn too soon and you will lose speed as you stretch for the finish. Turn too late and you will give up distance that you could have gained. Like football, sailing is sometimes a game of inches and the winner is determined by a single point or two.

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