This is probably the most asked question in yacht racing, going fast is super important but it is no good being the fastest boat out there if you are going fast the wrong way.
That’s why, no matter how fast you are, you must consider whether you want to go left or right.
When racing, we must employ strategy and strategy is the plan you employ for getting to the next mark as quickly as possible.
A strategy is a plan that takes account of things like wind direction and strength, current, waves and the position of the next mark.
These factors are different every time you go out on the water and they change constantly while you are racing and often vary across the course as a result, the difference between going left and going right can be huge.
On the first beat, you must work hard to take advantage of changes in both wind direction and wind velocity, current and the geometry of the course. The existence or absence of waves is another factor you should consider, but this does not often make a big difference.
Before you can actually plan a strategy, you must observe the racecourse and collect a bunch of helpful information including data about wind and current and do this before you leave the beach. Look up weather forecasts and current charts and don’t forget to tap into the local knowledge of other sailors.
Get out to the course area early and start looking around and make observations about what is actually happening on the course, it may not be exactly what was predicted. After the race starts, don’t stop thinking about strategy, the wind and current are always changing. An added dimension is that now you have many other boats to help you see which side of the course is really favoured.
The best way to plan your strategy would be to view the racecourse from overhead but since that is not possible while racing, you must keep your head “out of the boat” and focus on the big picture.
Your strategic plan could be as simple as, “Hit the left side hard” or it might be more detailed, like “Start 1/3 of the way down from the RC boat and play the oscillating shifts up the middle right side.”
Don’t forget to keep re-thinking your strategy during the race as you will be constantly getting more information about the wind and other strategic factors.
It is not always obvious which side of the course is favoured and there will be times when you’ll have no idea whether to go left or right and in fact, even the best sailors don’t have a strong feeling about which way to go on the first beat in as many as 50% of the races they sail.
When this happens, what should you do?
Unless you’re sure the right or left side is favoured, stay near the middle of the fleet and keep your eyes open, the beginning of the first beat is a great time for seeing what the wind is doing and which side is paying off.
Once you get some clues about which boats are gaining, head that way quickly. Of course, you will probably come out behind the boats that sailed straight to the favoured side but you took much less of a risk than they did, and hopefully, you will still be in the top group at the first mark.
If you can do this every race, you’ll be successful.