Using a Race Compass

You win sailboat races by sailing faster and less distance than your opponents and to sail less distance, you must have a good feel for the angles.

Many sailors develop this feel visually over time but not everyone retains this visual information.

A compass gives you a precise tool for the angles and there  are dramatic gains and losses due to wind shifts in various situations, even with small shifts. As an example, a 5° shift results gives the favoured side an advantage of 12% of the lateral separation.

On a 200 metre starting line this equates to a 24 metre advantage. If you sail a 5°  header for one minute you will lose at least four boat lengths to a boat on the lifted tack. 

A compass gives you a quick reference for decisions in the stressful moments, such as after starts and mark roundings. 

A compass helps you find marks, check the starting line, and sail the lifted tack.

A compass helps you find marks, check the starting line, and sail the lifted tack.

Many sailors say that using a race compass is just one more excuse to keep your head in the boat. You should be looking around constantly, integrating all the data about sailing angles, wind strength, and competitors.

You can train yourself to recognize slight headers and store a mental picture of the average wind direction in your head and remember that when a permanent shift occurs, your previous compass data on average wind is useless. 

The verdict

Use a compass, but learn to use it as one input, and keep your head out of the boat.

The compass has helped even on small  lakes opr bays, as the lake or bay gets bigger, a compass becomes more important, since there are fewer shore references to use as bearings. 



Before you round any mark, it’s essential to visually locate the next mark, not only is this critical for your next-leg strategy, it will have a massive impact on how you approach each mark rounding.

As an example, at the weather mark, you must ask yourself whether you should round inside other boats so you can do a gybe set, or outside so you can do a bear away set. Having visually sighted the next mark prior to rounding will determine which approach you’lll use immediately after rounding.

The worst thing you can do tactically is round the mark and then search for the next mark, you lose any tactical advantage you may have had and in fact run the very real chance of being smoked by the boats behind you.

A classic mistake is not realizing that you can lay the next mark on one tack or gybe so any distance you sail away from the proper course is time and distance wasted.

 If you go around the windward mark and do a bear-away set for example, you will lose a lot of boats if you later realize that your competitors are gybe-setting and laying the nextmark.

One team member must be given this specific responsibility every time you approach a mark, their job is to locate the next mark visually while there is still time to plan your upcoming rounding and strategy for the next leg.

Once they have the mark in sight they must describe that mark’s location to the rest of the crew. They can do this by identifying a visual reference point or unique geographic feature behind the mark.

If you are sailing a set course, such as a windward and return, you can calculate a compass bearing while still on the previous leg to give the helmsperson a bearing to the next mark once rounded, this is especially important if they can’t see that mark.

 Follow these mark-rounding principles and when the fleet converges at a mark you will be able to avoid the chaos that often ensues due to having a plan already mapped out.


Calling Puffs – Courtesy SailingWorld – November 2017


When you see a puff approaching: First off, even if it’s not your job to call puffs, it’s always good practice to run through the motions in your head; it’ll help you stay sharp the next time puff calling is your job.

When you see a line of breeze rolling down the course, there are four important pieces of information about the approaching wind that will make a difference to your helmsman and trimmers.

  1. Is it a lifting or heading puff? If it approaches from 45 degrees or forward of your course, it’s a heading puff. From 45 to 60 degrees, it’s a median puff. From aft of 60degrees, it’s a lifting puff.
  • How much more wind is it? This helps the helmsman and trimmer know how much to adjust their trim and angle for the new wind.
  • How long will it last? This tells the helmsman and trimmer how long they’ll sail with the new trim.
  • When will it hit? A countdown helps the helmsman and trimmer time adjustments they’re making.


  • Calling puffs downwind is just as, if not more important than spotting incoming breeze upwind, as you have more flexibility to sail higher or lower to meet the approaching puff.
  • When calling puffs downwind, ask yourself the same questions as you would sailing upwind: (Lift or header? How much wind? How long will it last? When will it hit?).
  • Make sure to converse with your trimmer and/or driver beforehand to determine the language that will be most helpful for them.
  • You have to remember that while you are looking up course, your fellow crew trimming the sails will likely be looking down course, or up at the sails.
  • Saying “puff coming on the right” might be confusing – your right, my right, course right, downwind right?
  • A good general rule is to call the puffs where they fall over the shoulder of your forward-facing crew members. 

For example, say” puff over your right shoulder,” this makes it easy for trimmers or helmsmen to look back over their shoulder to see the incoming breeze and react accordingly.