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Using a Compass For Course Racing

 

                     

 

When racing around a set or fixed marks course, a competitive sailor uses the compass to plan and then implement their race strategy.

If you are sailing in a crewed boat, one crew member should be responsible to watch the compass to establish what the wind is doing and strategise tactics, leaving the helmsman to concentrate on boatspeed.

The compass should be mounted where all on board can easily see it from their normal sailing positions. 

If you are using a non-electronic compass it is easier to work out tacking angles without having to resort to arithmetic but with an electronic compass, it is generally easier to write on the deck when you establish a median heading.

Generally with a  coloured and segmented compass remembering headings seems to be easier.

Whichever type of compass you use, paint or Magic marker on the boat near the compass a large – sign on the starboard side and a large + sign on the port side, these remind you that when upwind on Starboard tack if the heading is going down you are being headed and if on Port tack upwind the heading is going up, you are being headed. 

Communication is paramount and when sailing upwind, the crew should read aloud the variations away from the port or starboard mean either up or down as the breeze swings, the skipper will know ahead of time if he may need to tack or continue on. 

These calls need to be evenly spaced at about five to twenty seconds so that an accurate picture of the swings or oscillations is established and the skipper always knows whether the swing is on the way “up” or on the way “down”.

Only if there were a tactical or strategic reason for giving away some distance, would you sail on when the reading is bad, examples are, you may be heading towards a shore where a known lift occurs through bending of the breeze or you may decide to give away ten to gain twenty later or tacking may put you the wrong side of the fleet or in somebody’s bad air.

Where a compass is particularly handy, is if the wind increases suddenly and you don’t lift, this means the true wind has headed and you should seriously consider tacking.

It is vital once rounding the top mark that you look for the compass angle to the gate or wing mark depending on the type of course you are sailing.

When heading downwind you tack on lifts and carry on when knocked, of course, this is assuming that the shift does not take you closer to the mark which can happen when the course has not been set true.

Your compass is a major contributor towards eliminating “guesswork” and once you have mastered it you will wonder how you ever sailed without it.

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Solo Training in these Unprecedented Times

Having a tuning partner is one of the best ways to get value from your on-water practice sessions but in these times of no racing, fewer boats out sailing and social distancing, keeping your skills sharp probably means solo training.

Before you head out, it’s important to have a plan but it is just as important to have a debrief when you hit the beach. The debrief is where you can go over what went right or wrong and what you need to do to get even better. Make notes and refer to them when you are planning further training.

Part of the planning process will be to analyse past races or regattas and to talk about problems that were encountered and then to prioritise what you will be practising and what will give you the biggest win.

If improving your downwind speed and maneuvers is your goal, put in a lot of gybes but make sure you have a few upwind goals as well so you can make good use of your time getting back uphill. 

The best practice sessions involve a variety of things but the majority of focus might be on,  sailing downwind where you concentrate on weight placement and the steps necessary to catch waves or practising sailing by the lee for those situations when you are in close proximity to another boat and need to stay clear or where you may want to lay a mark to avoid having to gybe twice.

If you are concentrating on upwind skills, shoot for a total of 10 to 20 minutes of really intense work for each skill you’re wanting to improve. If your tacks are normally around a minute apart, tack every 30 seconds, do that for 5 minutes, take a break and then do it again and again until you are comfortable with the result.

During your training session don’t be shy to stop sailing, take a rest having something to eat and drink before either going through the same practice again or if you are satisfied with what you have achieved thus far, go to the next drill you have planned.

Even though you may be practising tacks, gybes, powering up and down or something else, don’t lose sight of other skills such as keeping the boat flat, looking for pressure or watching the compass for shifts.

Another good way to cement the improvements is to keep in touch with fellow crewmates via email or text in the days following the practice. If you think of something afterwards that is related to what you were trying to achieve and was not covered off in the debrief, communicate immediately, as quite often by the time you get back to the boat it may be forgotten.

Other things that you can practice on your own could be time on distance for starting, mark rounding, timed spinnaker sets and drops, the list is endless and only you and your team know what it is that will give you the greatest gains for when we are allowed to race again.

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Improve Your Sailing While in Lockdown

If you are like me, you have been spending time away from the boat getting all things computer and home office up to date and in order, especially those jobs that have been carried forward in your diary for what seems like years. 

While this has been great, one downside from all this “office” work has been the gradual decline of fitness and the rapid increase of waistline which is even more worrying for those of us in the older age bracket. Youth seems to regain fitness and “fighting weight” much easier once regular exercise (read sailing) is possible again.

I am going to cover below a couple of tips to get us all ready for the coming easing of isolation and back to on-water activity.

FITNESS – 

Fitness is one thing but Sailing fitness is especially important, just because Gyms are closed there is no excuse not to keep your fitness levels up at home. 

There are apps available online which will enable you to stay focussed by putting a daily routine in place or there are plenty of trainers who understand the needs of sailing athletes that can put together a training routine for you to carry out in your home.

Exercise at the start of the day. When exercising first thing in the morning, your body will be more energised for the day than having a daily dose of caffeine.

KNOWLEDGE –

From the aforementioned computer or even your mobile phone, browse the internet and YouTube for videos or articles to improve your sailing.

Browse for articles that specifically look at areas of your sailing that you are weak in such as upwind speed, rules or the myriad of other things that go towards making our sport one of the most complicated there is.

There are sites such as https://sailingtowin.com  which have a wealth of tips and articles that are free to browse and download and a few minutes browsing Google results will give you a wealth of sites that will suit your needs.

Many of us have bookshelves full of books on sailing which we have promised ourselves that we will read someday.  That someday has arrived and there will certainly be better long term value to you in reading about sailing than reading the doom and gloom that is presented by the press every day.

If you don’t have a library or if there are holes in it covering subjects about your type of boat you sail, type of sailing that you do,  or skill you want to hone, go on the web to Australian site Boat Books https://www.boatbooks-aust.com.au,  or Google Amazon, Booktopia,  or one of the many sites on the web selling sailing books, many at a discount.

When we are finally allowed to get back on the water, you won’t be left flat-footed or get flogged out on the racecourse.

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The Start

Starting is one of the most complex aspects of a boat race with many moving parts, sail trim, team communication, competitors attack and defence moves and the overall strategic view. All aspects have to flow and come together all at the one time on the go Signal.

Many teams spend huge hours working on perfecting crew work and purchasing the best sails for your team, but every weekend turn up to the start line with 15 minutes to go. We all are aware of how this picture turns out.

Like anything the preparation needs to be happening well before your start time, just to have an even chance with the opposition.

The amount of information gathering alone, like your head to wind reading and the favoured end of the start line, will take a minimum 20 minutes, so allow yourself the time to collect the data. It is not possible to collect the data and have some practice runs if you have not allowed 1 full hour before the start time.

The other aspect top teams have at start time is they are very relaxed and composed. You need a clear relaxed outlook to start well. Any raised voice and emotional output during the start period takes your mind away from the critical speed and time on distance calculations. You cannot make clear decisions under emotional pressure and load.

Key data collection points.

    Port and Starboard tack compass headings sailing upwind, a critical part of the tactical information decision making process.

    Startline compass bearing taken from the start boat end heading towards the pin end. eg.  90 degrees.

    Head to wind reading taken from the middle of the line. eg. 190 degrees a square even start line would be 180 degrees so with the wind at 190 degrees we have a 10-degree bias to the boat end. This is informing us to start towards the favoured end.

    The time it takes to sail from start boat to pin end – this is critical information in big fleets. The start line at the Brisbane 2019 Etchells Worlds was 1 nautical mile long – that’s a long sail in an Etchells at 4 knots.

    3 x practice runs at the line in full race trim.

Many, many moons ago on my first ever World Championship attempt, our then Dragon Olympic Gold Medallist at my home club, Mr John Cuneo, gave me some great advice and I still use it today with all the people I coach.

  1. There are only ever 3 boats in a sailboat start; you, the boat to Weather and the boat to Leeward. At all times you must be bow forward on both these boats to have a fighting chance. He would always say “make sure you win the small start first”.
  2. The second point John expressed was starting is like being a boxer; if you stand flat-footed you will get hit. You need to duck, weave, change speed – it makes you harder to catch. One area John expressed is you need to duck move and mostly watch and look around for the openings or attacks.

We have seen it so many times in the starting area if you sit and luff your boat you will be a sitting duck and a target for others.

Keep your eyes dancing all around just like the boxer watching for the knockout punch, we must be aware at all times of the other competitors.

In the last 15 seconds in most sailboat starts it’s key to be getting to maximum speed so when the gun goes you are at max speed.

Reproduced with kind permission of RBYC Melbourne, Australia and Head Coach Adrian Finglas 

Adrian has won many Australian National championships from Sabot, 420, 470, 505, Youth Nationals, Pre Olympic selections in 1992, Win in the Sydney Hobart race, Adrian has an extremely diverse sailing background from professional racing to teaching young children’s Tackers. Adrian travelled the globe for 20 years of his life chasing the sailing challenge either racing himself or coaching. Adrian coached 2 Para-Lympic medals for Australia at the 2008, 2012 games and was the Olympic coach for the Yngling at the 2008 Olympic games

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Making Reaches Work

In this day and age of mainly windward and return races, the art, and skill of sailing a reach is becoming a distant memory for many of us with symmetrical spinnaker boats.

Please note though, that a lot of the tips below are also relevant to two sailed and single-sail boats as well.

If you do get a reaching course or if a planned run becomes a reach due to a wind shift, you will need to draw on your memory to enable yourself to get to the leeward mark in the quickest possible time.

Close Reach:

As you bear away from close-hauled to a close reach, the forces on the sails rotate forward, speed jumps, and heeling forces are reduced so to make the most of the wider wind angle you must retrim the sails for the new course.

You will ease the jib and if your set up allows, you will move the jib lead outwards. The halyard will not be adjusted thus keeping the draft forward and also prevents the back of the sail from becoming rounded. If the lead is not moved outboard, the top of the sail opens and the bottom will hook which increases drag.

The mainsail will be eased, traveler dropped but the vang should remain firm, one of the ways to set it initially is to just snig the vang on whilst traveling upwind and when you ease off to the tight reach, it will stop the boom from lifting and leech from spilling the wind and costing you power. 

The vang is a critical control of twist and if you find yourself overpowered ease the vang which will, in turn, reduce heel and balance the helm.

Fine trimming is done by adjusting the sail and traveler to keep the leech telltales streaming and the helm balanced.

 For a close reach on a symmetrical spinnaker boat, the pole should be close to the forestay but the pole height can be fine-tuned. As an example, on a close reach try lowering the pole so the tack is lower than the clew, this pulls the draft forward, and opens the leech, for a faster-reaching shape.

For best performance, with a symmetrical spinnaker, the luff should always be trimmed to be on the verge of curling.

With an asymmetric spinnaker, you have the ability to play the tack line up and down and this serves a similar purpose to raising and lowering the pole height which can drastically change the sail shape to conform with the angle you are sailing to the wind.

Broad reaching:

As you bear off further, ease the sails using the telltales to match the angle of attack and trim the jib to keep the middle of the sail working. With the mainsail, ease it out to just before it luffs and keep the vang firm so that the top batten is parallel to the angle of the boom.

As you sail down, the spinnaker pole should be lifted to keep the clews of the spinnaker level and in heavier air beware of flying both corners too high, this lets the spinnaker get too far from the boat and will make the boat less stable. If the boat is rolling side to side, try lowering the pole, pull the pole aft and/or choke down the sheet lead.

With an asymmetrical on a broad reach, ease the tack line and allow the tack to lift, easing the luff lets the assy roll out from behind the mainsail to assume a more powerful spinnaker-like shape.

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The Importance of Windward Mark Roundings

As sailors we put an enormous amount of thought in to the start, and so we should, and next we talk a lot about upwind speed and observing and playing the shifts but planning and thought seems to go out the window when considering  rounding the windward mark and transitioning to the downwind leg.

Having a clean windward mark rounding can gain valuable boat-lengths and the keys to rounding the windward mark are to make sure that you get there without sailing extra distance or fouling someone but even more importantly, ensuring that you’ve prepared for and have a plan for the next leg.

Before the start, make sure that you know where the windward mark is, and as you’re sailing up the beat, you should periodically check to see where you are relative to the mark.

Pay attention to the laylines and if you will be approaching the mark on starboard tack, you will want to tack as close to the layline as you can, sailing beyond the layline means that you waste time sailing extra distance and you leave the opportunity for an opponent to come in, tack below you, and still make the mark.

Once you’re on the layline, keep sailing fast but also start planning ahead for the next leg. Make sure that your mainsheet is not tangled and is free to run, if you’re racing a boat with a spinnaker or gennaker, do any final preparations and at the same time think about your strategy for the next leg.

Will you want to work high or low on a reach? If the next leg is a run is there a reason why you might want to gybe around the mark perhaps to take advantage of more pressure or to stay in phase with the shifts you have observed on the upwind leg?

Don’t forget about current as you calculate the layline and if you are approaching the mark on Port tack be aware of your rights, read and learn Rule 18 which makes it very difficult to tack inside the zone without fouling another boat.

A quick summary of Rule 18 and windward mark roundings:

  • If you’re approaching the mark and you will not need to tack, an inside boat that is overlapped when the first of them enters the zone gets room to round the mark. That can mean pinching up or shooting head to wind, and a boat outside will need to keep clear,so if you’re that outside boat, don’t bear off just yet!
  • The trickier situation involves tacking inside the zone. A boat that tacks inside the zone needs to first complete their tack without fouling, and then, if you are in a lee bow position, you must not force the other boat to sail above close-hauled, so in that situation, you can’t force the other boat to pinch or shoot head to wind.

One way to avoid this sticky situation is to make sure that you complete your tacks outside the zone.

It’s important to protect your position on the layline and make sure that you maintain clear air. If you’re on starboard tack and a port tacker is approaching, you may want to foot off a bit (well before they’re close so you’re not hunting) so that if they lee bow you, you can head up and maintain your lane.

If you’re on port tack crossing a starboard tacker and if in doubt, you can avoid fouling by fully crossing them, and then tacking after you’re clear of them.

In this case you might round behind that one boat, but will not foul, too often, port tackers try to jam in a tack on the layline or at the mark, and foul because they do not keep clear while tacking.

You may lose that one boat, but sailing clean is sailing fast. Similarly, if you realize that you’re not laying the mark, the sooner you can tack out and re-establish yourself in a decent lane, the better.

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See The Wind

                            Perhaps the most important skill that  separates the best sailors from the rest of the fleet is their ability to see the wind.

The reason that this is critical is that it enables them to consistently get to the windier side of the course and thus sail faster than their competition. 

Obviously no one can actually see wind but there are a number of ways to indirectly see what the wind is doing, particularly what it’s doing farther up the course.

Flags, smoke or other sail boats in your course area are great indicators but in many cases these are not available so the most consistent way to see the wind is by observing how it effects the water.

The higher up we are the easier it is to see the effect on the water but most of us do not have the luxury of height above the water. In light air, standing up in your boat and looking to windward will give you a better picture and in a larger boat there is the ability to get winched up the mast to look further afield to see what is happening.

Contrasting colours  caused by ripples in the water indicate the presence of a puff and with practice and observation you will get better at predicting the strength and direction of the puff. 

As part of a drill and a way to hone your skills, sail upwind and try to spot puffs ahead of you, don’t worry about tacking for puffs. When you see a puff, try to predict how many seconds it will be before you sail into it, then start counting down the seconds.

By practicing and getting better at this you’ll also develop the ability to discern how strong a particular puff will be which is valuable information because it allows you to anticipate the effect and trim accordingly plus sailing in to more wind can greatly increase your boats speed.

Looking up the course should tell you which side of the course is favoured but don’t discount other variables such as current or wind shifts, remembering that the goal is to spend as much time as possible in the puffs.

An important consideration is to not sail for a puff that is too far away, in most cases it will have dissipated before you get to it.

I have spoken up to now about looking up the course but just as importantly, downwind puffs are even more important because you are travelling in the same direction as them  so they will be with you longer.

If you are in a crewed boat ,one team member should be allocated the task of looking for and communicating to the team regarding wind on the course.

Their observations should be constantly updated re what puffs are doing, where they are coming from,  their strength and what effect they are likely to have on the boat.

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Consider Current When Planning a Race or Regatta

An excerpt below from an interview that I did on the subject of Current and How to Plan for it with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey.

It’s important to know what the tide is doing, what observations do you make on the course in assisting you to know where to go?

Ideally, you have pre-gamed the strategy based on the tidal strength, the times and the course location

It’s good to validate all of the above with physically checking the current, either by tossing an object by a fixed mark or with your eye as you pass marks through the race

Big picture, I’d make decisions based upon what effect the current might have on a leg, but also factoring in the characteristics of the wind. IE: if there is current, but it the same side-to-side on the race track, I would cancel that out and focus more on the wind.

If the current does favour one side, but the wind-shifts / velocity are really big, I would prioritise the wind.

If I can’t see any difference in the wind from side to side, or the True Wind Direction is steady-state, I would put more emphasis on the tide strategy.

Lay-lines play a bigger part in current, as people will make mistakes with this and over-lay (or underlay at the top mark and hit the mark). I’d be conservative on my laylines and hope to pick up some gains there.

How do you gather local knowledge regarding tides and currents?

We are very fortunate these days to have so much info on the internet that is easy to access. There are also books on the tidal flow in places where the tide plays a big factor.

Talking to locals regarding local effects like shadows and eddy’s is also key. I’d make sure I do this for bigger events

Sometimes the best resource is your own experience in practice racing prior to the event and the early races of a regatta.

  • What happened?
  • When did it happen relative to the cycle?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Which of the resources you looked at prior to racing were the most accurate in retrospect?
  • What can you trust moving forward?

The depth of the water across the course will affect tidal flows as will the topography of the bottom, do you take this in to account?

Yes, this is fundamental to tidal strategy. Knowing where you are relative to the depth changes is fundamental to sailing the tide well. Also knowing how quickly the depth changes in different areas, as the flow is generally faster in areas of tighter depth gradients.

In learning the Solent (where I now live), it is really interesting watching good local sailors place the boat. I think that is where I have learnt the most.

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Become a Student of The Weather – Part 2

                       

Part 2 of the interview that I did on the subject of weather and how it affects your sailing with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey.

Do you take notice of the clouds on the course and how do they affect your decision making?

Yes, absolutely. I think broadly speaking, the clouds can tell you a lot about whether the forecast is playing out, or not. This assumes you had that information to hand prior to racing.

What can Clouds tell you?

Lots but to highlight a couple of things that I look for:

  • In terms of a sea-breeze development, they are fundamental in highlighting the convection above the land
  • On a day of squally and rainy conditions, the clouds are your main indicators for where to go and where to avoid going.
  • The approach of a change in conditions (be it a tightening of pressure gradient, a front etc..).
  • Basically they are part of the environment in which we make our decisions

If the wind shift seems persistent how do you establish a new mean or is this a constant process?

The mean is something we set in our minds, so of course it is quite a fluid number. Keeping an open mind and constantly updating what is happening and where we are relative to course and laylines is key.

How do you calculate wind strength in order to set your boat up for the conditions?

I think the keys here are:

  • What is the sea-state?
  • How dense does the breeze feel on the sail plan?
  • Are the waves offset to the True Wind Direction?
  • I’ll try to get a quick feel for these questions in the first couple of minutes in a pre-race line-up. Set the boat up and adjust as necessary using your senses. Then check in with performance relative to other boats and make some simple evaluations based upon your power level and balance

If a front is predicted during the race, does your strategy take this into account?

Yes – you’d be constantly monitoring the sky and the True Wind Speed and True Wind Direction.

If you feel a sudden change in temperature either up or down, what can you read in to this?

Tricky one… we all feel when the wind becomes warmer when sailing toward land on a summer’s day in an offshore breeze or the colder air filling in when a sea-breeze starts to build.

Hard to generalise what this means. Sometimes it is obvious, like the examples here. Other times it can be quite subtle.

But I think it is another indicator that things have just changed and you need to be tuned into what it might mean and how it affects your decision-making in the short term.

What effect can a rain squall moving across the course have and how can you use it to your advantage?

If the squall is generally upwind, I’d be aiming to place the boat near to the leading edge of the rain squall. But not so close that I get engulfed too quickly relative to the fleet.

In general you will find more breeze and shifted direction on the edge. If the rain squall is downwind of the gradient True Wind Direction, I’d try to get away from it as quickly as I could (or try to avoid it if you are sailing downwind).

In this case the colder air coming from the cloud would generally reduce the True Wind Speed.

Do you time shifts to get an idea when to expect the next shift or is it something that you feel?

I’ve never really taken the times of shifts methodically like that and I do not write the shift range down I seem to have a good recall for the numbers.

Where is the best place to get your weather information from?

I have developed a trust for Predictwind. Very user-friendly. Gives a good over-view snapshot, but allows you to dig deeper into the bigger picture synoptic and cloud situation with a few clicks. I like it.

Do you look at a weather map and what do you read from it?

Yes – I think it important for sailors to know what is driving the weather and what are the 2 or 3 biggest influencing factors. This helps over the course of an event.

I just like to know what is driving the wind we see and how might that change over the course of the day or the event, I think it is just another component in developing your decision-making instincts.

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Become a Student of the Weather – Part 1

Because I am not a student of the weather but now knowing what I should have realised much earlier after speaking with a lot of high achieving competing sailors, that no race planning is complete without gathering as much information as possible prior to heading out to race.

To that end I have put together a 2 part interview that I did on this very subject with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey. The questions and answers from that interview are below.

How do you collect data about weather and wind at a regatta venue especially historical information prior to arriving?

I think the “gold standard” is to try to make contact with a respected local. The main things to speak to them about are:

a. What are the two or three biggest factors to concern yourself with in terms of race-course effect (ie: tidal? Geographic features that effect the wind?, the characteristics of sea-breeze evolution? etc etc). You just want to hone in on the big things.

b. What are the best forecast resources locally? Again, this will save a lot of time. We are so much more fortunate these days in regard to the amount of resource available. The down-side can be that there is too much info. You need to hone in on the best resource.

c. In the lead-up to the event, touch base with this person again and discuss the weather map and what he/she might see as important over coming days.

Do you put together a plan for the days racing with regard to the forecast?

First thing would sail choices then also the sailing kit to take afloat. Sounds simple, but if you are not comfortable, you’ll find it harder to get the most from yourself.

Spend the morning continuously checking the sky and water to see if the forecast is playing out – you want to know if the forecast is accurate, in order to gauge the confidence to have in it.

Obviously forecasts are general and not necessarily specific to the regatta venue, what notice do you take of the forecast?

Depends on all of the above. If you have done the homework and have done some validation in order to gain confidence, then it can be quite a weapon. If not, well, you’d take it into account, but more likely to sail the fleet and place the boat conservatively.

How do you call wind shifts and what feedback do you want from your crew?

Its important to get a feel for the range of shifts and what you’d class as mean headings on either tack. This gives you a framework for the decisions during the race.

Re feedback, it is critical to know your position relative to the laylines and relative to the fleet.

How long before the start do you collect data on the wind?

From first waking up in the morning. I want to know if the forecast is playing out accurately to start with – or more likely, which forecast to start with has it more accurate.

Can you tell whether a puff is a lift or a header before it gets to you?

I think I have a reasonable eye for that. Not as good as some people I have sailed with!

But I think this is a constantly “improve-able” skill. eg: During the per-race tune-up, I will develop my instincts by looking at an approaching wind line and take a stab at whether it will lift, head or stay the same direction.

The resultant change (if any) in the True Wind Direction will go in the memory bank for later when I see a similar looking wind line approaching.

Other things help with this “instinct”, ie: if we are already one one edge of the wind range, odds are that the next shift will be back towards or beyond the mean.

In an oscillating breeze how do you work out when to tack?

Again, where are we on the course with relation to laylines? I’d be more likely to tack from port to starboard on a “mean” heading if we only have a few percent left of starboard tack in the leg.

Where are we in relation to the fleet? If 90% of the fleet is to our right – and on port tack, you’d be silly to continue on starboard tack for too much longer looking for more left shift unless you had established in the pre-race tune-up that gusts are not moving down the course.

Where is the True Wind Direction in relation to what we consider is our “range” of shift.

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