Around the Racecourse, Part 6: A Low-Risk Run
by Steve Hunt
Now that we're around the weather mark, we're looking to have a productive downwind leg, focused on staying in front of any boats in the rearview mirror and passing nearby competitors. The essentials to the downwind leg are the same as they are for the upwind leg: stay in the most wind and keep your bow pointed toward the mark. Your tactical focus should be on these two criteria. Remember, having a good lane means you're sailing in more wind than someone who's in a poor lane.
Before rounding the weather mark, you lay out a plan for which way you want to go downwind. This decision will be based on the wind direction and where the most wind is as you round. Your goal as you start the run is to sail the headed jibe toward the leeward mark, whereas upwind you sail the lifted tack. You also want to stay in the most pressure available (positioning your boat in the patches of water that appear darker).
If you're sailing in a left shift as you round, you'll want to set your spinnaker and sail straight downwind on starboard tack. If you're in a right shift as you round, consider jibing to port as soon as possible. How soon you jibe depends on the size of the shift and how much disturbed air is at the top of the course. A 15-degree shift or more warrants a prompt jibe. Anything less typically warrants waiting a few boatlengths, unless there's minimal bad air at the top: if the fleet is spread out, for example. Most of the time, setting the spinnaker and sailing straight (going right looking downwind) to get away from the bad-air zone created at the top of course is the prudent move.
If it's urgent to get left (looking downwind), it's fine to jibe early after setting. But be aware that disturbed air from the upwind boats will slow you down until you get well clear of them. As long as the long-term gain from jibing early makes up for the short-term loss at the top of the course, it'll be a smart move. If it's not crucial to jibe immediately, but you want to jibe, sail for at least 30 seconds and then put in your jibe, extending away as much as possible from the disturbed air at the top.
If you've continued sailing straight (to the right looking downwind) you'll need to jibe away from your group at some point, and the timing here is critical. I usually prefer to jibe just before everyone else in my group so we lead away on what is now the long tack. The longer you wait before jibing, the longer the other jibe becomes, but also the more likely boats around you will start jibing. The challenge is to wait as long as possible but still lead away. As it gets closer to jibe time, watch for signs on other boats (tacticians anxiously looking around, trimmers taking the slack out of the lazy sheet, bowmen moving forward), try to jibe before them. If you're the first to jibe, you'll usually have a great lane away from the pack and into the mark, and leading the group on the long tack is a powerful position. If you're late to jibe and others go first, you may want to wait longer for a clear lane, as long as you have some time left before the layline.
The type of boat you're sailing will influence your decision. If you're on a boat with an asymmetric spinnaker, you'll always be reaching downwind. If your boat has a symmetric kite, you can sail deeper by squaring the pole, especially when the breeze is strong. If you can sail deep, it's more critical to get on the long tack as soon as possible. The zone between the laylines is narrow, and a moderate shift can place you on or outside the laylines if you stray to the edges too early on the run. It's less critical with an asymmetric spinnaker because, with the wider jibe angles, it will take longer to get to the laylines.
If everyone is sailing wide jibing angles (asymmetric kites, or symmetric kites in light air) it's easier for a boat behind to "jump you" (jibe when you jibe) and steal your wind. Because one of your primary goals is to keep an open lane for clear air and speed, it's important to set up yourself to jibe away and not be covered. You can do so by working low on the boat behind, into the ahead-and-to-leeward position. Watch a good match-race team defend its lead: they'll position themselves in the ahead-and-to-leeward position, and from there they can "match" jibes and keep clear air. It's often OK to briefly go slightly slower and lower to get into this position on the boat behind to ensure you can jibe away with clear air. If you can work low and go the same speed or faster, life is good, but always keep in mind your goal is to be able to jibe and keep clear air.
As you near the end of the run and boats start converging, it's important (just as it is at the top mark) to anticipate how everyone will come together. Envision the safest path through the traffic, and keep in mind starboard tack is powerful. Think about which way you want to go on the following leg and which gate you want to round. It goes without saying that it's best to set yourself up on the inside at the mark so you can have a nice rounding and a clear-lane upwind. We'll get to that in the next installment.
In summary, you want to sail the headed jibe downwind, in the most pressure while keeping a clear lane. Make sure to anticipate the moves of boats behind you and set yourself up to lead on the long tack with clear air. If you can execute all of those moves, you'll find yourself passing boats on the downwind legs.
Pro tips: Essentials of a Good Run
* Clear air is a must
* Sail the long tack downwind (the headed jibe, bow pointed to the mark)
* Stay in the most wind available
* Anticipate clean lanes, just as you would upwind
* Lead away from packs
* Ahead and to leeward of opponents is where you want to be
* Watch your Windex or tell tales to determine bad air from other boats
* Sail low if you want to jibe, protect high if you want to keep going
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