The question to be asked prior to approaching the top mark is: What are my top priorities when rounding?Depending on the wind the answer will be different:
- In light air you want to go for clear air and speed. There is nothing worse than being buried under a pack of boats you have just passed on the upwind. Especially in light air there is no way to escape. Avoid big risks in light air.
- In moderate air the chance for recovery is significantly larger. A more daring approach becomes doable. The first consideration must be which side of the reach is advantaged? Do you want to go high or low? Where are the puffs coming from? The differences in speed are much larger than in light wind, so the chance to make a big gain or to recover from a poor position after the rounding is much better.
- In heavy air safety becomes most important. In big fleets there is always a bit of a mess around the marks. Either the crew has problems controlling the boat or an experienced crew gets into trouble with a boat out of control or even capsized. You do not want to hit anybody neither do you want to capsize. As all boats are fast in strong winds you can gain a lot of metres and also lose them.
The position in which you depart the weather mark is more important than the timing and position when you approach it. Plan ahead. A top mark rounding is nothing that comes out of the blue.
In general there are four different options to approach the top mark:
Option 1: Approaching the top mark on the port layline. This is a high risk approach. When you meet other boats coming from the starboard layline you have to give way (read Part 2 in the RRS 2017-2020 and also check out our article about the RRS).
Option 2: Approaching the top mark on the starboard layline. This is the safe version. But also not the one you can gain a lot when behind as you line up together with lots of other boats and can just follow.
Option 3: Approaching the top mark coming from the left side of the course (outside the three boat length zone). You might be able to tack under boats coming from the right or maybe find a hole you can sneak through and tack after. This approach is not as risky as Option 1 and there is a higher chance to gain than in Option 2.
Option 4: Approaching the top mark coming from the right side of the course (outside the three boat length zone). As in Option 3 you are between the laylines and there are several options. You can find a hole you can sneak through. This approach is not very risky. Bear in mind that you still have to do two tacks before you can round the mark.
Option 3 and 4 are definitively better when there are shifty conditions. An early layline call makes you vulnerable to a wind shift. When it is a one side-takes-it-all race you will always try to be the first boat on the layline of this side. Though you might want to tack earlier to avoid dirty air in case you are not the first boat. In this situation you have to decide if the advantage of hitting the one side hard is greater than it costs to stay in dirty air following other boats up the layline to the top mark.