What’s most important when racing in big fleets?
Racing in big fleets is quite different to sailing in small fleets. In general you can take higher risks in small fleets as you won’t lose as many boats. There will be more highly skilled sailors in bigger fleets, a faster pace and less opportunities to permute your strategic plan.
The most crucial parts in big fleets are:
- Be conservative: in a big fleet it is quite difficult to get the strategy right by 100%. There are so many other boats influencing your sailing so that you are often forced to take tactical decisions over strategic decisions. Everyone makes more mistakes than in small fleets. This means the one with the least mistakes wins. A conservative approach means not going for the best position, the best strategy and so on but always being close to it. You accept small mistakes, small disadvantages to avoid major mistakes. With this method you might not win many single races but you will be able to avoid really bad races and be close to the top in most races. At the end of a series the winner often hasn’t won a single race but was always within the top boats in every race.
- Clear air: in clear air your speed will be much greater than the oppositions’. In small fleets it is much easier to get clear air, which means that more boats will have it whereas in big fleets there will be heaps of boats getting slowed down by sailing in dirty air.
- The start: most important in a big fleet start is to avoid disaster. You want to have clear air to sail at top speed as long as possible. You don’t want to tack too early because of someone else forcing you to take. When tacking you always lose ground which means losing a lot of boats in a large fleet. Avoid the ends as they are usually crowded and increase the risk of getting tangled up with other boats.
- Boat speed: boat speed does not help you if you stuff up your start or sail in dirty air for a long time. But it is a real weapon in big fleets as long as you stay out of trouble and sail conservatively. You will not be able to win a big fleet regatta if your speed is not at least equal to the one of the top boats. Of course it is also easier to recover after a mistake. You only need to find your groove.
The best preparation for big fleet racing is of course racing in big fleets. Often this is not possible. Though there are different ways to train for big fleet racing.
Even if you only train in a small group try to stay close together when doing practice races to simulate sailing in a big fleet. Learn how to sail fast in dirty air for a long time. Make up situations you might find in big fleets. If you have quite different skills make sure that your training fleet stays very close together anyway, i.e. sail short races so that you don’t separate much, make a rule that the boat in front always has to pass the stern of the last boat after leading for more than half a minute etc.
Train to hold lanes of clear air. Learn how to stay in a windward position of a boat that is going high. Learn how to go for speed with fast boats around you. Learn how to adapt to the situation and the sailing styles around you. This helps you to hold your lane for a long time. As soon as you lose your lane you might fall into dirty air and as a result sail slower and lose ground.