Definition of Strategy
Strategy is our racing plan based on wind direction, wind shifts, wind strength and current – strategy focuses on the big picture. Tactics are techniques we use for positioning and control of other boats or groups of boats. Strategy is long term and planned, tactics is more immediate and spontaneous.
Our upwind strategy is based on the expected conditions. The more accurately we can predict the wind and current, the more confident we will be about our strategic plan.
Our predictions are based on:
- the weather forecast including local effects
- our own observations during the hour before the start
- our experience sailing in a particular area
Predictable vs. unpredictable
One issue in our strategic planning is our confidence in our forecast. When conditions are highly predictable, we can pursue our upwind strategy with conviction. When we are unsure of what to expect, our strategy will change. We need a more conservative approach to reduce risks. First, we would not pursue the strategy as wholeheartedly. Second, we would devote more than the usual amount of attention to watching for changing conditions which might require us to change our strategy. Even highly skilled sailors lost races because of sticking to their strategy and not being able to adapt and change when the conditions have changed.
In summary our strategy will depend on the predicted conditions and our confidence in that prediction.
Wind direction & shifts
Normally the wind blows mainly from one direction. Most of the time the wind direction is not 100 percent stable. The wind is shifting a bit back and forth. Shifting winds allow us to reach the windward mark more quickly than we can in steady winds.
When the wind shifts, our close-hauled compass courses change. With each shift one tack is lifted up above its earlier course, and the other tack in headed below its previous course. When one tack is lifted the other is headed, and vice versa. Our goal upwind is to sail each tack when it is lifted. By sailing the lifted tack, we sail a more direct route to our upwind destination. While the other tack which is headed takes us further away.
Sometimes the wind shifts gradually back and forth. This is seen most often when the winds are coming over open water. At other times the shifts hit all at once. You can experience this when the shifts are coming off shore.
By collecting wind information before the race and updating information as the race progresses, you should know at any moment whether you are sailing a lifted, headed, or average course. If conditions change, your lifted and headed numbers will have to be adjusted. This is the difficult part. Therefore check weather maps to see if the main wind direction is supposed to change during the day.
Look for more wind. Spend more time in stronger wind than your opposition. There are several things to look for to find more wind.
Look for wind on the water. Stand up in your boat and look upwind. Puffs create dark patches on the water. It is tricky to distinguish shadows, changes in bottom color, and differences due to sunlight and it gets even more difficult in waves. But the wind is there if you can pick it out.
The wind changes near shore. Most of our racing is done close enough to shore that winds vary across the course. Often there is better wind near shore. When the wind is blowing onshore the thermals near shore create more wind. In an offshore wind the thermal mixing near shore sometimes pushes the stronger winds from aloft down to the surface. At other times the wind is lighter near shore. By paying attention and keeping records, you will be able to anticipate the change in wind as you get near shore. Read more about the influence of the shore in the post “The Sea Breeze”.
Clouds often bring more wind. In partly cloudy conditions, check under the clouds to see if there is more wind. In a clearing northwest wind with rows of cumulus clouds, there are usually down drafts of stronger wind around the clouds. If you see frontal clouds or building cumulus go to them – they often have more wind.
Tides & Current
Current adds complexity to strategic planning. The obvious, and primary, strategic concern is to seek out better (more favourable or less adverse) current. When the current is not uniform across the course, it can be an overriding strategic factor. Currents run stronger in deep water than in shallow, and faster in narrows than in open water. Below points and around bends, eddies can develop. Adding further complexity is the fact that currents change. Correct strategy can change dramatically over a period of hours. Storms and strong winds can distort surface currents and delay tides, sometimes making tide tables useless.
Left or right?
The favoured side
A windward leg will often have a favored side. Boats sailing to one side will have an advantage due to favorable wind, wind shifts or current. Sometimes it is difficult to anticipate which side is favored. After observing the first leg we will have a better idea for the second time around. If conditions don’t change, then we would expect the same side to be favored again. Also, after seeing particular conditions in a local area a number of times, we will be able to anticipate which side will be favored.
The more confident you are the more risk you can take and go further to the advantageous side.
If you think the left will pay, but you are not sure as the conditions might change you stay closer to the middle but still on the left.
You might also be more conservative in changing conditions. Your strategy may prove to be wrong and a total commitment would make it difficult to recover. You also have less tactical options. So stay closer to the middle and have an eye on the close opposition and what they do. This way you reduce your risk while still having the chance to take your opportunities if your strategy was right.
Going for extremes
Only sail to the extreme sides if:
- you are 100-percent-confident about your strategy
- to get the advantage of the side you must go to the extreme
- you are further behind and need to do something extreme to keep your chance on winning the series (this you would only do in a last race)
So always have a plan and a back-up plan in changing conditions. Be prepared for everything and open for unexpected changes. Don’t stick to your strategy if it is obviously wrong but stay with it as long there is no clear prove. Don’t change around between different strategies more than one time on an upwind. Otherwise you will lose focus and unsettle yourself. If you make mistakes learn from them and try to do it better on the next upwind. The next upwind always leads you to your next decision – left or right?