Sailing, like most sports, requires a good deal of thinking ahead. A race-car driver, for example, wouldn't get into the middle of a curve and say, "Gee, this is a pretty sharp turn. I better slow down." Neither should a sailor.
You have to look at what's coming and figure out how to deal with it before you get there. Here's a four-step guide to anticipation on the race course:
Use your game plan.
Before every race, develop a plan to deal with anticipated activity of the wind and other boats. This will be the theme that underlies every move you make. Your object while racing is to follow your game plan as closely as possible. Avoid spur-of-the-moment decisions that are made without regard for the big picture
Situation1: You've watched the wind and listened to the weather radio before the start, and you feel pretty confident that the wind will continue to clock (shift to the right) during the afternoon. What kind of start do you want to make?
If the wind is going to clock, you'll want to get to the right side of the course as quickly as possible. Therefore, you should start pretty close to the committee boat (weather end). Don't be tempted to wander farther down the line at the last moment: Stick to your plan.
Keep reminding yourself of your game plan during the race. A good time to do this is at the beginning of every leg. Have someone on the boat state out loud your strategic and tactical goals for that leg. From then on, any decision you make should be consistent with this plan. But don't be afraid to modify your plan if necessary to take advantage of changes in conditions.
Keep your head out of the boat.
It's hard to anticipate when you're staring at the seaweed in the bilge. You have to keep your eyes looking up the course and all around for signs of things to come. Basically, you're watching for two things: changes in the wind or waves, and movement by other boats.
The helmsperson often gets quite involved in steering, so the crew really needs to help out here. Make sure one person on the boat has the responsibility for watching to leeward when you're sailing upwind. On a big boat, for example, the genoa trimmer has the best view around the leech of the genoa. This person's goal is not only to warn of approaching starboard tackers (way ahead of time), but to look for potential confrontations, such as a port tacker that may tack suddenly.
Situation 2: You're sailing a one-design on a port-tack broad reach, approaching the first leeward mark of an Olympic course. The next time you set your spinnaker will be on the run. What kind of takedown should you do?
Look up the course at the wind direction in relation to the marks. When you come around the windward mark, will you want to do a normal bearaway set, or a jibe-set (if the wind is farther to the right)? To be ready for a jibe-set, take your spinnaker down to leeward. For a bearaway set, take it down to windward.
Situation 3: You're a crewmember on a bigger boat sitting at max beam on an upwind leg. The northwest breeze is quite puffy and shifty. You see a dark puff on the water about 100 yards away. What should you do?
Call out, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the helmsperson and sailtrimmers, that there's a puff coming. You will help them anticipate the puff if you can give any of the following details: How soon the puff will hit ("Puff in 20 seconds"); How strong the puff is ("It's a huge whammy"); and whether it's a lift or header ("Looks like a big knock").
Develop contingency plans.
In sailboat racing, things are always changing. That's part of the challenge and the fun. The most successful sailors are those who consistently use these changes to their best advantage.
It would be easy if we could plan ahead for every move on the race course: "OK, we're going to tack in two minutes, sail on port for three minutes, and then tack again." Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this is impossible, since you can't always predict what the wind will do or how the other boats are going to behave.
What you can do, however, is anticipate a certain number of possibilities that might happen in the near future. Then make a plan for each one. For example, you may decide that you'll tack as soon as Boat X tacks, or as soon as you get the next big header. This is called contingency planning. By giving you time to consider your decisions ahead of time, contingency plans help you stay in control of your race.
At any point in a race you may have several contingencies in mind. "If the boat to leeward tacks, we'll duck behind him." "If the half-ounce spinnaker rips, we'll hoist the .75-ounce." "If our lunch falls overboard, we'll go back and get it." As you formulate contingency plans, keep your game plan in mind. You should always ask yourself whether a particular action will help you follow your plan.
Situation 4: You've just come off the starting line on starboard tack. You're in great shape, except there's a boat on your weather hip preventing you from tacking. You want to go right because you're sailing into a slight header. What should you do?
Anticipating that the other boat will tack fairly soon, tell your crew that you'll tack as soon as the other boat tacks. If the other boat holds on for more than a certain amount of time, then foot off for room to tack and clear her stern.
Situation 5: You're approaching a leeward mark under spinnaker in a good breeze. You'd like to drop your spinnaker early, but there's a boat just behind you trying to get an inside overlap. What should you do?
Often a decision can't wait until you're at the two-boatlength circle. So pick a point farther away -- say three boatlengths. If the other boat doesn't have an overlap by three boatlengths, drop the spinnaker there. If the other boat gets an overlap before three boatlengths, drop the spinnaker as soon as they get the overlap, so you can prepare for a good rounding.
Communicate with your crew.
Anticipation will be successful only if your entire crew works as a team to handle the boat. Communication must go both ways. Everyone on the crew should talk about waves, wind, boatspeed, other boats, etc. And the skipper or tactician must let everyone else know what's happening. A contingency plan that's a secret to everyone but the driver is worthless.
As a helmsman, I'm always asking my crew "What if" questions: "What if we can't cross that boat?" "What if the wind dies?" It's impossible to do too much of this kind of thinking.
Situation 6: The wind is light and the sea calm except for the usual motorboat that powers right through your fleet. Halfway up the last beat, the helmsperson sees waves coming from straight ahead. What should he or she do?
Immediately tell the trimmer(s) that there's a bad set of waves coming in 30 seconds. Waves are like the race-car turn; you have to shift gears before you get to them. The helmsperson must head off while the trimmers ease the sails in concert to build maximum speed before the waves hit. The lighter the breeze, the longer this will take -- so you have to anticipate sooner.