When I was little, my aunt used to tell me I was going to be a good driver because I spent so much time steering boats. I wasn't too sure of her theory at the time, but in the years since I got my driver's license I've noticed quite a few similarities between driving and sailboat racing.
Almost any driver knows that if you don't plan your route at least a little in advance, you're going to end up in the slowest lane of cars, get off at the wrong exit, or worse yet, see those flashing lights in your rear-view mirror.
There usually aren't any cops on the race course, but there can be a lot of traffic. And it's easy to get trapped in a position where you're slowed down or detoured from the course you know is fastest. Let's look at four common traps that we find when going around the buoys. How can you avoid them, and what should you do if, by some chance, you get caught?
We all know about this one. You're cruising along in the passing lane and all of a sudden you read: "Construction. Left lane closed." You have to merge right, but the center lane is totally filled. Fortunately, you're on the highway and not the starting line. There's usually at least one friendly soul who will slow down to let you in.
Obviously, the best way to avoid the barging trap is to stay away from the committee boat in the first place. I guarantee that your best chance of getting a good start is usually far from the barging zone. But I also know there are a lot of committee-boat lovers out there. So what happens if you're setting up for the start and all of a sudden you get this uneasy feeling that you're about to be shoved into the race committee's lap?
First of all, remember that the limitations on a leeward boat's right to luff (spelled out in Rule 16) apply even in a barging situation. That is, a leeward boat that changes course must always give you room to keep clear (of her and of other objects such as the committee boat).
If you're caught barging, try to luff up so you get as far away from the leeward boat as possible. The object is to be able to duck behind her stern. If this is impossible, bail out (by tacking) as soon as you realize that you're going to be sandwich meat. It's a mistake to hold on until the last second, hoping and praying that a hole will miraculously appear. Usually it won't.
If you're determined to start at the committee boat, it's better to be a little late than early. It's relatively easy to sit in a barging position outside the committee boat and then swoop in behind the first row of starters at the gun. This will give you the option to tack to port immediately and will work best if there's a little current running with the wind. If the current is pushing everyone toward the line, however, bargers will almost always find a dead end.
Pinned on the wrong tack
How many times have you heard a conversation like this at the bar?
Joe: "How'd you guys do today?"
Al: "Well, we had a great start, and we knew that the right side was favored."
Joe: "Yeah, you could see a lot more wind over there. Everybody knew that."
Al: "Everybody except the one guy on our weather quarter. What an idiot! He kept forcing us to the wrong side and wouldn't let us tack. By the time we could cross him we were already out of the race."
Joe: "That's incredible."
Yes it is. Pretend that we're in the passing lane again, and this time there's a big tractor trailer on our right. Ego says go faster -- pass, pass, pass. As we step on the accelerator, however, we realize that we won't be able to pass the truck in time to get off at our exit. We can either speed up and drive an extra 10 miles or slow down and get off where we want. The choice doesn't seem too tough.
On the race course, however, it's always difficult to sacrifice distance, especially at the beginning of a race when all the boats are so close. I keep thinking that if I go just a little farther I'll be able to tack and cross the boat that's pinning me. Of course, this always takes a lot longer than I think.
One answer to this problem is to avoid getting into situations where another boat is controlling your moves. If you're going to lee-bow a starboard tacker, for example, do it only if you can get close enough to pinch her off quickly. Otherwise tack far enough to leeward so you'll have the freedom to tack onto port again and duck her stern when you want.
If you feel like you're being "forced" to go somewhere you don't want to go, take control of the situation. Bear off and make room to tack. When was the last time you heard a real sailing wizard come in after a race and say in a whiny voice, "We got forced the wrong way"? Good sailors don't get forced anywhere -- they go where they want to go, even if it means giving up a bit of distance initially to get there.
Stuck to windward on a reach
Here's a trap in sailing that is a bit of a Catch 22. Let's say you're on a reach and slowly overtaking a boat that's ahead. You know that if you try to pass this boat to windward she'll have no choice but to defend her position by luffing. And this would mean you'd both lose a lot on the rest of the fleet. Even so, your bow somehow gets overlapped to windward of the other boat and she begins to luff.
The ensuing conversation might go something like this:
You (increasingly hyper): "I don't really want to luff. Let's stay low."
Her: "I can't let you roll right over me."
You: "I promise I won't sail over you."
Her: "Well, then head down."
You: "I can't without hitting you."
And so the two boats luff merrily on to the delight of their competition.
Fortunately, this is fairly easy to prevent. If you're the boat ahead, let an overtaking boat know that there's no way she will sail over you without a huge luff. If you're the boat behind, get up in the passing lane (several boatlengths to windward) as you approach the other boat. If you do get stuck unintentionally in the windward position and you're being luffed to the moon, head up sharply and slow down (by luffing your spinnaker if necessary) until you have enough space to duck the other boat's stern.
Outside at a leeward mark
It's not always easy to round a mark close enough to touch it, but it should be easier when you remember that if you get trapped outside another boat at a reaching or leeward mark, you've lost windward distance and probably clear air as well.
When you get to the zone, take stock of your position. If there's a boat to whom you must give buoy room, it's almost always best to slow down and swing wide so you can round right on her transom. Be sure that the inside boat doesn't take too much room for her rounding. According to Rule 18, she's only allowed enough room for a safe and seamanlike approach to the mark. The closer you can make her go on the near side of the mark, the wider she'll swing on the far side, and the better your chance to cut inside. Remember, when you take it wide, to politely discourage the boats clear astern from trying to squeeze inside you.
There are all kinds of traps, aside from these four, that you can create for yourself on the race course. The best way to avoid them is to anticipate what will happen and keep your options open as much as possible. The object, when you get near other boats, is to be the controller, not the controllee. Remember that in tight situations it's often fast to go slow, because by slowing down you'll have the chance to go behind or around your competitors. And, as in your car, it's often worth taking a short detour to avoid a traffic jam.