Making your boat go slower is not usually considered a technique for success in sailboat races. After all, the goal of racing is usually to get around the buoys as quickly as possible.
There are times, however, when slow is actually fast.
I remember one race from the Championship of Champions a few years back. Our strategy after the start had been to work our way toward the right side of the course, where there was more wind and a favorable geographic shift. When we came off the line, however, we had three boats stacked up on our weather hip. One peeled away almost immediately, but the others kept us from tacking toward the favored side. As the boats to leeward of us tacked and crossed our stern, we tried to squeeze off the windward boats. By the time were were able to tack, we were the farthest boat to the left. The right side was, indeed, favored and we arrived at the windward mark near the back of the fleet.
In retrospect, we would have been much better off if we had slowed down, let the two windward boats go by, and then tacked for the favored right side. Why didn't we do this? Because, in the heat of the battle, the idea of deliberately sailing at any speed less than flat out was very tough to swallow.
Strategically speaking, you should always sail as fast as possible. In the absence of other boats, the quickest route to the finish line is definitely full speed ahead. When you're sailing in a fleet, however, you have to consider tactics. Remember, tactics are the moves you make to implement your strategy; they allow you to follow your game plan as closely as possible without interference from other boats.
Sometimes, as in the situation described above, the best (or only) way to implement your strategy is to slow down. Of course, you don't want to get too carried away, but judicious control of your speed will often help you avoid more costly mistakes such as sailing toward the wrong side of the course. Let's consider four specific situations on the race course when it may not be best to proceed at full throttle.
Beware of establishing overlaps on boats ahead.
On reaches and runs, it's usually better to slow down than become overlapped close to windward or leeward of a boat ahead. The problem with getting a windward overlap is that you force the other boat to luff to defend her position; at the same time, you are unable to bear off below her. This typically creates a no-win situation where neither boat wants to luff, but both have to, and they lose to the rest of the fleet.
The problem with getting a leeward overlap is that you lose the option to head up. This can be costly if, for example, some boats behind start luffing and threaten your wind. In many cases, it's better to slow down (by steering an S-course or overtrimming your sails) than become overlapped and lose your options. Of course, you can always make suggestions to the boat ahead about how he can make his boat go faster.
Round every mark so you can touch it.
One of the biggest mistakes sailors make at jibe and leeward marks is rounding on the outside. If you have to give buoy room to one or more boats, the best tactic is to slow down so you can round right on their transom. This might require anything from an early spinnaker takedown to a radical course change. In big fleets, I've often had to "park" near the jibe mark and wait for all the boats inside me to get around. But doing this will ensure that boats behind can't sneak inside you. It will also give you relatively clear air and the option to tack.
Be willing to take sterns to follow your strategy.
Passing behind other boats is not my cup of tea. I'm much more inclined to stay on starboard tack, or tack into a lee-bow position, than give up distance by ducking. This aversion, however, is based on a very limited view of the race course. In general, the gains and losses created by differences in wind across the course are much, much greater than the distance you give up in tactical maneuvering. Therefore, it's almost always worth paying a small price in the short run to get yourself headed in the right direction. You will reap a much greater reward in the long run.
"Spend your lead" to cover the fleet or another boat.
"Horizon-jobs" are fun, but in one-design racing what counts is your position at the finish, not how far you're ahead of your competition. Therefore, if you can trade some distance for a greater certainty of staying ahead of the boats behind, you should do it. This is called "spending your lead."
There are many times in racing where good tactics require a compromise in strategy. For example, let's say you're in first place, sailing up the final beat on port tack. One by one, all the boats behind you tack onto starboard and head left. You would tack also, but you notice that there's less wind velocity between you and the other boats. Should you continue to the right by yourself in more wind, or tack and cover the others, even though the lull means you may lose distance to them? The latter choice is often better, even though it means you choose to sail slower.
I'm sure you can think of other examples where it's better, in the overall race picture, to slow down a bit. In fact, this technique works more often than you might imagine, so don't be afraid to try it. You'll find even the best sailors willing to give up a little here and there if they think it will bring a greater payback later on.
When I was little, my grandmother had a sign on the wall of her kitchen that read "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." I wasn't exactly sure what it meant at the time, but now I know it applies not only to life in general, but to sailing in particular. It means you can't just shift your boat into fast forward for the entire race. Speed is critical, but every once in a while you have to look around and tap your brakes. That is sometimes the best way to get to the finish line ahead of the