It's never a good feeling when you realize you've lost control. This is true in life, and in sailboat racing as well. One of my best lessons occurred during the 1985 Championship of Champions, sailed in Highlanders. Going into the last race, we were second overall with a good chance to win the regatta. We did fine up the first beat until the leader caught us just before the mark. That's when I made my big mistake.
What I forgot momentarily was that the boat we had to beat could afford a throwout race and we couldn't. I should have realized that if he got near us, his only goal would be to drag us to the back of the fleet. And that's what he did. By tacking all over our face, giving us lots of bad air, and pinning us way beyond the laylines, he accomplished his mission quite well. When he got us down to about 15th, he withdrew from the race and won the regatta.
We, of course, felt frustrated and powerless. We had lost control of our strategy, our tactics and our race, and we almost lost second in the series. When I came ashore after that race, I vowed never to be a doormat again.
Techniques to avoid being controlled
As a competitive sailor, it helps to have a wrestler mentality. You must work hard to avoid being pinned by your competitor, and you should know how to escape when you're taken down. At the same time, you have to go on the offensive. A classic example in sailing is the pre-start circling that happens in match racing. Here each boat circles to get on the tail of the other boat (offensive) and to keep the other boat off their tail (defensive).
To avoid being controlled on the race course, you need the proper mental attitude and a bag of tactical tricks. The most important thing is anticipation. Keep thinking ahead and avoid situations where you could get trapped. Here are a few ideas to help you sail defensively:
Stay away from the corners and laylines. The closer you are to the sides of the course, the easier it is for someone to control you. So try to stay closer to the middle, where you keep the option to go either way.
Find lanes of clear air. Clear air is key in following your strategy. So keep looking up the course for channels of undisturbed wind that will let you sail in the direction you want.
Avoid overlaps with other boats. It's usually dangerous to sail upwind or downwind very near other boats. The closer you are to your competitors, the more likely it is they'll interfere with your plans. One exception is when you're sailing upwind on starboard tack, just to windward of another boat you're using as a "blocker."
Communicate your rights. Loud hails are recommended not only for safety reasons -- they're a good way to keep other boats from infringing on your space. A typical example is yelling "Hold your course" when you duck a starboard tacker. More often than not, this keeps her from tacking on or in front of you.
Techniques for controlling other boats
There are several different methods you can use here:
Use your wind shadow. The large area of disturbed air to leeward of your sailplan is your most effective tools for affecting other boats. As you undoubtedly know from experience, it's no fun when someone tacks on you and the gas masks pop down. Remember that there are several ways to cover another boat, depending on what you're trying to do.
Pinning and blocking. Often the best way to "herd" another boat is simply to use your physical presence. For example, you can prevent another boat from tacking by setting up just to windward of them on the same tack.
Steering a converging course. Your right-of-way under the rules is another tactical tool for helping you gain control. The best example I know of is when you're on starboard tack and you bear off at a port tacker to prevent her from lee-bowing you or squeezing around the windward mark ahead of you. If you use this technique, be sure you're very familiar with Rule 35, "Limitations on Altering Course."
There's one footnote I should make before leaving this subject: Remember that the people you're sailing against are like elephants -- they never forget. If you go around tacking on everyone and aggressively pinning them out past the laylines, they'll start doing the same to you. Live by the sword, die by the sword. So be discriminating. Always ask yourself if the short-term benefits of controlling someone outweigh the longer-term costs. Try to avoid tacking on someone if there's is no clear advantage.
How to improve your tactical skills
If you find yourself being controlled more than you are controlling, don't worry. There are a number of ways to change this:
Learn the racing rules. Knowing the right-of-way rules is an incredible confidence-builder when you get into tight situations.
Try match racing. This one-on-one competition offers the ultimate experience in tactical control. The more you match race, the more comfortable you'll feel whenever you're near another boat on the race course.
Sail in tight, close, competitive fleets. You have to get your feet wet if you really want to become a better "tactician." Fleets of frostbite boats or other small one-designs are perfect for this.
Be assertive. If you want to come out on top, you can't be passive. It's nice to be laid-back at times, but if you want to avoid being stepped on, you have to assert your rights.
Even if you follow all the advice above, you're bound to let your guard down sooner or later. In a frostbite race a few years ago, I was luffing on starboard tack with about 30 seconds to go before the start. When I saw a port tacker heading for my hole, I bore off at him to force him to tack sooner. When he began to tack, I headed back up to closehauled so I wouldn't use up too much of the hole. Instead of tacking, however, he held his course head to wind. Then he tacked and snuggled right up to my leeward side. After luffing me on starboard, he left me gasping in his wake as the gun went off.
Be alert, aware, and assertive. If you don't anticipate what may happen, you'll be just another marshmallow on the race course.