David Dsilo2


Dave Dellenbaugh Sailing

David Dellenbaugh is a champion helmsman, tactician, author, coach, rules expert and seminar leader who has spent his career helping sailors sail faster and smarter.Here are the learning resources that he has created to help you improve your racing skills.

Upwind Tactics

Tactics are the tools and techniques you use to implement your strategy amidst a fleet of boats. It's easy to execute a strategy when there are no other boats around. You will always have clear air, and you can tack wherever and whenever you want. When you're in the middle of a fleet, however, it's a different story. Now you need a repertoire of tactical moves in order to follow your strategic plan.
      Tactics are very important, especially in one-design racing, because your ultimate goal is usually to beat the competition, not simply to get around the course as quickly as possible. In other words, you can't blindly follow your strategy; you must always think about how you're doing with the rest of the fleet.

General Principles 

The job of tactician is one of the toughest jobs on any boat. You're a bit like a gambler, trying to maximize gain and reduce risk simultaneously. The tactics you employ at any moment are influenced by many factors, including your boatspeed, your position in the series, the ability of your crew and how close you are to the finish of the race. We will first discuss some general principles and then outline specific tools you can use.

Play the fleet:  Remember that the position of the fleet basically determines where the right and left sides of the course are. You may be sailing right up the rhumbline, but if the rest of the fleet is near the starboard layline, then tactically you are in the left corner.

Cover when ahead:  The basic tactical rule of thumb is to cover the other boats when you're ahead; in other words, protect what you have. Since lateral separation increases the damage done by an unfavorable wind shift, the best way to reduce risk is to stay close to the fleet. This is especially true in one-design racing, where it's doesn't matter how much you win by -- you just have to beat the competition. (We'll talk more about covering later in this chapter.)
      The corollary to this is that, when you're behind,  you should "split" from the boats ahead of you. The closer you get to the finish, the more important this becomes, because it will be very difficult to pass other boats by following them. The more "leverage" you get on the boats ahead, the more likely you will be to catch them if the wind changes.

Cross and consolidate:  We've talked in a previous chapter about how windshifts change the ladder rungs and cause gains and losses. However, a gain or loss is not actually realized until the boat that gains crosses ahead of the boat that loses. It's a bit like playing the stock market. If the value of your stocks goes up, you're in a good position, but you don't make a profit until you sell. So here is a fundamental tactical principle: When you make a gain on other boats, consolidate by crossing ahead of them.

Preventing a loss:  This is the corollary of "cross and consolidate." If other boats have gained on you and they are trying to consolidate their gain, don't let them cross you. Tack to leeward and ahead of them so that you will lead them into the next windshift. This works perfectly in an oscillating breeze; but if the other boat gained because of a persistent shift, you may want to "bite the bullet."

Bite the bullet:  When other boats are gaining on you because of a persistent shift, it usually pays to "bite the buillet" and sail behind them toward the shift. This is usually a hard move to make emotionally, because no one wants to cross behind other boats. But the best way to gain on these boats is to follow the strategic maxim of sailing toward the next shift.

All the principles and tools discussed in this chapter are dependent, to some extent, on your boatspeed. Most sailors think that if you're relatively slow, you should take more chances. However, the opposite is probably true. If you are slow, you can't afford to make mistakes, so your strategic and tactical moves should be quite conservative. When you have good boatspeed, you can afford to take more risks in search of bigger gains -- because your speed will help you make up for mistakes.

Boat-on-Boat Tools  

The principles above are general tactical ideas for implementing your strategy in relation to the larger fleet. Every race, however, is made up of hundreds of small decisions and maneuvers that collectively have a great influence on your finishing position.

Lanes:  One of your most important tactical goals is to sail in clear air, on the favored tack, as much as possible. This can be difficult when you're in areas of heavy traffic, like right after the start. What you have to do is look ahead for "lanes" of clear air. When you find a good lane, take it, or you may have to wait a long time before you can get onto the favored tack with clear air.

Using a blocker:  Another good tool in traffic is using another boat as a blocker. This is useful when you want to stay on one tack for a while and you want to avoid getting lee-bowed and forced the other way. To do this, find a boat that you cross just behind and tack to windward so you are just free of his bad air. Now this boat is your blocker. Boats that might have tacked on your lee bow will now go for this boat's lee bow instead, leaving you free to continue in clear air.

Loose cover:  There are two types of covering -- loose or tight. When you cover another boat loosely, you are generally staying between that boat and the windward mark, in a position where your bad air is not hurting the other boat (Figure 8). A loose cover is useful when a) you don't want to initiate a tacking duel; b) the other boat is going the wrong way; or c) you are worried about more than one boat.
      A loose cover can be applied to a single boat or a group of boats. When covering a group, your main goal is to stay between the pack and the windward mark. It helps if you can "herd" the others (with a combination of loose and tight covers) so they are all on the same tack. A loose cover on the fleet is basically a conservative move where you are trying to minimize risks.      

Tight cover:  A tight cover is a more aggressive type of cover where you use your wind shadow to slow the boat behind. To apply a tight cover, you have to position yourself directly upwind of the other boat's apparent (not true) wind. This is a good tactic when a) you are worried about only one other boat; or b) the boat behind is headed toward the favored side of the course. Be careful with close covers, however. Don't become overly concerned with just one boat behind. And don't get a bad reputation -- if you do, you'll suddenly find your competitors "doing unto you" what you have been doing to them.
      If you are the victim of a tight cover, your response should be based on your strategic plan. If the other tack is favored, for example, your problem is easily solved -- just tack. If you want to keep going, however, you face a tougher challenge. Often the best solution is to foot off for clear air. This may be the only way to maintain clear air while headed toward the favored side.

The lee-bow:  Another aggressive tactical weapon, for a boat on port tack, is tacking on a starboard boat's lee bow. If you do this right, you will give the other boat dirty air and water, and they will have to tack away or else fall in behind you.
      Clamping on an effective lee bow requires good timing, judgment and boathandling. The position of the two boats as they approach on opposite tacks is the key to whether a lee bow will work or not. Think about where the two boats would hit if neither took evasive action. If the port tacker is almost crossing, then it will usually be possible to make a good lee-bow tack. However, if the port tacker will hit the other boat amidships, then it's probably impossible to make a good leebow tack. Smooth water and moderate air are the best conditions for this tactic.

Pinning:  Another way to control your competitors is by pinning them in a position where they can't tack. This will work on either tack, though it's more effective on starboard tack, because the boat that's pinned will not have the right of way after she tacks.
      There are several ways to get into a pinning position. The typical approach is to cross just behind a starboard tacker and then tack right on their windward hip. If you do this well, you have a good chance of pinning (or at least intimidating) the other boat because they now have to make a perfect tack to get across your bow. Another way to pin someone is to reach down from a position to windward; this shuts off their option to tack and duck your stern.

Crossing Situations   

When two boats converge on a beat, the most important thing to keep in mind is your strategy. Do you want to go left? Right? In any crossing situation, the goal is to come out of it so you are headed in the right direction. If you're lucky, maybe you can push the other boat in the wrong direction at the same time. But whatever you do, don't let the other boat control your moves. This requires anticipation.
      Any time you approach another boat, the first thing you need to know is whether or not you are crossing. There are several ways to judge this. The first is by "feel." If you want to be a bit more precise, however, you should try using a range on land or a hand-bearing compass. With either of these methods, you basically look from the stern of your boat toward the bow of the other boat. If you are gaining bearing, then you are crossing. If you are losing bearing, or if the bearing remains the same, then you are not crossing.

Crossing I:  If you (the port tacker) are not crossing, and the favored side is the right, then you should duck behind the starboard tacker. Make your duck early so you return to a closehauled course as your bow passes the stern of the other boat. Don't be caught by surprise so you have to make a crash duck.

Crossing II:  If  you (the port tacker) are not crossing, and the favored side is the left, then you should lee bow the starboard tacker. This points you in the right direction and, if done correctly, will force the other boat away from the favored side. If you aren't close enough to the starboard tacker to lee bow him, then tack several boatlengths to leeward so you won't get rolled over or pinned.

Crossing III:  Now pretend you are the starboard tacker. You are headed toward the favored side, but there's a port tacker who looks like he is planning to lee-bow you. You want to prevent this, because it would force you to go the wrong way.
      To defend against a lee bow, bear off to a very close reach when you are several boatlengths from the other boat. This forces the other boat to tack sooner. As soon as he tacks, use your increased speed to head up and gain enough room to windward so you can continue on starboard tack in clear air.

Crossing IV:  You are the starboard tacker once again, and the right side is still favored. This time, however, a port tacker is almost crossing you. Instead of automatically yelling "Starboard!", think about the situation for a moment. It would be much better to let him go across so you can keep going toward the right. So yell something like "Go ahead," and wave them across.

The "Slam Dunk":  Here is a good method of pinning when it's important to stay ahead of one particular boat. As soon as the port tacker ducks to go behind your stern, tack. You have now pinned him to leeward, and he will have to wait for you to tack. This tactic works best in smooth water, moderate breeze and heavier boats.


Of all the calls you have to make on a beat, the question of how, when and where to tack on the layline is perhaps the most critical. Part of the reason for this is that laylines are so elusive. Fortunately, there are several guides to help you. First,use the angle of other boats. When you cross behind another boat that's close to the layline, sight down his centerline and see if he is fetching the mark (be careful that he doesn't give you a "head fake" by temporarily pointing below the mark to make you think he is not fetching).
      A second method is using your tacking lines. Figure out what your tacking angle is and then wait until the mark lines up with this angle on your deck. A similar method is to use your hand-bearing compass. To do this, you have to figure out what your compass heading would be on the opposite tack. When the mark bears the same, you're on the layline.

Avoid Laylines:  There is a tactical maxim that you should "avoid the laylines" whenever possible. Of course, you have to get to a layline sometime; otherwise you will never get around the mark. However, your odds will usually be highest if you remain off the laylines as long as possible. There are several reasons for this:

  1. When you get to a layline, you lose the option to tack (or, if you do tack, you lose distance). This will hurt you if the wind shifts because you can only gain on shifts by tacking.  Once you get to a layline, any wind shift  will hurt you. A header helps every boat to leeward or ahead -- basically, every boat that has not reached the layline. A lift makes you overstand, which means you lose distance to many other boats.

  2. Another reason to avoid the layline is that, once you're there, you become a sitting duck for every boat that has not yet reached the layline. More often than not, they will tack on top of you, so you will have dirty air all the way to the mark.
  3. Perhaps the best reason for staying off the laylines is simply that they are so hard to call from very far away. Even if you do end up exactly laying the mark, any shift in wind velocity, direction or current will change the laylines. So give yourself a break -- don't try to call laylines before you get relatively close to the mark.

Bailing out:  If possible, approach the mark to leeward of the starboard layline so you keep your options open. As soon as you start to get bad air, however, bail out and head for the layline. Be sure you bail out before other boats tack on your windward quarter, since the worst thing is to get pinned in bad air.

The port-tack approach:  One option that may allow you to get clear air all the way to the mark is a port-tack approach. The advantage of this is that the port layline is usually less crowded than the starboard layline; the disadvantage is that you may have trouble finding a hole in the starboard-tack parade at the mark.
      If you do approach on port, set up so you are a couple boatlengths to leeward of the layline. This way you can tack underneath the starboard tackers at the mark and then, once you've completed your tack, luff up around the mark.

Besides helping with your strategy, good tactics will often help you gain places in tight situations. When it's early in the race, however, follow your best strategic instincts, even if this means following.  The best way to come from behind is to do it slowly, one shift at a time.  When you start running out of time, then start thinking about splitting.