You will also see boats that embrace the opportunity, think for themselves, and take advantage of the situations presented to gain places, gain ground on other boats, or time on handicap.
This article aims to highlight some of the key factors behind your reaching decision-making, and some of the plays that you might utilise to make the most of them.
THE BIG PICTURE
In a closely packed one-design fleet, finding a clear lane and avoiding being luffed or rolled will be the main priorities. But even so, opportunities to break away from the chain gang may come up. Starting the leg with a clear view of what would be the fastest route down the reach in the absence of the other boats will give you the best chance of taking these opportunities.
SAIL THE SHORTEST COURSE
Generally, the shortest course between two points is a straight-line route. A defensive fleet always tends to get sucked into a “great circle route” as they attack and defend by luffing to windward of the rhumb line. Even with no distractions, most helmsmen will naturally sail a detour to windward of the rhumb line, losing time and distance. A reach across the tidal set makes sailing extra distance even more likely.
Practise sailing the rhumb line by picking up a transit on a piece of land behind the mark. If the land moves left against the mark, steer further right, and vice versa. Use the transit, even when you are committed to defending your line, to give you an indication of just how fast the fleet is sucking you away from the rhumb line.
In diagram 1 opposite, Violet sees that the land is moving quickly right behind the mark: the fleet is going to end up sailing broad and slow to get down to the mark. With this knowledge in the bag he’s looking for a nice patch of pressure, while the boats behind are down speed, to get low and free of the melee and set up to make gains at the bottom of the leg.
SAIL IN THE BREEZE
Sailing high in the lulls gets you up into the next band of breeze earlier. Sailing low in the puffs keeps you in the pressure for longer, and ensures that you stay close to the rhumb line to minimise distance. Use the same process when big waves are providing surfing conditions. Once the boat is surfing on a wave, use the apparent wind increase and header to make ground to leeward.
In marginal planing conditions, you can make big gains by staying in the gusts once planing, sailing well below the rhumb line, then sailing high enough to keep the boat planing for as long as possible in the lulls (diagram 2).
LOOK FOR THE GAINS
Offwind, the strategic priority is nearly always searching out and staying in more pressure. Are there any wind shadows affecting the leg? Avoid at all costs!
Are there any headlands or valleys causing the wind to be compressed? Make the most of them.
In a club handicap fleet, look out for and avoid the patch of dead wind below the big bunches of boats on the leg ahead or behind.
If there are other potential gains on the leg, for example less adverse tide to windward or to leeward, you need to know this well before the start of the reaching leg. You will only get enough separation from the other boats to make the gain significant if you commit to the strategy early, and ensure that your mark rounding gives the best possible launch pad.
WHEN TO HOIST?
Many reaching legs are marginal: it may not be possible to carry the kite for the whole leg. With a clear race-track, even on a marginal reach, my vote is for an early hoist.
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