(c) 2011 Doug Peckover
Recently, Bruce asked me the question “How do you pick off people going downwind?”  He was referring to the videos from the Butterfly Nationals.  Now, I’ve never considered downwind sailing to be something I did well but realized that sailing a Butterfly and a Fish have improved my downwind sailing. The Laser is so familiar to me that it is practically an extension of my body.  I do things in that boat through feel and without thought.  The Butterfly and Fish are foreign to me and are forcing me to get creative and focus on mechanics rather than feeling.  When I return to the Laser, this makes me a better Laser sailor. 

There are lots of pieces to the downwind puzzle.  Here’s the first – how to reel someone in when they’re 10 boat lengths away.

The goal is to get directly upwind to take the other person’s wind and go from A to B in the diagram.  Sounds pretty simple, but it’s not.  At a recent Fish regatta, Paul Foerster asked why he was not able to reel me in on a run when he was just 5 boat lengths to windward of me.  The reason was because the wind was coming from a slight angle and I was able to stay in the breeze (he conceded the leg, rounded inside me, turned to go upwind and left me in his dirt).  But if Paul cannot always get directly upwind, how can the rest of us do it? 

Here’s one approach:

1.  Admit that you really don’t know where your wind shadow is.
2.  Steer with your weight (not the tiller) and lean in to head up slightly.
3.  Then again steer with your weight and lean out to bear off slightly.
4.  Repeat gently and be patient as you reel the boat in.
5.  Tighten the gentle turns as you close the gap.

Steering with your weight is important because tiller movement slows you down. In the beginning, you might only get 10% of the other boat’s wind so you have to be patient, but your gains will increase to 50% as you close the gap.

Now, the reason this works is that when you are 10 boat lengths away, it is very difficult to find and take the wind of the boat in front of you.  If you were perfectly on someone’s wind at that distance you are taking only a fraction of their wind, let’s say 35%.  But if you get it wrong, and the odds are in favor of getting it wrong, then you are taking 0% of their wind.  But, if you patiently play the percentages and oscillate back and forth you might take an average of 10% of their wind.  That’s enough to catch a boat and better than a low probability of 35% and high probability of 0%.  As you get closer, playing the percentages only improves your chances of taking more wind.  Then you are faced with the next challenge – what to do when you catch the other boat? That’s in the next article.

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