Left or right? That may be one of the most commonly asked questions before the start of any sailboat race. And the way each crew answers this question often makes the difference between finishing near the front of the fleet or at the back. Good speed is absolutely critical in almost every race. That’s because even if you have the best tactics and strategy in the world, you will be left in the dust if you’re not going fast.

On the other hand, good speed is not a guarantee of success. In fact, if you’re headed toward the wrong side of the course, going fast may actually be a handicap. That’s why, no matter how fast you are, you must consider whether you want to go left or right. In sailboat racing, strategy is the plan you make for getting to the next mark as quickly as possible in the absence of any other boats. It’s the course of action you’d choose if you were sailing around the racecourse against only the clock.

You must work hard on the first beat to take advantage of changes in both wind direction and wind velocity, as demonstrated by the crew of Gordon Fletcher’s J/70 giJima in last year’s running of Conanicut Yacht Club’s Around the Island Race. © Cate Brown/catebrownphoto.com

Your strategy is a plan for how you will take best advantage of the conditions on the racecourse. It should take into account things like wind direction, wind strength, current, waves and the position of the next mark. All these factors are different every time you go out on the water. They change constantly while you are racing and often vary across the course. As a result, the difference between going left and going right can be huge.

Strategic elements

Before you can actually plan a strategy, you must observe the racecourse and collect a bunch of helpful information. You can (and should)
actually begin
 gathering data about
wind and current before you leave the dock. Use weather forecasts and current charts, and tap into the local knowledge of other sailors. Then get out to the course area early and start looking around. After the race starts, don’t stop thinking about strategy. The wind and current are still changing, and now you have many other boats to help you see which side of the course is really favored.

Formulating a strategy

Once you have collected a bunch of observations about the wind, current and course, you’re ready to start putting together a strategy for the first beat. This should be a plan, or blueprint, to help you sail as quickly as possible from the start to the windward mark.

Your strategic plan could be as simple as, “Hit the left side hard.” Or it might be more detailed, like “Start 1/3 of the way down from the RC boat and play the oscillating shifts up the middle right side.” Whatever helps you is what you should use. Don’t forget to keep re-thinking your strategy during the race since you will constantly get more information about the wind and other strategic factors. One more thing is to make sure you think ahead. For example, you should always develop a gameplan before you start the race; don’t wait until you’re part way up the beat to start thinking about it.

Before you can actually plan a strategy, you must observe the 
racecourse and collect a bunch 
of helpful information.

When you don’t have a clue

There will be times, of course, when you’ll have no idea whether to go left or right. In fact, even the best sailors don’t have a strong feeling about which way to go on the first beat in as many as 50% of the races they sail. When this happens, what should you do?

Unless you’re sure the right or left side is favored, don’t go there. Stay near the middle of the fleet and keep your eyes open. The beginning of the first beat is a great time for seeing what the wind is doing and which side is paying off. Once you get some clues about which boats are gaining, head that way quickly. Of course, you’ll probably come out behind boats that sailed straight for this favored side. But you took much less of a risk than they did, and hopefully you’ll still be in the top group at the first mark. If you can do this every race, you’ll be successful.

This article originally appeared in David Dellenbaugh’s Speed & Smarts, The newsletter of how-to tips for racing sailors. If you want to sail faster and smarter, log onto SpeedandSmarts.com.