By David Dellenbaugh

There are certain scenarios that always seem to play out when you get near a layline. Somebody tacks on you, or you have the chance to tack on somebody. The wind shifts so you are no longer on the layline. You have to make a choice about whether to do two more tacks or sail straight, but slowly, toward the mark. In each of these situations, the decision you make usually has a significant consequence – it leads to big gains or big losses. And each dilemma is complicated by the fact that often, due to the nearby presence of other boats, you have to make a decision quickly. Of course, the best way to resolve most of these common scenarios is to avoid them in the first place. But when that doesn’t happen, here are some thoughts on how best to handle them.

1. Take a lift or aim at the mark?

Sometimes when you’re on the layline and aiming right at the mark you get lifted. This isn’t bad, because at least you’re still making the mark. But it calls for a decision: Should you ease sheets and keep sailing straight toward the mark, or head up with the lift to sail high of the mark?

The answer depends primarily on how far you are from the mark (and therefore how sure you are about what the wind will do before you reach the mark). If you knew that the lift was going to hold all the way to the mark, you would ease sheets and aim at the mark to sail the shortest distance.

Since you’re never certain about what the wind will do, you may have to sail a compromise. If you’re quite close to the mark (with less chance the wind will shift before you get there), sail straight and fast to the mark. If you’re very far from the mark (greater chance of a windshift), you should also sail straight to the mark. This will put you in the best shape for a header (‘sail toward the shift’) or a lift (you’ll have a faster angle to the mark than if you had sailed higher).

The middle distances are trickier. There is a range where you want to take some of the lift and sail higher to put some ‘money in the bank’ in case you get headed. This may not turn out to be the fastest way to get to the mark, but think of it as ‘insurance’ to make sure you won’t have to make two more tacks.

2. Tack first or wait for the windward boat to tack?

We’ve all been here before – sailing closer and closer to the layline, waiting for a boat on our windward side to tack and feeling we’ve lost control. This dilemma seems to have two possible outcomes, both negative. We could tack first, but they’d probably tack too (giving us a choice of bad air or two more tacks); or we could wait for them to tack, but then we’d be overstanding the mark and losing to every other boat in the fleet.


There are certain advantages in getting to the layline early. This gives you a chance to build speed for the rounding, reserves you a spot in the starboard-tack lineup and gives you time to prepare for your spinnaker set. But there’s a fine line between reaching the layline ‘early enough’ and ‘too early.’ The more time you spend on your final approach, the bigger your risk of sailing extra distance or getting

The best solution is probably to rewind this scenario a bit and tack early. If you tack before the other boat has any thought of being on the layline (but when she’s close enough to the layline that she might not want to do two more tacks), you greatly reduce the chance that she’ll tack on you. If that opportunity is lost, tack first if you are fairly close to the mark or if it’s pretty windy (when being in bad air is not so slow). Wait for them to tack first when you’re a long way from the mark or it’s light air (and bad air is very slow).

3. Make two tacks or continue in bad air?

OK, you got to the layline a little earlier than you wanted and now a boat ahead of you has just planted a tack directly to windward. You can still lay the mark on starboard tack, even in bad air, but would it be better to tack twice and clear your wind?

The best solution to this dilemma depends primarily on how far you are from the mark. If you are very close to the mark you won’t lose as much by sailing in bad air as you would by tacking twice, so the choice is fairly easy. Likewise, if you’re very far from the mark the distance you lose by tacking twice is probably small compared to what you’d lose by sitting in bad air all the way to the mark. Easy choice again. It’s the middle distances where you face a tougher choice

4. Pinch up to the mark or tack twice?

Here’s another “Tack twice?” conundrum. Sometimes you approach the windward mark a little below the layline – you can still fetch it on starboard tack but you have to make a choice – either pinch up slowly around the mark, or do two quick tacks. The best solution depends on several factors:

• How slow will you be if you pinch around the mark? If you can carry your momentum and coast around the mark, that’s a lot better than if you have to slowly squeeze past it.

• What is the cost of two quick tacks in your boat in the existing conditions? If you’re sailing a dinghy in moderate air and flat water, this option is a lot less painful than downspeed tacks in a keelboat in light air and chop.

• Where do you want to go on the next leg? If you are happy to stay high on starboard jibe on the run, it’s not so bad to be slow at the mark. But if you want to do a jibe set or exit low on starboard jibe, you really need to round the mark with speed. In that case, two tacks may be your better option.

5. Tack on the layline or on the overstanding boat?

Here’s a tough one: As you approach the layline, you see a boat that’s slightly behind you and overstanding the mark by a couple or a few boatlengths. Should you tack on the layline or go a little farther and tack just in front of the other boat?

The benefit of tacking on the other boat is that they won’t prevent you from tacking if you misjudge the layline; you can also put them a little farther behind you at the windward mark. However, if it’s windy or if they are overstood by very much, your bad air will not really hurt them.

The downside of tacking on the other boat is that you’ll lose a few lengths to every other boat in the fleet. The rule of thumb here (even in match racing when you’re worried only about the other boat) is that it’s best to tack on your layline. Go just far enough to be sure you’ll fetch the mark and then tack, avoiding the temptation to go as far as your competitor. This is fastest and may earn you some goodwill, too. ■

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

A resident of Easton, CT, Dellenbaugh was tactician and starting helmsman for America3’s successful defense of the America’s Cup in 1992. He’s a Lightning World Champion, two-time Congressional Cup winner, seven-time Thistle National Champion, two-time winner of the Canada’s Cup, three-time Prince of Wales U.S. Match Racing Champion, and a winner of the U.S. Team Racing Championships for the Hinman Trophy.