By David Dellenbaugh

A successful leeward mark rounding begins well before you get to the two-length zone. In fact, there are many things you can do before you reach the mark to prepare for your rounding and the next leg. The more you can work on these before the leeward-mark fire drill, the better off you’ll be.

Strategize for the next beat

You can (and probably should) start thinking about your strategy for the next beat soon after you begin the run or reach. One thing you can do is observe the wind and keep track of shifts as you sail down the leg.

Your goal is to put together a gameplan to help you sail the next leg as quickly as possible. This strategy should include, as a minimum, the side of the course you like, and it should be in place well before you reach the leeward mark (so you can set up your rounding to help you follow your strategy).

When you strategize for the second beat, take into account what happened on the first beat. The conditions may have changed, though, so don’t automatically go the way that was favored before.

Prepare for your takedown

Getting your chute down cleanly is an important ingredient in almost every successful leeward mark rounding (unless your boat doesn’t have a spinnaker), so do everything you can ahead of time to make this go smoothly. For example, clear the tail of the spinnaker halyard so it is free to run. Move your jib or genoa to the leeward side, and get it ready for a quick hoist.

As you sail closer to the mark, put your centerboard down (if necessary) and hoist the jib. Do both of these things before you drop the spinnaker since a) they won’t slow you down very much, and b) you won’t want to worry about them in the middle of your rounding.

Adjust sails for upwind speed

Part of a good mark rounding is having fast upwind speed right after you round the mark. To do this you must set up your sails optimally before you reach the mark.

As you start getting near the end of the run, think ahead about the next beat. What wind velocity will you have? (Don’t be fooled by lower apparent wind on the run.) And how much chop will there be? Often there is less wind and more waves around the leeward mark.

Before you begin the hectic mark rounding, adjust your vang, cunningham, outhaul, backstay, jib leads and so on for the next leg. Most of these will probably need to be changed from their downwind trim. Don’t just automatically put them back to their settings for the first beat since the conditions at the leeward mark will almost certainly be at least a little different than they were when you were near the windward mark.

Take your spinnaker down early

One of the most costly errors you can make at any leeward mark is having a bad spinnaker takedown. Problems with the chute can cost you many positions or boatlengths, so unless you are fighting to gain or break an inside overlap, drop your spinnaker early.

In most cases, an early takedown will cost you almost nothing compared to a late takedown. As they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when it’s breezy, the current is with you, or you have an inexperienced crew.

Before you drop your spinnaker, think ahead to the next windward mark and, if possible, take your chute down on the side that will be to leeward for the next set. On a typical course with mark roundings to port, this will be the port side (unless you’re planning a jibe set).


How far from the leeward mark should you drop your spinnaker? It’s tempting, especially with other boats nearby, to fly the chute as long as possible to gain or break a last-second overlap. But usually a takedown that’s too late is much more costly than one that’s too early. So it’s better to be conservative and err on the side of dropping early. © Spectrum Photo/Fran Grenon

Fight for position at the mark

When you’re close with other boats, spend the last part of the run or reach trying to gain an inside overlap on the boat(s) just ahead. If you are approaching a typical leeward mark that you will round to port, your strategy is fairly simple – sail toward the left side (looking downwind) as you near the leeward mark. This will put you on the inside and will also give you right of way as a starboard tacker when you converge with other boats.

If there are other boats overlapped inside of you, it may be best to slow down so you can round right behind them. Tactically, your goal should almost always be to round close enough to the mark so you can reach out and touch it.

Remember the little things

At any complex maneuver like a leeward mark rounding, remember to take care of details such as:

• Keep communicating with your crew and/or skipper. For example, what kind of takedown will you be doing? What is your strategic plan after the mark? What will be your upwind target speed?

• Look around to see if there is a race committee boat nearby that may be signalling a course change. Make sure you know where the next (windward) mark is, and which is the longer tack going upwind.

• On bigger boats, record the times when you and other boats round the mark. This allows you to calculate where you stand on corrected time, which will help you plan strategy and tactics.

• If you have instruments and you’ll be coming back to this mark, punch in its GPS position so you’ll have a waypoint and bearing on the next run.

• If you’re the helmsperson, keep it simple. Don’t put your crew in a situation where it’s impossible to pull off a good rounding.

Keep sailing fast

Don’t stop working on speed as you approach the leeward mark. While there are certain times when you may need to slow down to have a better rounding, it’s usually important to maintain as much speed as possible around the mark so you’ll be fast when you start the next leg.

When you are fighting for overlaps and trying to pull your chute in, it’s easy to get sloppy and lose track of the big picture. The important thing to remember here is that every inch matters, so keep focused on priorities around the mark. ■

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.