Sailboat racing would be a lot easier if there weren’t so many boats getting in your way all the time. Even when you have fast boatspeed and a sound strategic game plan, you won’t get to the windward mark very quickly if you let other boats push you around the racecourse. That’s why you need good upwind tactics.

Tactics are the boat-on-boat moves you make when you are fighting for position with other boats. The purpose of these moves is to give yourself more control over where you sail on the race course. By maintaining control, you will be better able to follow your strategy for using the wind and other strategic factors to sail up the beat as fast as possible.

Of course, in the ideal world you wouldn’t want to use many tactics at all. Each time you tack to avoid a starboard tacker or foot off to keep your air clear, you lose ground to every other boat that is sailing fast in the right direction. So the first rule of thumb is to use tactical moves only when they are really necessary. Sometimes sailors become so fixated on beating one particular boat that they lose half the fleet in the process. Don’t be one of them.


Even though you have the right of way on starboard tack, you still need to keep a good lookout for converging port tackers. That’s because if one boat tacks on your lee bow it could disrupt your entire gameplan. Prevent this by keeping a good lookout to leeward.   ©


When you do need to use tactical moves, your success will depend on several factors. The first is how good you are at boathandling. By definition, tactics involve maneuvering in close quarters with other boats. If you and your crew are not very practiced at tacking, ducking, footing and luffing, you will lose a lot of distance (and boats!) on your way to the windward mark. So if you want to be better at tactics, go back to the basics and work on your team’s boathandling skills.

The second factor that’s critical for good tactics is knowledge of the racing rules. When you are duking it out with your competition, you must absolutely know your rights and obligations according to the rulebook – otherwise it will be very difficult to control your destiny.

The final piece of the puzzle for improving your tactical abilities is simply having some boat-on-boat moves in your repertoire, and knowing when and how to use them. There are two possible goals of any tactical maneuver. The first is to improve your own position in the race. Most of the moves described in this issue fall into this category. They help you maintain choices when you are near other boats so it’s easier to stick with your strategic gameplan. Almost all sailors should focus on this goal during most of their racing.

There is, however, a second tactical goal – to slow other boats. You might want to keep them from passing you in a race, or to push them back so you can win a series. I generally don’t advocate hurting other boats because it can 1) take focus off your own gameplan, and 2) make them do the same to you. However, there are certain times (e.g. at the end of a race or series, in match or team racing) when using your boat and wind shadow to block or slow other boats is a legitimate tactic.

Now get ready to plunge into the chess game you must play any time you race upwind in a fleet! ■

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.

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