Fleet Racing the Fleet Race
Rick West, June 2002
In California there is this delight to pass as many cars possible provided the opportunity before turning off the road. This behavior has become the manner of driving among an ever increasing few. The increase in number is by population for the cycle is mostly short. Humans do learn when some alarming shock of fate hopefully gives time to reflection. The first windward mark is not the freeway exit to the shopping center, there are many more turns in the road and in many cases plenty of time. On the freeway, when most are doing 70, one can increase their speed to dive into one more place ahead in line. The EC12 has not shown those abilities even by the best. Besides we are civilized with rules and social etiquette. This is a fleet race not a match race.
Fleet racing the fleet race may sound like an absurd statement but think about it. What are the main objectives on the first leg to the weather mark? You need boat speed to be maneuverable. You want to be in control with the ability to tack. You need to have visibility and have your eyes off the boat as soon as possible. You need to be a pack animal orderly moving along till things become clearer. It would be nice to arrive in clear air but that will come if you stick to your strategy and apply the tactics needed. If you get into match racing everyone that comes near, you will look up to find the fleet has passed you by.
The start is the base for a strategy to sail fast and clean to the windward mark. This does not mean that being on the line at the bell and at full speed is needed. Sometimes this would be nice, however, having a lane open ahead and to windward would be preferable even if presented were you five seconds late. Following a group at speed by the starboard pin for a starboard tack is better than being on the line leeward and in bad air. You are in more control with open water to windward, room to tack, control of boats to the lee and good visibility. The port tacking boats that cross your bow will be few and by the time you have completed the first tack to port and to the right side of the course, you will be among the few at the head of the fleet. The mark rounding should be clean with room for all and no pinching. It is not a time to take risks. You want to stay on the freeway not exit.
Now is the time to take a breather, view the field and think during the downwind run. Sound good? It is not Utopia but it will happen often as the result of your effort.
However, enroute there are overlap duals, contests during the start, lee-bow attempts or other attacks that try to take you off your strategy. You do not want to sail within the fleet and arrive at the windward mark with the majority. Using match racing tactics to attack another boat or use of the rules to hinder another that takes you off your proper course is counter to the strategy of moving to the top of the fleet. It can be assured that while you are engaged and distracted, others will move by. It is unlikely you will recover from this to catch the few at the top.
Letís look at it in more detail with some examples. This Dummy has always felt that a reasonable race plan is to review my weaknesses and to move up in the standings by correcting some of them. The majority of these reflections have been to improve the position on the water, stay out of confrontations and sail free of infractions. This has been the plan and one that requires a long course, first because of the Dummy and secondly, one race is too short to cure all the ills or even address them.
The strategy has been to get a clean start regardless of time and to be in a clear lane as far windward as allowed. Most of the time this will put me into more open water after the first tack is complete. This in turn will place me in a stand off position with most boats and thereby, lessen the chance for a confrontation or a penalty. This cannot be done every time but if more this regatta than the last one, I will have done better and that is my win.
Part of strategy is to observe the course and chose a side of the course you will prefer. This could be where steadier air is, a higher tack to windward or positioning for the final lay line to the windward mark. Whatever your reasons are it is to play on your mind so that when a time comes for a decision on the race course there will be no hesitation on your part. A few seconds of hesitation might be your last for that position.
Here are two examples:
1. You are on a starboard tack with a port tacker approaching that will not clear you. You have rights but where do you want to go? Where do you want him to go? If push comes to shove, he will have to tack. If you want to continue to the left side, would you want him to tack and lee-bow you? I would think not. Give her a break and let her go through and let the captain know this. Ease the sails a bit to add power and slide behind her. You both win and the captain may give you a break later, there is little chance of a confrontation and you are still in clear air.
If you want to head for the right side, force him to tack then you tack. Even if the other boat tacks again, she will be slowed and you are heading where you want to go in clear air.
Letís say the other captain wants to go left with you and attempts a lee-bow. The maneuver is successful in that she is now slightly ahead and leeward. This is not good for you as your apparent wind will change. Tack, gain speed and tack back to starboard for the left side. You are in clear air and in control again.
What was needed for all this? You need position and room to tack or maneuver and air to maintain speed. While this can be considered a match racing move, you are in more open water to deal with this. How vital is it to your strategy to go where you want to go? If this situation will continue to absorb concentration, I will abandon the effort and even give up the position rather than have others pass me. If it goes on, it is a confrontation.
2. It is best to set yourself up for a starboard start at the starboard pin. However, so is the National Champion and the rest of the top five in the series cup. One would think this would be a challenge requiring a moment of greatness. The Dummy does not figure on those illusive dreams. They have maneuvered and are messing with each other as your heart rate goes up. Delay and follow. Try to be at speed passing the mark with a good view of them just slightly ahead. Tack to port and get up to speed as quickly as possible. You are in clear air. Now, tack back (if that is where you want to go) carefully and smoothly. You are now possibly alone and in more control than you had and ready for the port tackers. When that occurs, you will be in more open water with more options. Be still heart, relax and breathe.
If you are brave and with the heart rate of a test pilot and continue ahead, consider the future. Those that started leeward and were on the line at the bell will be tacking to port ahead when the Top Dogs go. This will get very busy, distracting and some one could make a mistake. Then if you survive that onslaught they will be coming at you again during your inevitable port tack. Now they will have rights.
By going right a bit after the start you may open up the course and reduce chances for an unfortunate confrontation. You may even improve your position. If not, at least you will be a bit more in control of your destiny.
There are other examples your reflections will bring to mind. The process is very slow but there will be positive moments at each event and those should be considered along with the screw ups. Consider the collisions, raft-ups and entanglements, not about what they did to you, but what you could have done to be elsewhere. Consider their breaking of the rules as your lack of anticipation. This takes on a different perspective with less cynical thought. Soon you will see a trend to your standings, which will spur you on to greatness. If you dare think of greatness then you know you are the master of your own fate, right?
If you are going to match race in a fleet race, do it on the final beat to the finish. I will do so only to protect a scoring position that I have won at the leeward mark. Care is given to open water and any boats that could close from behind. I will not get into a confrontation with any boat while others are nearby. It is better to give up the position than make a mistake and add several more. It is only one point.
A note to Race Committees:
Many regattas are more concerned with the number of races raced than of the quality of the race. One of those pressures is by the Matrix system where fairness to all is that all (besides your pairing) meet at least once and to not stop the regatta unless at least the top 10 have raced evenly against each other. This is tough and most do a good job of this. Sometimes the lack of wind or other factors limits the number of races and committees will run one lap races to off set unfairness in getting to a stopping place.
Likewise, some committees will feel that more races in the Promotion/Relegation system will cure the ills of that system.
However, a one lap race is a drag race. It is a one shot effort. The pressure of the RC is now transmitted to the captains and there are more confrontations, penalties and grumbling. Additionally, those that are less experienced do not have the time to ply the efforts of their strategy. They need more time. Therefore, they learn little and languish longer at the bottom of the fleet.
Large fleet racing is the best place to learn and gain experience. So often, on the home waters, the pecking order remains stagnant offering little positive results. When the same gather at large events, even on their waters, big fish find larger fish and the complexion is changed. So can be the results in well run and thoughtful regattas.