How to Improve Fast – 6. Transitions
By Luis Soubie (Photo courtesy of John Payne - 2014 WH&O Championship) It is very important to have good speed, but more important is to sail a good race. This is easier to say than do, but there is one thing we can do well with just a little training and concentration, and that is transitions. What are transitions? These are the maneuvers that change the state of our boat. They include anything other than straight-line sailing: approaching the line to start, rounding a buoy, giving space to a right-of-way boat, or even making a 720. We all speed test for hours and hours, and this gains us only in few boat lengths per race. The transitions can make us gain or lose up to ten times this distance. So let's talk a bit about transitions in the next chapter of "How to improve fast, fast". ...
By Luis Soubie
(Photo courtesy of John Payne – 2014 WH&O Championship)
It is very important to have good speed, but more important is to sail a good race.
This is easier to say than do, but there is one thing we can do well with just a little training and concentration, and that is transitions.
What are transitions? These are the maneuvers that change the state of our boat. They include anything other than straight-line sailing: approaching the line to start, rounding a buoy, giving space to a right-of-way boat, or even making a 720.
We all speed test for hours and hours, and this gains us only in few boat lengths per race. The transitions can make us gain or lose up to ten times this distance.
So let’s talk a bit about transitions in the next chapter of “How to improve fast, fast”.
Every one has a technical part, for example the tack or jibe itself, and a tactical part (the interaction with other boats).
Always remember that in transitions, the golden rule is to anticipate what others will do and then decide what you are going to do. When in doubt, eliminate unnecessary risks.
There are six basic transitions, and we’ll discuss the first two in detail:
1. Find your space before the start
2. Take and defend that space and accelerate
3. Every tack and every jibe
4. Any mark rounding
5. Any penalty turn
6. Any maneuver to give space to another boat
1. Find your starting space
There are a thousand opinions about how to do this right.
I personally do not like to look for space a long time before the gun. Defending a place for 2 minutes seems stupid and unproductive, and it almost always ends up with someone taking my space at 30 seconds to go, who then starts the way I intended to, right below me, ruining my start.
It is clear that you have to be that “someone” and not the other way around.
Of course I have already decided ahead of time in which sector I want to start (LINK TO article “the start”), but the last thing I will do is go to that sector. Partly because I do not want to have to defend a space for a long time, and also because in smaller less aggressive fleets, there are sometimes people who follows me everywhere I go. So if we arrive very early at our choosen place, we end up starting surrounded by too many boats and with much more risk of a bad start.
Million dollar tip: it is better to “arrive” than to “be there”. (Same as in soccer when you expect a corner kick.)
2 million dollar tip: “the start line is a place to arrive at fast, and then abandon it even faster! Not to live in it.”
So as a general rule, in the first 3 minutes of the starting sequence I do not really do anything tactical. I sail from here to there, trying not to show where I will start; I clean the centerboard and rudder, I take another drink of water, I look up the course to see if there is a new gust or something has changed, I look over the boat and I try to give me and my crew courage. Nothing will stop us!
At about two minutes to go I head to a place between where I intend to start and the pin, about 30 meters to the left of the chosen place.
I like to do my search for space in the last 90 seconds, while on port tack, sailing 2 or 3 boat lengths below the boats that are creeping towards the line, going “against the stream” but with care.
I do this for a number of reasons. The two most important ones are:
1. All the boats on starboard (even the ones luffing) are slowly sailing toward the pin. If I sail the line at full speed in the same direction, my choice of space will be very limited. It doesn´t work for me. If I’m already on starboard but not in a good space, it is better for me to slow down, and to allow the boats below me to separate a little toward the pin.
2. If I am on starboard tack sailing under a group of boats, every boat that sees me coming is going to get scared, thinking that I’m going to stick it in to leeward and squeeze up (which I would gladly do). Those boats are going to accelerate instinctively, keeping me from going in to leeward or making it harder for me by closing up the space too much.
If I go above boats on the line, possibly somebody will take me up, and if there is a Z or I flag, it won’t be good.
So the best place for me is reaching on port tack to find my space.
I look for a place where all the boats are luffing on starboard. I am at full speed, and none of them can do anything to keep me from sailing through the row of boats quietly in search of my space.
With 20 or 30 seconds to go, I sail by 10 or 20 boats, seeing several spaces between boats. I choose the best of the 3 or 4 spaces that I see.
When I finally choose my space, I tack below the poor guy who has been taking care of it for me, and I sail forward agressively with speed. My new neighbor can do nothing more than look at me with a resigned face.
In general I tack 90/110 seconds before the start and get to my space with 50-40 seconds left before the gun. If by 30 seconds to go I have not found a space yet, I tack to starboard and I luff up fast, pressing up, asking for space, and I make my own space, which surely will not be as good as if I find one that is already made.
In this case we will probably start with a boat close to leeward, but we will start pretty well,. We will never be worse than if we had tried to defend the indefensible for two minutes, with a boat that tacks to leeward 20 seconds before the gun.
This way, I have to defend my space to leeward for less time, and during a time in which few boats are still looking for a place. The windward boat is in trouble from the moment I tack below him; he has to avoid me. The leeward boat does not have the time nor the speed to climb and bother us and is more focused on the boat below.
2. Defending the position
So far so good, but taking the space is only half the work of starting. You have to defend it for 30 or 40 seconds, and sometimes that’s the hardest part (which is why we do not want to do it for 2 minutes!)
What do we have to defend against? Those who want to occupy our space to leeward!
Although there is little time to the gun, there might be another boat who does the same as us, but later, and there are several ways in which a boat can try to attack that space we just got.
The boats that come in from behind on starboard tack are the most predictable (that’s why we do not want to be one of them). If we have enough space, we can defend our leeward hole by aggressively heading down, “inviting” him to come in above us.
Remember, boats that come in from behind must first establish an overlap before they can ask for space, and then they have to give you enough time and space to stay clear.
People often ignore this, asking for space right away, placing their boat so close that you cannot tack or do anything without touching them.
You can protest if this happens, even without touching them, and if a jury sees this you will win it; if not, it is hard to prove. Try to avoid it.
Use your leeward space either to accelerate at the start, or to bear off and prevent a boat from getting into it.
These maneuvers, when you do it, should be clear, firm and aggressive. That is the only way to say “NO ONE ENTERS HERE.”
If a boat comes from above, one of those crazy people who runs the line above it without a brake or conscience, he will try to sneak into the line at some point. You may also bear off a bit so he does not enter into your space; or, if the space is large enough, let him in; he will most likely end up closer to the boat below.
If possible, encourage him to continue sailing down the line to find another space.
Never, NEVER, go high to try to stop his progress.
And finally, if you see a boat coming in on port with 30 seconds to go, and it is an experienced sailor looking for a space on the line, relax and learn how it is done; there is no defense, and anything you try will ruin your start. You may try to close off the hole if you see it coming in time, but if he is hidden by the boat below it will not give you time to do much. That’s why you have to be that boat on port.
The risk of a late port start, of course, is that there is always a risk of not getting a place in the front row. Then you end up depending of luck, which is very risky.
Remember, the start IS THE RACE. All this is difficult to do and requires a little practice and courage, but there is no way to start most of your races well without aggressivness and courage.
See you next chapter.
“HOW TO IMPROVE FAST” is a series of short articles to the sailors who usually end up outside the first third of the fleet in most races.
They are sailors who week after week try to improve, try to repeat what they did in that race in which they finished better. They try to stay in front when they round the first mark near the leaders, but most of the time they fall back without knowing why..
The goal of all this is to provide some technical elements to help them stop committing some recurring errors immediately, so they can see results right away.
Of course, and this needs to be said, this is just my humble PERSONAL opinion, and others will have an equally valid different one. This is what I’ve learned or observed in the 35 years I’ve been racing sailboats, 26 of them under the “fat bird”, and what I try to do or avoid every weekend.