Expert sailing tips: pre-race strategy

Yachting World

Few sailors have had as much winning success as 17-time world champion Glenn Ashby. He shares his pre-race strategy tips with Andy Rice

Good race strategy is about doing as much pre-race homework as possible and getting that pre-race strategy right. As a young Australian growing up far from the sea in the northern part of Victoria, Glenn Ashby wasn’t thinking about race strategy. He just wanted to go fast. But after buying his first second-hand catamaran, Ashby’s enthusiasm for speed led him on to a career that has seen him scale most of the high peaks of professional competition.

As well as learning how to make a boat go quicker through the water, Ashby is equally as passionate about sailing the shortest distance on the race course. That’s where a solid strategy comes in. The kind of boat you are racing is also a critical factor, as is your attitude to risk.

Do your homework

Do as much advance homework on a regatta venue as you can possibly manage. There’s so much good information available on the internet, and it’s also a good idea to talk to other sailors who have experience of racing there before.

It wasn’t until I started travelling internationally at the age of 17 that I began to appreciate all the different types of conditions that you can get. Flat water or wavy venues, some very tidal, some very shifty, others very steady. You need to get to grips with the prevailing conditions for any venue as quickly as you can.

Once you arrive at the venue, make a point of talking to the locals. Race officials, club members, even weekend warriors who may not be at the same level as you still have really useful local knowledge to offer. Those little gems that you pick up from local sailors can be the difference between winning or losing a regatta.

At the venue

America’s Cup teams sometimes have a whole department focused on winning the first wind shift. That first couple of minutes after the start can often shape the whole race.

Sometimes the analysis starts two days before the actual race even takes place. You’re discussing the likely type of conditions that you’re heading into, and also the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents. It’s always good to have this kind of discussion every morning, so that the whole team understands the thinking and the plans for how you’re going to attack the course.

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Choose your favoured side and make sure your start strategy enables you to get there. Photo: Sailing Energy

Once you get out on the course, if you’ve got a friend or a training partner, do a split tack where you agree to sail away from each other on opposite tacks. Then, after an agreed number of minutes, tack back again on to converging tacks to see who comes out ahead. You shouldn’t take the result of your split tack as gospel, but it can certainly help you make a more informed decision about which side you think will pay.

Stand tall

Now, I’m not the tallest bloke, so maybe the next tip is more important for me than it is for you! Standing up in the boat to get a higher perspective on the race course, can be really useful. Even better if you have someone go up the rig to take a bird’s eye view of the course and the breeze, but even just standing up at deck level will give you a better sense of what’s going on with the breeze in the final minutes up to the start.

Set your start priorities

It’s really important to get a start that puts you in a position to execute on your strategy.

If you’ve identified that it’s a ‘go right’ upwind leg, then set yourself up to be able to get to the right. If you get a great start off the pin end but then have to look over your shoulder waiting for everyone else to tack on to port, you’re going to be one of the last boats to go right.

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So make sure your priorities on the start line are in line with your overall race strategy. The faster your boat and the higher the speed penalty for tacking, the more important every manoeuvre becomes. That’s why a port tack start in a fast skiff or multihull can be such a good move.

Even though you don’t ‘win’ the start, if a port tack start behind the fleet launches you out to the right-hand side in clear air on a favoured race track, you’re already ahead.

Keep your head on a swivel

Growing up on a lake, as a kid I learned to sail with the sort of shifty, random type of breeze that frustrates a lot of sailors. But for me, I’d say that was one of the most critical things in my sailing development – being able to accept random breeze and keeping your head on a swivel.

If you can learn to sail your boat accurately even while you’re looking around for the next shift, it’s a great skill to have, and vital to joining the dots together on a tricky race track.

Glenn Ashby

Glenn Ashby has won 17 world championship titles in a range of fast multihulls as well as Olympic silver in the Tornado catamaran. A three-time America’s Cup winner, the Australian sailor is now chasing the wind-powered land speed world record with Emirates Team New Zealand.


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