This article on covering is an excerpt from Tactics To Win by Nick Craig. Nick is the ‘Champion of Champions’, having won the Endeavour Trophy six times. He has also won 35 National Championships, 5 European Championships and 12 World championships to date, in a variety of classes including the B14, D-One, Enterprise, Finn, Merlin Rocket, OK and Phantom. Remarkably he is not a professional sailor – all of this has been achieved alongside a full-time job. Nick was awarded the YJA Yachtsman of the Year in 2011 and the Yachts & Yachting Amateur Sailor of the Year in 2013.
Defensive Upwind Sailing Tactics
Note: Tactics can be grouped into 3 categories. Attacking, consolidating, and defensive. You adopt an attacking tactical mindset if you need to gain places. Whereas, you adopt a defensive mindset when you want to preserve your lead over your competitor(s). Close cover is a defensive strategy.
When to cover:
How hard you defend a position depends on how far advanced the race is, how the fleet is distributed and where you are versus your outcome objectives.
Progression of race: Early in a race, defending hard would be a gamble except in extreme circumstances (e.g. you just need to stop one opponent to win a championship). Defending hard early in a race could result in place losses that you are unable to make up. At this stage the fleet is much more tightly compacted so any distance loss from being involved with other boats can result in a lot of places lost. Therefore, you should usually focus on your own race early in the race and avoid boat-on-boat tactical battles.
Fleet distribution: If there is a big gap in front of you and a big gap after the boat you are defending against, a hard defence may make sense as you aren’t potentially foregoing place gains or risking place losses. This works the other way – hard attack can be appropriate if there is a big gap behind you and lots of opportunity for gain ahead.
Status vs. outcome objective: If you are ahead of your objectives and this place is key you may choose to defend hard. If you are behind your objectives, you should probably be attacking the race rather than defending.
Defending hard upwind means staying between your opposition and the windward mark and sitting on their wind to ensure that they receive dirty wind so slowing them up.
However, it can be appropriate to increase the gap on the boat behind (e.g. you are about to head onto a downwind leg to the finish where an increased gap greatly reduces your vulnerability to attack). In this case you need to stop defending and start attacking.
If your opponent is getting very close to you and may slip by, things may get too close to keep defending hard and, again, attack may be your best option.
At the 1989 Bloody Mary (yes, it appears that I am old!), we were lying 3rd up the final beat in a Cadet with Rob Larke very close behind us. There was no scope for place gains. So we covered Rob hard. Rob overtook us because he stayed in phase with the shifts whilst we tried to cover. It did not work as we were always out of phase with the shifts and got sucked backwards. An early lesson on when to stop defending hard!
In these circumstances, you should aim to move back into attack mode, working the shifts and pressure to stay ahead and, if possible, protect the right-hand side. If things are close, the starboard boat has right of way. However, you should be fluid on this. If left is paying heavily, you should protect left.
When to use loose cover
To consolidate your position, you should continue to sail for shifts and pressure but keep an eye on your opposition. So you may sail through a shift (i.e. not tack on what you think is a header), if that keeps you in touch with your opposition
Diagram: If yellow decides not to tack on a header you may also choose not to and stay with him
If the wind is shifty and unstable, spending too much time looking at the opposition and following their track will cause you to lose phase with windshifts and pressure. In these conditions, your cover needs to be looser and you need to be less distracted by the fleet or your attempt to consolidate will result in place losses.
In steadier wind, you can afford to cover harder and watch the fleet more to ensure that you consolidate your position.
For more tactical top tips Tactics to Win can be bought from Amazon here.