9 Top Tips For Wind Shift Strategy

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wind shift tips

Here are some rules I use to help me respond to wind shifts. Below you’ll see a list of the tips. I’ll explain each one by one below that. Fair warning, this is a tad complicated so if you’re looking to learn the basics of wind shift strategy this post is a better place to start.

I’ve collated these rules from numerous sources as well as from personal experience. So apologies if I’ve not credited everyone. Certainly, conversations with sailing author Mark Rushall and Olympian Penny Clark have contributed. As have Stuart Walker’s great but slightly challenging books.

Before we get into these rules it’s critical you know the following… when taking advantage of wind shifts you want to chase the headers. If you are first to a header you can tack onto the new lifted tack before other boats.

With that said, here are my 9 wind shift strategy top tips…

Wind Shift Strategy Tips:

  1. The closer you get to the laylines the more your desire to tack away from them should build.
  2. If the wind shifts suddenly you should tack immediately when headed. However, if the header is gradual you may wish to dig into it a bit before tacking.
  3. If one side of the course is favoured take the shifts but prolong a tack towards the favoured side.
  4. If the wind shifts so as to disadvantage you over other boats then you should tack towards the direction the wind has shifted IF you believe the wind shift to be permanent (or if it’s the last shift of a leg). If you believe it will shift back then you probably should hold your course.
  5. If the boats ahead of you tack on a shift that hasn’t reached you yet you should tack to leeward of them in anticipation of the shift. Being to leeward of them means you’ll gain ground when the wind shifts back.
  6. Rule 5 doesn’t apply if the wind is fluky or the new shift brings a big increase in wind speed. In these cases, you shouldn’t tack until you reach the shift.
  7. If boats upwind of you and on the opposite tack are headed (or on the same tack are lifted) then you should tack to reach the next header sooner.
  8. If the beat is skewed adjust your compass numbers to take this into account.
  9. You should tack to cover in the following circumstances:
    1. You are uncertain over which tack is favoured
    2. It’s the last shift of the leg
    3. If there is no wind shift currently or you’re in a minor header

 

Explanations

Rule 1: The closer you get to the laylines the more your desire to tack away from them should build.

Laylines are risky. The closer you get to them the fewer options you have strategically. You can only make strategic decisions by switching which tack you are on. But if you’re already on the layline your tack is set (unless you’re in the business of sailing further than you need to in order to make the mark)!

To visualise this rule I imagine a birdseye view of the course like the diagram below. Windward mark at the top.

Layline zones

 

If I’m in the dark red zone I will tack back towards the centre of the course even if I am currently lifted (soon I won’t have a choice so I may as well go now and minimize the damage).

If I’m in the orange zone I’ll tack unless I am lifted.

If I’m in the yellow zone I’ll tack in a minor header.

However, there is an exception to this rule. If for some reason you are almost of the layline then you may as well get on it before tacking- especially if you are in the top third of the beat. You’ve already taken the tactical risk of getting to the laylines early so tacking at this late stage won’t help you. It will just mean you will probably have to put a double tack in when you’re nearer the mark.

This wind shift tip is similar to the sailing adage ‘long tack, short tack’. You might have heard sailors saying ‘sail the long tack first’. This is because if you sail the short tack first you get to the layline sooner and therefore, limit your options.

 

Rule 2: If the wind shifts suddenly you should tack immediately when headed. However, if the header is gradual you may wish to dig into it a bit before tacking.

The advantage of tacking immediately is that when the wind shifts back you’ll get to the header quicker than you would have if you had dug in.

However, if the header is gradual then digging into it (sailing on a few boat lengths before tacking) may make sense as this allows you to get into the header fully therefore giving you have maximum advantage when you tack. If it’s likely to be the last shift of a leg then digging in often makes sense.

 

Rule 3: If one side of the course is favoured take the shifts but prolong a tack towards the favoured side.

This helps you decide what to do when you have conflicting strategical priorities. If the shifts are important but one side of the course is favoured over the other then you should take the shifts but prolong a tack towards the favoured side. This may mean that you continue towards the favoured side even if this means continuing on a slight header.

 

Rule 4: If the wind shifts so as to disadvantage you over other boats then you should tack towards the direction the wind has shifted if you believe the wind shift to be permanent (or if it’s the last shift of a leg). If you believe it will shift back then you may wish to hold your course.

Here’s an example. You are on starboard tack on the left side of the course. The wind shifts right therefore handing boats to right of you an advantage. Those on the right of the course naturally will reach the right shift before you do so it might make sense to tack towards the right side so as to reach the shift sooner (though this will likely mean ducking and taking a loss).

Once you reach the header you should probably tack back (all else being equal).

However, if the wind shifts right the optimum course of action may simply be to hold your course if you expect the wind to shift back. If it does shift back then the advantage that boats on the right side of the course got over you because of the right shift was only a temporary gain. Tacking in this case would be a disadvantage.

Therefore, only tack if you believe the wind won’t swing back.

 

Rule 5: If the boats ahead of you tack on a shift that hasn’t reached you yet you should tack to leeward of them in anticipation of the shift. Being to leeward of them means you’ll gain ground when the wind shifts back.

The goal of sailing upwind in shifts is to be further upwind than your opponents. So when the wind shifts the most upwind boat also changes. Your goal should be to position yourself advantageously for when the next shift comes in. The goal with wind shifts is to get to the next header as soon as you can. When that hits you can tack and you’ll be lifted.

Naturally, boats further upwind will receive wind shifts before boats downwind of them. So if you are behind and see boats ahead of you tacking on a shift that hasn’t reached you yet you have a dilemma. Should you wait for it to reach you before tacking? Or should you tack now? If you expect the wind to shift back the other way during the beat then tacking now could be the best option.

Here’s a scenario to demonstrate…

Here blue is further upwind than pink and therefore receives the right wind shift before pink.

At this point, our overlay ladder rungs show that blue is 4 rungs upwind of pink. We’ll see later that this distance will shorten if pink chooses to tack before the shift hits her.

 

 

So if blue knows what she is doing she will tack on the header.

Let’s see what happens if pink tacks with her (before the right wind shift has hit her)…

Soon enough the right shift hits pink too.

After a few minutes the wind shifts from right to left forcing both boats to bear away or tack…

Because pink tacked before the left shift hit her she reached the right shift sooner than she otherwise would have. Our overlay ladder rungs now show that because of this pink is now almost level with blue. If you look back to the start of this scenario you’ll see the pink was 4 rungs behind blue.

 

 

Another disadvantage of waiting to tack on the shift is that you may well end up tacking in the dirty air of the boat ahead. At least with tacking to leeward, if you tack into the dirty air of boats ahead you can always bear away a bit to get out of it. Bearing away also can give you more speed and get you to the next header quicker. So don’t be afraid to do it when you’re in dirty air.

This kind of positioning strategy is most useful when you are only focusing on being ahead of a few boats. Less so when you are handicap racing or racing in a big fleet.

Tacking early also means boats ahead don’t cross you and therefore can’t “bank their gain”. With wind shifts it may look like you are leading but until you cross those boats your lead is only on paper. That’s why it’s important to “cross em when you can”. Likewise, if you are behind you don’t want boats ahead consolidating their paper lead by crossing you. If you decide to duck them rather than tacking to leeward you have just banked your loss.

 

Rule 6: Rule 5 doesn’t apply if the wind is fluky or the new shift brings a big increase in wind speed. In these cases, you shouldn’t tack until you reach the shift.

If it’s a fluky wind then waiting until the wind shift hits you often makes more sense. Sometimes on venues with seemingly random wind shifts you may tack to leeward of crossers anticipating the wind will shift for you soon but that shift never reaches you.

Being a lake sailor I know this all too well. Because of the trees, the wind can be very random meaning a boat just a few boat lengths away can be in a different wind than you. In these venues it usually pays to wait until the wind shift hits you before tacking. This gives you the certainty that you will get the advantage from that wind shift.

Also, if the wind shift up ahead looks like it is bringing with it a big increase in wind strength then it probably will pay to carry on and reach it asap so you can get the boat speed increase the gust will bring.

 

Rule 7: If boats upwind of you and on the opposite tack are headed (or on the same tack are lifted) then you should tack to reach the next header sooner.

Boats ahead of you are your best wind indicators. Their sailing angle indicates if the wind direction has shifted.

Therefore, if boats upwind of you and on the opposite tack are headed (or on the same tack are lifted) then this indicates the wind has shifted.

For example, if you are on starboard and boats ahead on port are headed then that indicates the wind will shift right. As you know, you want to be the first to the next header so tacking to get to the shift as soon as possible is often the best course of action.

 

Rule 8: If the beat is skewed adjust your compass numbers to take this into account.

For instance, if the windward mark is over to the right then you’ll spend more time on port tack up the beat than starboard. However, you still want to take the wind shifts.

So, the trick is to take your mean wind compass bearing (the average wind direction in the last hour or so) and move the number to the right a bit. So if the mean is 260 degrees you might move it to 280 degrees. That 20 degree move shifts the compass angles at which you tack on. So instead of sticking between 230 and 290 you’d keep between 250 and 310.

 

Rule 9: You should tack to cover in the following circumstances:
  1. You are uncertain over which tack is favoured
  2. If there is no wind shift currently or you’re in a minor header
  3. It’s the last shift of the leg

Covering is a conservative tactic and you should be fairly conservative if you want to perform consistently well. Think of sailing like tennis. Reduce those unforced errors, let other boats make the mistakes.

If no tack is favoured or you are unsure over which tack is favoured then you should tack to stick with the fleet/ tack to cover. Why would you do something different to the bulk of the fleet unless you have a reason to? The closer you stick to them the less you lose when it goes wrong. Why take a risk when you can just wait for a better opportunity to climb up the fleet?

 

 

That’s it folks. Wind shift strategy can be a bit mind-boggling at times but hopefully some of that sunk in! I’m certainly still learning to implement all this when out on the water myself. Why not take one tip you think makes sense to you and implement that next time you’re out racing? Also, if you have any wind shift strategy tips I haven’t mentioned then please share them below.

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