Upwind Sailing Tactics


Upwind Sailing Tactics

Tactics can be the difference between success and disaster when it comes to dinghy racing. And upwind sailing is where tactics come into play the most.

But… before we start lets define the difference between tactics and strategy so we’re all clear.

Strategy is your plan to get round the race course as quickly as you can; taking into account the conditions.

Conversely, Tactics is how you manage other boats so their effect on your boat speed and strategy is minimal. And if you’re not the kind of person that tries to make friends on the race course then you might also use tactics to upset the speed or strategy of the boats you’re competing against.

The Basics

Unless you are at a high level you don’t need to know much about tactics. You really only need to know 3 rules and have the confidence to stand up for yourself when you know you have the rules on your side. Don’t be scared of sailors that are bigger and better than you. Even Ben Ainslie has to get out of your way if you’re on starboard!

So, here are the 3 rules you need to know…

  1. Port/ Starboard (Rule 10)
  2. Windward/ Leeward (Rule 11)
  3. Mark Room (Rule 18)

If you study those rules so you know them better than your times-table then you won’t have too many problems. Here are the Racing Rules Of Sailing to peruse at your leisure: https://www.sailing.org/tools/documents/WorldSailingRRS20172020new-[24067].pdf

Getting More Advanced…

If you want to take your tactics up a notch I’ve found the best way to do it is to get into the habit of noting down, post-race, any tactical mistakes you make. And then note down what you could have done instead- if you have no idea then ask a helpful club member what they’d have done.

Then periodically when you want to brush up on your tactics knowledge you can look over all those past tactical situations. Over time this knowledge will become engrained so when you come up against the same tactical situation in future you’ll know automatically how to react.

I lay my “tactics diary” out like this:

Situation: [Explain the circumstances that lead to your mistake]

Solution: [Explain how you would have reacted in hindsight]

Here are a few examples for some upwind tactics situations. You can copy these and add to them yourself. I keep them in a Word document on my computer entitled ‘Tactical Situations’.

Upwind Sailing Tactical Situations


Situation: You’re on starboard tack and have to deal with a port tack boat that can’t quite cross you. You want to continue on starboard tack?

Solution: Tell them ‘Hold Your Course’. This lets the port tack boat know you are letting them cross you. This is best if ducking behind them only requires a minor change of course and you feel that you are on the most strategical tack (heading in the best direction considering the current wind & water conditions).

If this is the case you don’t want the port tack boat tacking just ahead and too leeward of you, which will slow you down. Calling starboard on them would help them out as it would mean them tacking onto the right tack! Let them carry on sailing the wrong tack.


Situation: You’re on starboard tack and have to deal with a port tack boat that can’t quite cross you. You want to tack soon anyway because you believe the port tack is now favoured.

Solution: Shout ‘starboard’ to get them to tack. This disadvantages them boat as they are forced to tack away from the favoured tack.


Situation: You’re on port tack and are unsure over whether you will be able to cross a starboard tack boat.

Solution(s): Duck them or tack

  1. If you are on the lifted tack then duck them and take the loss so you stay on the advantaged tack.
  2. If you’re on the headed tack then tack close to them but not so close they role over you and leave you in their dirty wind. If you expect a starboard header soon then this position allows you to tack back.
  3. If you’re near the port tack layline then duck the starboard tack boat as it can be disadvantageous to get to the layline early.
  4. If there are lots of boats to your left then tacking into them doesn’t make much sense as they will likely lee bow you when you shout starboard and this isn’t fast. So if tacking means heading towards a crowded section of the racecourse then it’s probably best to duck instead.

If you’ve made a tactical mistake where you aren’t sure what you could have done let me know and I’ll try to help.

Give this quiz a go for a fun way to brush up on your tactics knowledge: http://game.finckh.net/indexe.htm





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