The "Relief" of the First Reach!
After previously looking at the "joys" of beating, Michael McNamara continues his series here by looking at what happens when you round the windward mark, and how to get the most out of the first reach.
Preparation for the reaching legs is often the last thing on most sailors' minds as they finally get to the windward mark. In windy weather they are often too exhausted to care, whilst in light airs they can he too frustrated at the time it has taken getting up the beat.
Add to these negative feelings the anarchy that reigns in the middle of large fleets, and it becomes almost irrelevant where the gybe mark is. As Billy Bacon once said: "Blow where the next mark is, where is this one?"
However, priority number one is still to get round the windward mark without actually hitting it. It is then, and only then, that those sailors who haven't planned ahead, start to get ready for the reach.
For many it is just in that relaxed moment as the boom end clears the mark that disaster so often strikes. The crew dives in from the weather gunwale to do all those things to get the boat ready for the reach. Kicker, cunningham, clew outhaul and centreboard all apparently have to be eased, and what is more, they all have to be done within microseconds of rounding the mark.
So what happens? The helm, alarmed at the boat heeling (at this stage the boom may be in the water) tries to bear away and ease the mainsheet. The boat on the other hand, is trying to broach as it builds up an impressive leeward bow wave. All of which results in a slow agonizing wipeout. No - important as all that energetic unloading of tension is, it must take a poor second place to the primary purpose of any reaching leg which is to consolidate your position on the boats that are attacking you, whilst at the same time trying to gain on the boats in front. The name of the game then is "not to lose places".
So, rounding the mark in a breeze should mean both sailors staying on the windward side. This actually helps the boat to bear away by creating a slight heel to windward, and creating a weather bow wave. Do not take this effect too far or the results will be spectacular. If there are waves about, then this is the time to catch one. It's one of life's great unsolved mysteries as to why the best waves are always those near the windward mark!
Do not look behind, do not worry about the detail, drive the boat down the face of the wave keeping the boat balanced. Your sole purpose in life is to stretch the distance between you and your attackers.
After the wave has finished with you, and the crew can safely move in without heeling the boat, all the usual jobs can be done! Of course this is in an ideal situation which is usually reserved for those who round the windward mark clear of other boats. It is perhaps only those lucky few up with the leaders who have that sort of space. Is it any wonder that they gain!
However, for the rest of us, there are some general rules which govern tactics as you bear away around the windward mark.
1. If you are leading a pack then stay fairly high to stop the opposition driving over the top of you. Remember that once one gets your wind, the rest are as good as past.
2. If you are following a gang away from the mark, then go low. Do not get drawn into the luffing match. Aim to gain an overlap for the gybe mark.
Having laid down these general rules, there are of course, other factors to take into account:
a) Be very wary of going too high if the tidal current is setting to windward and/or if the leg is likely to become an even broader reach. The tactic here is - after defending your position - to work down little by little to the rhumb line as soon as possible, taking a transit on the mark from time to time.
b) Do not go low if the tidal current is setting you to leeward or if the wind is forward of the beam, especially if it is too strong for you to handle comfortably.
It is no wonder then that in big fleets, the classic reaching chevron is very soon achieved, as boats try to stay out of the wake of the boat ahead and either go to leeward to try for the overlap or go to windward to try to steal the wind.
As boats get further from the windward mark the more they spread out, and therefore the easier it is to get free wind. So, if you have opted for the windward course, do try to get back down again in nice easy stages bit by bit. If you leave it to the last moment to bear away, then the slower you go and the easier it is for the leeward boats to get water (buoy room).
Clear air is a major concern all the way down the reach. So keep looking at the (inevitable) gang of boats around you and make sure that their pennants are not aiming at you - especially if you are within four boatlengths.
Also try to avoid the confused wash of the boats in front. This is especially important in planing or surfing conditions when it is so vital to get into the rhythm of the waves. The knack, of course, is not to look at the wave you are about to use, but the back of the one that has just left you. With the bow in the trough between the two waves, the sailors will feel the windward quarter start to lift. If possible they should almost anticipate its lift by moving to windward to keep the boat upright. If the boat is allowed to heel, even the merest amount, speed will be lost and the boat will not want to bear away. If the sailors overdo it a bit and the boat heels to windward, that doesn't matter, because it helps the boat bear away down the face of the wave without using that rudder/brake thing at the back.
The track of a boat surfing down the face of the wave will not usually be along its keel line. It will be more crab-like and at an angle. This skidding is best achieved by raising the centreboard rather more than you would think normal. The helm will be able to feel when the board is raised too much, as "helm" comes on and there is also a curved vortex wave on the windward side of the rudder wake. So, drop the board an inch or two and that's just about right.
By the way, if the board is raised too much, you'll have plenty of time to think about it as you swim around the boat to climb back on it! However, the motto is "if the board is in the box, water and its attendant weight and turbulence are not."
As the gybe mark approaches, boats start to converge again, making the problems of getting free air and smooth water even more acute.
We will cover the actual gybe mark tactics next time, but as it gets closer, think ahead. Keep saying to yourself: “Where do I want to be when I round the mark?" The longer the preparation time, the better the chance of getting it right.
Michael McNamara UKWA News #54/Summer 1992