Beating to Windward - by Ben Morris
Return to Sailing Hints
page to examine other Hints
Getting to windward is the quintessential skill in sailing.
Other points of sailing are generally easier and offer less obstacles to
doing well. So how can you get there safely amongst the leaders?
In an ideal world the windward leg is set so that the
windward mark is directly to windward from the start or leeward mark, so in
theory tacking onto port and starboard tacks have no advantage or
disadvantage in terms of distance to sail and yachts should arrive at the
windward mark together assuming yachts sail at the same speed. Given
that every time a yacht tacks there will be some distance lost as the yacht
decelerates through the turn and regains speed on the other tack.
So rule No 1 is 'Tack as infrequently as possible'
If only things were that simple! Still the rule applies
and if there is no reason to tack - don't!.
So when do you tack and why?
When boats cross tacks and your yacht is on port tack on
a collision course then you may need to tack. The other
alternative is to free off a little and sail behind the starboard
tacker. Which is best? As a rule of thumb if you would hit
the starboard yacht in the forward sections it probably pays to tack
otherwise go behind. Make the decision early - at least 3/4 boat
lengths away. Don't wait to be called by the other boat before
reacting! If tacking do so a good boat length or even 2 away so
you still maintain clear wind. If going behind, ease the sails
slightly from 3/4 boat lengths away and aim to miss the transom of the
other boat by a small margin then harden up on the wind immediately you
have passed the other yacht. The increase in speed you get by
easing off often compensates for the distance lost to windward and
remember you haven't tacked (rule 1)!
So rule 2 is 'Tack early when on a collision course with a
starboard tack boat'
When the current tack is disadvantaged because of a wind
change. Wind in even the most open water is not constant in
direction or strength. It oscillates about an average direction
with areas of higher and lower wind speed. With a constant wind
direction coming directly from the windward mark then the angle sailed
to the rhumbline (a line drawn from the starting point to the mark) is
equal on either port or starboard tack. If the wind swings either
way then one tack is preferred over the other. You may need to
change onto this preferred tack. How do you determine this? What
are the indicators? Firstly if the wind changes so the angle
between it and your course decreases then you are trying to sail too
high. This will be indicated by your jib luffing slightly as you
are already sailing very close to the wind and a bit more is too much.
You are said to be 'headed' or to sail into a 'knock'. To maintain
speed you would need to sail a course further away from the rhumbline so
tacking is a good thing (assuming you are not going to interfere with
So rule 3 is 'Tack when sails luff where you are headed by a wind
When you reach the layline. This is an imaginary
line which indicates the direction you ought to be able to sail so you
just reach the mark. Clearly going past this line means you have
sail further than you need so wasting time. For safety sake it is
much better to approach the mark on starboard tack so aim for the
starboard layline if possible. Then all yachts approaching on port
tack have to give way. Approaching a mark on port tack must be
done with great care as the rules are quite complicated if you wish to
sneak in to a line of starboard yachts and a protest is likely to favour
the starboard boat if there is any doubt. It is thus safer to tack
before the port layline but to tack on or just beyond the starboard
So rule 4 is 'Tack before the port layline and tack on the
When it may be advantageous to be in a particular spot or
avoid another. Keep a lookout upwind at the water surface.
Smooth glassy water is usually indicative of a lull with light winds
while ruffled water can indicate a gust with increased wind strength.
All other things being equal then tacking towards more wind will be
advantageous as will tacking away from calm light patches.
So rule 5 is 'Tack towards an area of
increased wind and tack away from a lull'
When local conditions recommend keeping to one side or
area of the course. Tree, buildings, banks etc can affect the wind
flow over the course and produce 'holes' or areas of light winds.
Watch where the locals sail - especially if they are winning!! and use
this as a guide initially. In general terms though if one side of
the course or the other seems to be advantageous on the day then go that
So rule 6 is 'Tack towards the preferred side or
area of the course'.
When there is no preferred parts of the course due to
local conditions try to work towards the starboard side of the course.
This means that when other yacht approach you they will in general be on
port tack and have to give way. If they tack back to starboard
then you can tack back to port as soon as possible - i.e. when no
disadvantage - to continue to protect the starboard side of the course.
So rule 7 is 'Tack to protect the starboard side of the course'
When in the lead it may pay to keep tacking in time with
the rest of the fleet such that you maintain a position between the
fleet and the mark. This way you don't get too far away from the
rest of the fleet so that if they gat an advantageous wind shift you are
close enough to be in the same change but still covering the fleet.
So rule 8 is 'Tack to maintain a cover over the fleet when in the
Need I say it - when approaching an obstruction.
Obstructions are usually obvious well before they are approached so work
out a plan well in advance and avoid last minute decisions.
So rule 9 is 'Tack to avoid an obstruction'
In the hectic start of a race or even down the course, it
is disadvantageous to sail in the wind shadow of a yacht just in front.
The wind is often turbulent and bent in such a way as to indicate you
are 'headed'. Regardless if possible tack to get into clear
wind. Even if you tack back onto the original course within a few
boat lengths, the greater advantage of clear wind outweighs the
disadvantage in making another tack
So rule 10 is 'Tack to get clear wind'