Anytime the wind picks up enough that we get to plane downwind, there’s huge opportunity to make gains. When boats start to plane, differences in speed between a fast and a slow boat could be in excess of 4 knots, or 6 feet per second. In other words, you could gain or lose 300 feet in less than a minute. Therefore, it is important to have in mind the following priorities when planning conditions are in play.
1. Set yourself up for a clean hoist and exit at the weather mark
Mark roundings are where the most gains or losses happen. When you get tangled up with another boat, it’s easy to get stuck sailing below target speed while other boats are planning away at full speed. It is, therefore, important to anticipate the exit and have this conversation with my team (or yourself, if you’re sailing a singlehander) in the last third of the upwind leg. Ask yourself the following questions: Is the top mark going to be busy with traffic, or is the fleet spread out? What’s happening on this upwind beat and what side of the downwind is priority to defend? Is jibe setting an option? It could very well be that a jibe-set will keep you on the favored side of the downwind leg, but also think about staying in clear breeze and how far there wind shadow extends, especially if there’s a long offset leg. Sailing across a long wind shadow might be too big of a price to pay, so assess these factors, make a clear exit plan, and execute it successfully.
If it’s going to be a straight set, look around while you’re on the offset leg. If there’s space and you are not overlapped with boats around you, a clean bear-away and hoisting the kite at a low angle will work. If you are overlapped with boats to windward as you round the weather mark, delay the hoist if necessary and continue sailing on a broad reach across the offset leg. The key here is to make sure the boats to windward are not going to roll you before bearing away. As the leeward boat, you will decide when to put the kite up!
If you’re overlapped with boats to leeward, or if there is a big pack close ahead, holding a high-lane hoist becomes super powerful. I call it the high-road set. Hold for a few seconds and set yourself up to windward of these boats, this becomes very powerful when straight setting and holding a lane is the only option. Boats ahead of you that set early will have a difficult time trying to head up to get to your lane and any little gust of wind will favor this higher lane, allowing you to sail fast all the time.
If the goal is to jibe set or jibe early, make sure you are not overlapped with boats inside you as you round the weather mark. It will be a priority on the offset leg to break this overlap (either by rolling over the top of the boats to leeward or slowing down to let them get ahead in front of you but not overlapped). This will allow you to have the option to jibe at the mark or beat them to the jibe later on the run.
2. Always anticipate the next move
Think ahead because things happen fast at the top of the run and you should always remind yourself about what is coming next. Ask yourself: When are we going to jibe next? Do we want to lead this jibe, or wait and go to the layline? Keep in mind that maneuvers at high speeds are usually costly. So, jibing a few times down the middle of the course does not pay in most cases.
3. Be very confident with your layline judgement
For any boat I sail, I like to pick my references for laylines for each true windspeed. It is important to do this during training. In planning conditions, knowing exactly where the layline is will be crucial. You can use parts of the boat to determine this exit angle. I usually eyeball the downwind mark and try to align it with some part of the boat. For example, if the mark is aligned with the lower shroud in planning conditions, I know the layline is imminent. Make sure you always call the layline from the same exact position onboard so references are trustworthy. A good way to refresh this is by doing this exercise before the start, or on the way to the racecourse when going downwind. Use the race committee boat, a channel marker or any other fixed object as a mark to judge your layline call before the race starts. It is surprising the amount of boats that will fail to judge this correctly, opening up huge passing opportunities, especially at the bottom of the downwind leg.
4. Prioritize pressure over shift
If you want to plane, you’re looking for dark-water spots, so the goal is always to pick a good lane and make sure you jibe into dark spots. On gusty days, a good trick to know when to jibe to stay in pressure is by eyeballing your exit angle on the opposite jibe. Will there be dark water there? Maybe waiting to jibe another 30 seconds will keep you in more wind for longer.
5. Set yourself up to plane into the weather mark
Just like at the upwind mark, the same concepts apply when rounding a gate or a leeward mark. Again, assess the situation based on traffic around you, clean breeze and wind pressure. If you’re planing, which is the goal, you want be able to hold that speed for as long as possible. So, often it’s better to take the less favored gate mark as long as it keeps you in clean wind, clear of wind shadows, and in less traffic, which will allow for a better rounding in more wind, getting your team to upwind target speed in a shorter time.