The Power of a Good Duck

April 23, 2011

Last week, while sailing in the first BCYA Tuesday Night Series race of the season I was reminded of the power of a good and smart duck.  For those of you who are thinking about feathered quackers, a duck on the race course is when one boat sails behind (astern) of another.  When two boats come together and would collide if one or both didn’t alter course, then the right of way rules kick in and one boat will often “duck” behind the other.

I am fond of saying that when two boats on opposite tacks meet on the race course — one of them is headed the wrong way.  Races are generally won by getting to a strategic advantage on the race course (more wind velocity, better current, advantageous wind shift, etc.) first and taking advantage of it.  Get to the strategic advantage (you’ll often hear me refer to this as the big money) first and you’ll be hard to beat.  Because there is usually only one “big money” for any given segment of the race (i.e. the moment when two boats on opposite tacks are about to cross each other) then one of the boats MUST be headed the wrong way.

Tuesday night was a great example of this.  We were sailing in a light (4-8kts) westerly breeze that was filling into the racing area after the passage of a small storm cell.  Onboard, we had discussed how we felt there were likely right shifts, if not a persistent right shift coming with the new wind.  With that in mind we were pretty sure, the right side of the race course would be “big money.”  But the starting gun went off in less than 5kts of wind (the water was like glass because most of the new wind was still aloft) and we were midway down the line, with two of our competitors on our windward hip.

In the super light stuff – nobody likes to tack.  It costs too much (said in the tone of the “the rents too damn high!” guy.)  Moreover we were headed for pressure and were slightly headed, making the eventual cross that much easier assuming they got the same left hand shift (reminder – consolidate on THEIR loss not yours.)  All the boats in the scenario were eventually headed and the cross would have been easily make able, but after :30 seconds of analysis of pressure vs shift vs staying fast vs getting to the big money the boats inside of us had found the right hand shift, gained back due to being right of us in a right handed shift and now were an issue.  We didn’t have the cross.

This can be one of toughest moments on a race course.  Conceding to the other boats that they are ahead in order to sail towards what you believe is the “big money.”  But the call was made to tack, and upon coming to course and hitting our target boat speed it was clear that we wouldn’t cross in front.  We would need to duck.

There are good ducks and bad ducks from a boathandling standing point.  Good ducks don’t cost much, and often gain, but bad ducks can be deadly.  Setting the boat up for a good duck starts with anticipation.  When sailing upwind, a small alteration of you angle will have you footing to your target rather than needing the bear off significantly – which inevitably slows the boat down and costs boat lengths!  In our case, a quick weight shift to windward, a big ease on the mainsheet and finally a burp on the jib kept the underwater foils working, kept consistent flow across the sails, and allowed us to head down without needing to deflect the brake… er, I mean the rudder, much at all.

So now we are sailing into a header.  The boats that we’ve ducked are looking more and more lifted as we are more and more headed.  After some discussion about leverage (the lateral distance between two boats) we decided to hedge our bet a bit, and tack back to starboard.  Less than a minute later, our competition that had continued to sail to the left on the lifted tack also tacked, and we quietly crossed them by about 15 or 20 boat lengths.  WHEW!

My personal take away from this is something that I’ve been reminded of hundreds of times – almost ALWAYS head towards the strategic advantage – the big money – even if it means ducking a few boats.  Sail to your strategy not to the other boats and you will be more successful.


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