If You're Unsure About Conditions, Minimize Decision Points


When you're not sure exactly what the wind is doing, here's a strategy to try.  Excerpt from the upcoming McBride Racing Tactical Playbook.  Subscribe to our newsletter to get notified of the book launch.

If you’re not sure whether to choose the inside track or the outside track, it probably means that your confidence is low in any specific prediction about the wind, and no pattern is immediately evident in the wind shifts; this is totally fine!  When you are unsure about what the breeze is going to do, the best thing you can do is acknowledge that fact, and choose a high percentage upwind strategy, which allows you to postpone any critical decisions until the race has had a chance to develop a little bit.  A simple strategy to accomplish this starts with a mid-line start on starboard.  Drag race with the fleet until boats begin tacking back from the left corner (probably about half way up the beat), and then ask the question, “Who is winning, and why?”  If the left has gained and you have gotten headed, you’ll have an opportunity to lead back the lead pack.  If the left has gained and you have not seen a left shift, then continue as close to the left corner as you dare – chances are, it will continue to pay for whatever reason it paid in the first place.  If the right has paid, was it associated with a right shift? If so, chances are good that you’ll want to keep going left and wait for your shift to go back on.  If not, it’s time to abandon the left and start digging into the outside track on the right. 

The biggest risk in this strategy, is the risk of a slow persistent shift tricking you into digging for more, when you should be abandoning a losing proposition.  To have the best chance of avoiding this pitfall, keep your eyes peeled for:

  • Changing weather that might cause a persistent shift (clouds, a change in temperature, a shift in current direction, etc.)
  • Wind shifts outside of the range that you saw in your pre-race research
  • Observations that corroborate an earlier forecast, predicting a persistent trend in the wind

This strategy works well because it simplifies the decision making process by minimizing the number of choices that you are making on the beat.

3 Aspects of A Solid Game Plan

Creating a solid game plan before every race is an important tool to help everyone on the boat understand what the big picture objectives are in the race, and if you make a good plan, it’s the key to long term improvement.  When you check in with your coach or your teammates, be sure to check these three boxes to ensure that your game plan is air-tight:

  1. Observations:  Each good game plan starts with a series of objective observations about how the course is setting up.  “Darker water left,” “Oscillating shift pattern,” “Flat bottomed clouds on the right,” “Skewed starting line,” “Less current on the beach,” and, “Windy conditions,” are a few examples of observations that might factor into a game plan.  Taking the time to list your observations at the beginning of a game plan will help everyone onboard begin to visualize how the race will look, and what types of tactics will come into play.  For example, noting that, “The wind is 100% driving force or stronger,” should put you in a mindset of minimizing costly boat handling.  In addition to setting the tone for the race, this part of the game plan will help you hone your strategic game down the road, as you learn to evaluate more variables at play.
  2. Plan A and Plan B Objectives: In this part of the game plan, the goal is to pick out the most important factors from your observations, and use them to clarify what the objective of the first beat will be.  If for example, you know that the wind will be light during a race, you might conclude that pressure should be weighted more than shift, so even with an oscillating shift pattern, you may choose to extend to a side of the course to capitalize on more pressure.  On the other hand, in side force conditions (slightly more breeze) you might prioritize shift over pressure, as a one knot pressure difference might be a small factor compared to sailing lifted.  In this step, it’s also important to consider what you will do if your start doesn’t go according to plan; is it best to stick to your original plan, or do the conditions give you the flexibility to change the plan slightly in order to find better lanes?  As a whole, this step sets the objective of the first beat.
  3. Inside Versus Outside Track: Once we have our objective in mind, the final key is to identify the strategic track that sets us up to accomplish our objective.  A simple decision making model to apply is an inside or outside track on either side of the race course.  Outside track courses should be employed when your objective requires you to win a side.  Going back to the example of light air, if we see pressure on one side of the course, and we are confident that the extra pressure will be more important than the oscillating wind direction, we probably want to start as close to that side as we can, and beat other boats to get to the pressure (outside track).  In contrast, in side force conditions, we might still favor the side with more pressure, but position ourselves on the inside track in order to control the fleet when the oscillations come through, and to keep options open later in the beat by staying off of lay line.

If you can lay out these three components of your game plan before the start, you’ll have a much better chance of pointing the boat in the correct direction in the heat of battle, when the pressure is on.

Playbook: First Beat Strategy

Upwind plays are intended to allow teams to execute their strategy upwind.  Generally, strategies can be grouped into two categories:
1.    Outside track
2.    Inside track

Although not always true, these two categories can be closely correlated with the two subcategories of game plan that we discussed before: (1) predicting wind versus (2) fleet managing.  Choosing the outside track implies that we are willing to assume slightly more exposure because of our confidence in a wind prediction.  In contrast, the inside track implies more of a focus on fleet management and playing the angles either because of a shift pattern, confidence in your position when you get  70% of the way to lay line, or because of lack of confidence in wind prediction data.

How do you simplify your upwind strategy?