Painting the tactical picture

A tactician needs accurate information from other crew members to be able to skillfully manage a sailboat. Tacticians usually have a limited view of the two ends of the boat when they are hiking. The skipper and the fore-deck crew should serve as the tactician’s eyes.

So you’ve got a tactician sailing on your boat. Great! You can just sit back and make sure the sails go up and down, and they’ll do all the thinking, right? If your tactician is standing behind the helmsman, the answer may be yes; but when the boat is small enough to need the tactician hiking forward in the cockpit, input from the rest of the crew can have a major impact on the quality of the tactician’s decisions.

When drooping over the side of a Soling, the tactician can’t see what’s happening to weather. When the tactician sits legs-out on a J/24, Olson 30, etc., the genoa blocks the tactician’s view to leeward. Instead of asking the tactician to lean in or go to leeward, sapping boatspeed, other crew should be feeding him information. Does this mean you have to act as the tactician? Of course not. It means that you need to learn to give accurate information so the tactician can use it to make good decisions.

The two people most likely to see into the tactician’s blind spots are those at either end of the boat-the skipper and the foredeck crew. The image they provide for the tactician should be like an aerial view of the racecourse.

The main source of information should be the skipper. The skipper can describe how many boats are to leeward and how many of them are ahead. The skipper should also find a range on the boat (the front or back of the mainsail window, or the leech of the genoa) and use this range to keep track of your position relative to the boats.

If there’s a window in your genoa, then the foredeck crew can also keep tabs on the boats to leeward. On the J/24, the window provides an accurate gauge. If they appear in the front of the window, they’ll cross; in the back, we’ll cross; in the middle, it’s close. The foredeck can also talk with the tactician about how many boatlengths to leeward the boats are, while keeping an eye on any change of course. If any boats tack, the foredeck will need to say how many boatlengths away they are, and gauge whether you’ll cross or not.

The tactician should then articulate a game plan, something like “We’re in a good lane; there’s nobody to leeward pinching or driving over us from above. We’re about fifth or sixth. The boats to weather are consistent on heading; there doesn’t seem to be any shift or current affecting us, so we’ll continue, since this is the long tack. Let’s work on boatspeed.”

Try Not to Panic

The worst thing that can happen is to provide “emotional” or inaccurate information. “They’re killing us to leeward,” moans the skipper. “That guy in the corner is way ahead.” It’s been my experience that usually nothing has changed, but the skipper has tightened up, and boatspeed drops. The tactician might decide to tack, but when he gets a look at the old leeward side, he realizes (too late) that you’ve made a mistake when you should have kept going.

Instead of supplying inaccurate or emotional commentary, the skipper needs to analyze why someone looks good or bad. The tactician can help by asking questions: “Was there a big shift? Is there more current? Is that the fastest guy in the fleet? How is he compared to the boats around him?” Input on what’s happening to weather can also help the driver put things in perspective. “The weather boats are all falling into us.” And the skipper responds, “The same thing is happening to us compared to the guys to leeward.” Aha! A persistent shift. Unless the whole pack of boats to leeward is showing the same shift or speed, the observation of one boat is usually anomalous. As tactician, I’d hold on a little and see if this is a trend or a one-shot deal. The driver should concentrate on keeping the boat at speed, giving periodic updates.

The foredeck also needs to concentrate on accuracy. Without the added task of driving, this person can give the best input as to what’s going on ahead and to leeward. The most important points to cover are pressure and the angles of boats.

If a boat to leeward is pointing higher, this information should be supplemented with the conditions. The foredeck might report, “The lead leeward boat is up about five degrees. He has all the crew up and hiking, so they’re probably in more pressure. We’d have to foot to get the pressure.” Or, “The boats to leeward are down and slow with crew in; they’re probably in a hole. We have to tack to avoid the hole.” This type of information gives the tactician not just the picture of what’s happening, but why and whether or not you need to take action to avoid trouble or gain an advantage. In combination with what’s happening to weather, the tactician can plot your course as you move up the leg.

OK, Time to Panic

Just kidding. Things do get dicey, however, the closer you get to the weather mark or a layline. As the boats converge, the lanes of free sailing get narrower and eventually disappear. A constant feed of information will help the tactician keep the boat in a clear lane. A minimum lane would put you either two boatlengths abeam and to leeward of a weather boat, or two lengths to weather and aft of a leeward boat (just high enough to stay out of its wake).

If you’re approaching the starboard layline on port tack with lots of company to leeward, the tactician will need to know how many boats are in the pack, how far ahead or behind they are, and how much room there is between the boats. The closer you are to the mark, the more critical this information becomes to finding the right place to tack. At the same time, the tactician needs to tell the skipper what’s happening to weather, so there are no surprises when you tack for the mark.

This is the time that the foredeck is most helpful. For the most part, finding a lane means concentrating on the boats that are ahead. The communication from the bow should sound like this: “There are two boats coming; judging by my angle through the window, the first will cross and the second is about one and a half lengths behind him. We’ll need to make a small duck. The next group of three is about four lengths beyond the second boat; the leader of that pack will cross, and we’d have to dip the rest. The weather most boat has the others pinned.” From this, the tactician and skipper both know there is a small lane just to weather of the second boat. They can dip the second boat and sail two lengths before tacking, or they can dip the whole pack and then tack, pinning the group.

None of the information that the tactician has received is necessarily tactical; it’s just an accurate depiction of what’s happening on the course. As crew, you can be constantly gauging how far away boats are, how their angles compare to yours, and why they’re different. If you can see these things, you’ll be a great help to the tactician. It also helps to practice in everyday life. I once sailed with a golfer, who asked me how far away I thought another boat was. When I answered in boatlengths, he started to do the math. “Let’s see, that’s about 300 feet, or 100 yards, that’d be a seven iron. I think you’re right!” So, with the length of your boat in mind, practice gauging that distance in traffic, at a football game, or wherever it might be appropriate. Either that, or take up golf.

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