The long tack

Sailors who want to take advantage of the weather mark should follow the long tack. The latter helps the boat to avoid the laylines where poor wind shifts are usually located. The long tack is oftentimes the path of heading shifts.

We were on Thunder Bay at Alpena, Mich., about to start the first race of the Yngling North Americans. I asked my crew if he could see the weather mark.

“There it is, just to the left of the white powerboat,” he said.

“OK, I see it – a good 15 degrees to the right of the posted wind direction.” I wondered if the race committee was detecting that the wind at the mark was veered 15 degrees. Or were they expecting it to shift 15 degrees during the first beat? Were they making a mistake? Whatever the reason, if the mark was 15 degrees to the right, we were going right. I planned to start so that we could tack to port, onto the long tack, as soon as possible.

My middle crew seemed puzzled. “You don’t get to the weather mark any sooner by taking the first tack toward it,” he said. “As long as you can’t lay it, boats on opposite tacks must sail equal distances. Why bother finding the mark?”

I postponed this discussion until after the race, but on the way in I asked him if he agreed that the weather mark’s location did matter sometimes. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “when you’re close to laying it, you certainly want to be on the tack toward it. It’s dangerous to approach a layline far from the mark. And if you can lay the mark from the starting line, you’d better be on the laying tack initially. You don’t want to overstand.”

“Yes,” I said, “but the avoidance of overstanding is of minor significance. Detecting the long tack is what counts. In oscillating shifts – and the wind is usually oscillating – sailing the long tack is more likely to lead to a header.”

On the second beat of the fifth race, we were sailing in a 16- to 18-knot oscillating northwester. The three leading boats were on starboard to the right of the rhumb line. Elite Field, the seven-time Yngling North American champion, was ahead and to leeward, and Bruce Chafee, her closest competitor in the series, tacked to port across our stern. Field tacked across our bow to cover Chafee, and I yelped with delight. In a wind close to the median, I was now the only one of the three still sailing the long tack (headed about 20 degrees to the left of the mark). Our rivals were on the short tack sailing toward the near layline. After sailing a few minutes more, during which Chafee and then Field tacked on our hip, we were all lifted about 10 degrees. They looked to have gained.

We sailed another three minutes before the expected header (a 30-degree back to the extreme of the range) finally appeared. We had been on the long tack a total of about eight minutes and were within three minutes of the port layline. I tacked and I looked through the mainsail window – there was no one in sight. We reached the starboard layline on port (now the long) tack, close to the mark, and rounded with a quarter-mile lead.

ln the vast majority of around-the-buoy, near-shore races, the wind oscillates 20 to 30 degrees in classic oscillating-wind conditions, 5 to 10 degrees in more common conditions. Except when a single, persistent shift is superimposed, oscillating shifts are the major determinants of strategy and can be expected to appear every three to eight minutes. The fundamental principle governing the management of oscillating shifts is that (when a boat is sailing a lifted tack) a heading shift will shorten its course absolutely and relative to all boats astern and to windward. A lifting shift will lengthen its course absolutely and relative to all boats astern and to windward. One is always hoping for a heading shift.

The long tack is advantageous because it provides more time for a heading shift to appear and because it permits the boat to comply (for as long as possible) with the maxim, “Avoid the laylines.” If, for instance, a boat on its initial tack has sailed halfway to the layline, the distance back to the thumb line will be twice as long as the distance to the layline. On a 20-minute windward leg (10 minutes on each tack), the long tack to the far layline may take 10 minutes, and the short tack to the near layline may take only five. The boat on the long tack is twice as likely to meet a heading shift as is the boat on the short tack.

The initial tack (from the start or the leeward mark) is always a tack away from the rhumb line, and assuming a square beat, always a short tack, while the second tack is always a tack toward the rhumb line, always a long tack. At the rhumb line, the long tack becomes the short tack and vice versa. Once a boat reaches a layline, no shift can help; it is as close as possible (on a direct line) to the weather mark. In any subsequent shift all other boats will gain relatively and many will gain absolutely. The short tack not only provides less time for a heading shift to appear, but also takes the boat progressively closer to the layline, into a position in which she can only lose.

Relative gains are more important than absolute gains. What matters is whose course is shortened most or whose course is lengthened least. Heading shifts produce gains relative to all boats astern and to windward. The boat that first assumes the long tack (digs back in from the initial tack first) will be ahead and to leeward of her competitors and will gain the most in a heading shift. When looking for heading shifts, one should comply with the old adage, “Get on the major (the long) tack as soon as possible.” However, in the narrowing upper portion of the windward-leg diamond, with less than four minutes to a layline, heading shifts on the lifted tack become improbable.

The windward leg may be considered a series of quadrilaterals, two adjacent sides of which are the laylines ending at the weather mark and the other two the courses on either tack that a boat might sail to reach that mark. To visualize any quadrilateral and to determine which of its sides is the long tack, one must know the location of the weather mark. A beat should be conducted by sailing on the long side of each quadrilateral, looking for and expecting, at approximately four-to eight-minute intervals, a heading shift.

“Yes, Virginia, we do need to find the mark – regularly and frequently.”

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