Mcnay Racing

Performance Sailing

Key West Race Week 2013: Downwind Tactics in the Melges 24

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Until this year, I was a Key West Race Week virgin, so it was great to be on board with the veteran Melges 24 helm Argyle Campbell and crew Charlie Enright, Charlie Smythe, and Dave Hughes. I enjoyed fitting into the fabric of the team and finding places where I could help. Upwind, my job was mostly as a big picture eye. Then when we turned downwind, I was counting down puffs, calling their duration for mode choice, and looking at the big picture of where the next pressure was coming from, ahead or behind.


Photo credit Leighton O’Connor

Upwind tactics are fairly similar between classes of keelboat, but off the breeze you see can big differences in tactics based on boat performance. The Melges 24 is very exciting because it has ranges of planning and sails wide angles, so it covers a lot of lateral distance and gives big chances for gains or loses.

At the end of the week, I looked back on my notes at the plays we made downwind. While each leg was a little different, there were several ways to sail the leg that resulted in consistent gains or minimal loses.

Heading into the windward mark it is very important to determine what kind of run it will be: pressure, angle, traffic, or no obvious move. Before getting to the windward mark, you need to decide if you want to gybe set, straight set with early gybe, or straight set with long starboard. In the first two cases, you will want to round tight on the offset so no one can block you from gybing. In the last case, you may remain in the high lane for early gains, then soak later in the run when it is closer to gybe time.

1)   The highest percentage play is a straight set. Sail 70% on starboard. Gybe before the pack and, then make the gate choice when upwind of both gates. When making the gate choice look at these factors in roughly this order: 2nd upwind strategy, last pressure downwind, upwind gate, traffic, and minimal maneuvers.

2)   “Jump gybe”: straight set, but you think the right hand pressure will be slightly better, so you want to beat the pack to a gybe to have freedom of mode on port and let the puffs carry you over the other boats. In this play, you are closely watching the boats in front and you will gybe as they do.

3)   Only gybe set if it is obviously a gainer. The gybe set is risky for two reasons. First, you know will lose on the set because this move is slow and you will be under upwind traffic. Second, you will be going the opposite way as most of the pack, so you could lose big if gybe setting was the wrong play.

4)   In big breeze, plan for minimum boat handling, clear lanes, and no sharp turns at the gate. E.g. If you like the left, then you straight set, sail 80%, gybe, then try call a right hand turn layline from a short distance away.

Hope this helps you think about tactics next time you go skiff or Melges class sailing. Full results available here.


Author: stumcnay

Athlete and Coach, Sailing

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