Top Tekkers: avoiding a crowd

In the latest of our daily race analysis pieces from the Sailing World Championships, renowned sailing expert Mark Chisnell looks at how to avoid a crowd in a skiff.

In the first race of Qualifying for the 49erFX blue fleet, Charlotte Dobson and Saskia Tidey threaded their way through a crowd to convert a mid-teens position into a seventh. It was a crucial moment that developed very quickly as the wind dropped with the bulk of the fleet closing on the mark after the leaders had rounded.

It was a very different day of racing at the Hempel Sailing World Championships in Aarhus. There was an unstable west to north-westerly offshore wind. It was particularly tricky to handle on the inshore stadium course that was the lot of the 49erFX for their opening day.

It all happened at the top mark at the end of the first leg – always tough in a competitive fleet because everyone usually arrives together. Any crowd of boats creates an unpredictable situation and can lead to big losses if you play it wrong.

Image 1

Dobson and Tidey approached the top mark from the left, as we see in Image 1, they were the highlighted pink boat GBR44 ranked 16th. The leaders were already around and as you can see they had all gybed either at or soon after the mark and headed downwind on port gybe.

The reason for this was a combination of both stronger wind on the right hand side of the course (looking upwind) and a wind shift that favoured port gybe as the fleet rounded. So, the tactical imperative at this first mark for Dobson and Tidey was to be able to gybe and get away from the mark on port. Let’s see how they did it with half a dozen boats converging on the buoy with the British pair.

Their positioning on the approach in Image 1 was smart. There was a stack of four boats just ahead of them who would be giving them a lot of bad air if they had been approaching on starboard. They were also nicely set up with the group to their left, leading them back towards the mark in about the clearest air they could expect for their position in the fleet.

In Image 2 Dobson and Tidey had put in their tack onto starboard. They went as far as they could on port, tacking on the leeward bow of EST 372. This was another good call, they needed to be as high on the layline as possible – for clear air and to guarantee they would get around without another tack – but they had to avoid getting anyone overlapped to leeward of them. A boat to leeward could prevent them from gybing at the mark.

Image 2

If we go forward to Image 3 we can see that the Austrian boat of Frank and Abicht – AUT61 highlighted in yellow – has tacked and was sailing down in front of Dobson and Tidey. The dirty air from this was hitting them hard and EST372 was also gaining. It looked ugly, but the key point was that they were still the inside boat at the buoy.

Image 3

By now the wind had dropped light, and everyone was struggling to keep their boats moving, but Dobson and Tidey had their eyes on the prize as we see in Image 4. They had held the inside line and were already turning into their gybe – all of which we can also see in Video 1, with GBR44 highlighted with a yellow arrow.

Image 4 
Given all the chopped up, second hand wind and the line of starboard tack boats still going the other way to windward of them, this was going to feel pretty painful for a while. We can see just how painful in Image 5 which shows Dobson and Tidey backtracking down their course into the mark, but as we can tell from the ranking – now 11th – it was about to come good…

Image 5

If we look at Image 6 we can see just how well it worked out. Dobson and Tidey were able to play the breezier side of the course and were rounding the right-hand mark (looking upwind) in seventh place. The Austrian boat that had crossed and tacked in front of them at the mark had continued on port and was now back in 13th.

Image 6

It was a sweet move and depended on Charlotte Dobson and Saskia Tidey staying focussed on where the gains would be on the next leg, rather than getting wrapped up in winning an inconsequential battle going around the mark. Always top tekkers and the move gave them a counting result in that race (an eighth) which when combined with a second in race three left them in good shape at the end of day one.