In the latest in our series of articles deconstructing the British Sailing Team athletes’ skills and techniques, sailing expert Mark Chisnell looks at the importance of getting the first shift right.
The Laser Radial medal race was won almost wire-to-wire by Alison Young. It was her best result of the week, lifting her to seventh overall. It was built on one simple tactical principle – being in the right place to take advantage of the first wind shift to hit the fleet – and it propelled her from second row to the front of the fleet.
The Laser Radials started in a pretty boisterous offshore breeze – 14-16 knots of westerly blowing off the city and hitting the stadium course in big gusts. It was what you might call challenging if you were ahead, or an opportunity-rich environment if you were behind.
In these conditions it’s often more important to be in the right place when the first gust and shift comes rolling down the course to hit the fleet, than it is about being at the advantaged end of the line.
Before weather boats were banned, America’s Cup teams used to spend a fortune on monitoring the race track to figure out where this shift would come from, as it completely determined which side of the opponent you should start.
Dinghy sailors don’t have any of those resources. All they can do is stand up in the boat and have a good look up the course as close to the start time as possible. This is when you might see the darker water indicating a wind shift coming down the course. And when you might have a last chance to do something about it.
We can see Young’s start above in Image 1, where she was the red highlighted boat GBR206251. At about 40s to go three boats were stacked up by the committee boat, and there was no clear way around them to get to the right. So she came down the line to start to windward of the six boats stacked up from the pin. This gave her the best opportunity to tack and get out to the right.
She followed through on the plan with a quick tack to port, but as we can see in Image 2 she couldn’t cross the group on starboard above her. So she tacked to leeward of them…
In Image 3 we see Young bear away to create the space to get behind them and then go back to port tack. I’m not sure this was the most efficient way to get to the right, ducking them might have been better. The conditions were tricky though, and there could have been a handling issue, or confusion over a foul for which the Finnish boat subsequently did a penalty.
We can also see all of this in Video 1 – I’ve highlighted Young wherever possible with some dodgy drawing in yellow marker.
The main thing was that the outcome was the one that Young was after, and in Image 4 we see that she didn’t have to go far to the right to get into the wind shift. Once she was into the shift she tacked back to starboard… and less than a minute of sailing later was ranked first.
It was not quite the whole story, because she was still exposed as the most right-hand boat in the fleet. In Image 5 we can see that she worked hard through three more wind shifts (the bends in her highlighted red track) to get back to the left-hand pack, eventually tacking ahead and to leeward of them to consolidate her lead.
It was a lead that she held the rest of the way around the race course to complete a fine medal race win. Sadly it wasn’t enough to pull her up onto the podium, but it’s probably still the next best way to end the regatta.