When you’re coaching, running races is always part of the agenda at some point during your program. Unfortunately, unless you consistently have at least ten or fifteen boats at your practices, it is hard to keep races interesting and tactical. Races with small groups of boats tend to get spread out, and the final result is almost completely determined by boat speed. Starts, tactics, and boat handling are all still part of the deal, but none are pronounced in ways that will challenge sailors enough to take these skills to the next level. Young sailors in particular are more reticent to do things that are comfortable in traditional races, as the outcome of a race is not determined by a bad tack, a poor mark rounding, or starting at the favored end. To make races more exciting, interesting, and effective, present simple and unique twists in races that force sailors to utilize more diverse skills in order to win the race. Speed will still play a large role in races, but you will have started on the road to building a stronger and more technically diverse group of sailors.
There are many fun scenarios that will make races more fun, interesting, and effective in your race program. For example, the most common twist coaches add to races is putting a small gate in the middle of the upwind leg. This gets sailors, who will typically sail hard and fast to a corner, to engage other boats in a way that they typically would not. It also gets sailors to make tactical decisions much more early, making them more comfortable sailing near other boats, as opposed to separating from the group before making any real tactical decisions. While this is one way to add an interesting twist to a race, there are an unlimited range of setups you can use to get the desired skill set across to your sailors.
Boat vs. Boat
Set up a mark that is upwind, and relatively close to the line. Force sailors to leave it to port before sailing upwind. This will get port end starters to pinch off others early to tack, and will force starboard end starters to hold their lane, using starboard tack to their advantage. You can further twist this setup by using the short mark as a first windward mark, and sail a short windward leeward before doing a long windward leeward.
Set up a mark that sailors must leave to port before going to the upwind mark. Set it up so that sailors must tack off to port within a boat length or two of the start line, if not immediately. Sailors will learn to use starboard advantage, and will compete to win the boat end of the line. This will also teach sailors strong boat handling skills in tough, competitive situations.
Set up a mark much further off the line, and have it set up so that a sailor starting at the boat end is laying it right off the line. Sailors must leave this mark to starboard before sailing to the windward mark. This way, sailors will not have the ability to tack out early, and are forced to hold their lane, or eat the bad air early on in a race. This will put an emphasis on holding lanes, winning the pin end, etc.
As opposed to the traditional gate, where sailors sail through a small line in the middle of the course before proceeding upwind, make a much larger gate that sailors are not allowed to sail through on the upwind leg. This forces sailors to choose a side early, win it, and approach the windward mark from a side of the course. This will keep sailors from sailing across the middle of the course, and to think a few steps ahead of their competitors.
Risky Business (Editor's Choice):
Set up two marks in carefully selected places upwind. Make sure they are separate, and that one mark is considerably more favored than the other. When you start a race, have your sailors round one of these marks to port, and then round the pin end of the line to port, before sailing around the regular windward leeward. To make this interesting, you put a rounding cap around each of the two short marks. For example, with four boats on the course, I will usually say that only one boat is allowed to round the favored mark, and three boats have to round the other mark. This is done on a first come, first serve basis, and any boat that fouls to get around first must go to the other mark.
This is really interesting because it forces sailors to choose between sailing aggressively or consistently. It puts a lot of pressure on great starts, and will teach others to cut their losses early if they realize they won’t be the first to round the favored mark. I will typically only allow ONE boat to round the favored mark, in order to implement a more extreme risk/reward structure to the drill.
There are an infinite amount of ways that you can modify and tweak this drill. As long as you are creative, you can set it up to stress whatever skill set you want your sailors to get a better understanding of. Either way, this drill is guaranteed to pique the curiosity and creativity of your sailors. Get out on the water and start practicing!
See you on the water,