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5 expert racing tips: How and when to take tactical sailing gambles

Andy Rice gets some pro tips from navigator Libby Greenhalgh on how to know if it’s the right time to make a brave call and break away from the fleet

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Tactical decisions aboard Team SCA in the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race: It’s important to get the team to buy-in if you’re taking a risk. Photo: Anna-Lena Elled / Team SCA / Volvo Ocean Race

Often you don’t actually know if your breakaway move will be a lone bid until later in the race. Libby Greenhalgh recalls her baptism into the Volvo Ocean Race, straight after the start of Leg 1 out of Alicante. Libby was the navigator for the all-women crew on Team SCA skippered by Sam Davies.

“As we approached the Strait of Gibraltar there was a forecast of marginally better breeze near the African coast but quite a lot of adverse tide. Sam and I liked the look of the alternative and tacked out soon after the position report. It seemed like a bit of a no-brainer, but we didn’t know for a while if anyone else was coming with us.

“It wasn’t for another four hours or so when the fleet converged again at the Strait before we’d find out if we’d lost or gained. Initially we couldn’t see anyone, and it took us a while to work out what had happened. We’d gained about 20 miles on the others because the wind had just dipped from about 8 to 6 knots which, with the adverse current they were battling, made a massive difference.” Here Libby helps you identify the right time to go for the brave breakaway.

1. Know your boat

Sometimes a reason to break away is because your boat has radically different polars compared with your competitors. For example, in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, Pip Hare got a jump on all the newer foiling IMOCAs when she headed inshore along the south coast of England and found better breeze there.

Generally speaking, the slower your boat, the more it operates in displacement mode, and the more likely you’ll want to opt for the shortest route. The more dynamic your boat – whether it planes or maybe even foils – the more you’re likely to get rewarded with a carefully planned breakaway.

That said, when you’re in close proximity to other boats of similar speed, crews tend to sail and trim the boat with more intensity. So if you do break away the potential gain needs to be big enough to overcome a slight loss in boatspeed.

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2. Tide trumps forecast

For the days leading up to the start, and all the way through the race, you want to track the weather models closely. But just because you’ve invested all that time in analysing the models, remember they’re still only predictions, not gospel.

If in doubt, go for the most favourable tidal option. You know where the tidal gates are going to be, and you know that there are high-risk periods of time where the wind has a tendency to drop, typically around sunset and sunrise. If you think there’s a chance of the breeze going funky, put the tide at the top of your priorities.

3. Be brave

One thing often underestimated is the team dynamic on board. I’ve been fortunate with the teams I’ve been with, particularly with Team SCA, where we’d have an open conversation on the strategy. That’s not to say you don’t feel terrible when a move goes wrong, even if no one is blaming you. But on SCA we had this ‘never give up’ attitude that made it easier to make those big calls. It can be harder to get that kind of team dynamic in amateur racing.

One thing that can be quite hard to manage is when you’ve got great sailors from different backgrounds, like we did on SCA, with a lot of Olympic talent. They’re used to racing short courses, sailing to what they see. If you’ve got to convince people that sometimes you might need to sail 90° or more away from your destination, it can be hard to convince them if they’re not familiar with offshore decision making.

4. Do your homework

On the long leg from China to Auckland we knew there was a big chance of a split in the Pacific. We did tons of homework on the weather models so when it came to decision time we were as clear as we could be about which was the right call.

It’s an obvious point, but get as much of that large-scale decision-making done on shore, when you’re warm and well rested. The whole crew is relying on you to make clear decisions, which is why it’s important to take yourself out of the watch system and grab your downtime when there are no big decisions to be made.

Make sure the skipper and the watch captains are well briefed on your strategy and things to watch out for, then go and grab some food, get some sleep and do whatever you need to be at the top of your game for when those critical moments come along.

5. Timing is critical

Boats in the Volvo were often close enough to see each other on AIS, tracking each other’s moves. But AIS only really stretches to ten miles or so. Whenever you have a big move to make and your position reports are only updating, say, once every six hours, then you need to wait until the position report ticks over before you make your move. You’ve then got six hours to execute your breakaway – although of course there might be others with the same idea.

tactical-sailing-gambles-libby-greenhalgh-bw-headshot-600px-squareAbout the author

Libby Greenhalgh competed in the last two editions of the Volvo Ocean Race as a navigator, with SCA in 2015 and Scallywag in 2018. A trained meteorologist, she is in hot demand with the top Olympic squads, currently working with the Australian sailing team in the build-up to Tokyo 2021.

First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.

 

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