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by Geoff Moore

Leeward marks are being replaced by gates. To be honest I was not a big fan of this change in the beginning. I had spent my whole racing life learning every possible leeward mark situation, and I felt confident that I knew just what to do in every situation. Suddenly the game was changed and I felt a little uncertain about what the slick moves were.

The only articles I have seen on this subject are incredibly simple. They state the obvious... "round the closest mark" and "get on the lifted tack right away". So here are some of my personal observations about how to approach a leeward gate. I will refer to the gate marks as either the left, or right as viewed from upwind. This is the view that we have as we sail downwind toward the gate.

It is virtually impossible to determine which mark is further upwind by just using the three dimensional capability of you eyes. (unless you have an extremely wide head) Jibing angles add to the complexity of visually choosing the best mark. So you need more information.

Like a starting line, there is a good chance that the race committee did not set both marks exactly square to the wind. Sometimes you will have opportunity to examine the gate before the start, but usually it is too far away, or, they set it after the start. This does add a degree of randomness to the game, but that is the price we pay for ouchless mark roundings. So, if you can not judge visually, and you can not inspect the gate, you are forced to make the assumption that the gate was set fairly square. The only available source of information you have then is what has happened to the wind since the gate was set.

For example if the wind is in a left phase as you approach the gate you will probably want to round the right gate. It is important to point out that, although the right hand gate will be further upwind, you will be rounding the mark sailing on a header. So, in a perfect world you would want to tack immediately after rounding.

That leads me to another observation. As boats round both leeward gate marks all the boats, except the leaders, will be pressured to tack away in order to clear their air from the boats that rounded immediately in front of them. The effect is that both marks are "pumping" boats back into the middle of the race course. At the beginning of the windward leg tacking right away can be disastrous because everyone who had to tack is scrambling to get clear air and there just isn't enough space for everyone. As the fleet expands further up the leg more and more space becomes available. So there is usually a good reason NOT to tack right away. This pressure, "not to tack", is further amplified when you consider that the downwind boats are plugging up the wind as they funnel into the gate.

The pressure, "not to tack", has the additional effect of splitting the fleet. Suddenly, boats you were right next to downwind can have a lot leverage upwind very quickly.

I have also noticed that there can be a huge penalty for rounding the right hand mark poorly. It is always a big gainer to round any mark tightly with speed, but if you were to have a poor rounding on the left hand gate at least you have the option to tack onto Starboard tack and use your right away in your search for clear air. The right hand mark offers no such consolation prize.

In addition, for the very advanced sailor, there will be a brief left shift at the left hand mark because the wind is slowed... and we all know that when wind is slowed it backs (in the northern hemisphere). We have all seen it happen. Right after the left gate mark the boat behind you gets a huge scary lift. It is only noticeable when there is a very crowded mark situation and it only lasts for a few seconds. But maybe that is all you need to keep from falling into the bad air zone?

So choosing a gate to round is not as simple as it appears. There are many complex factors that go into the choice. To make things even more complex you are pressured very early on leeward leg to make your choice. After all the mental anguish of choosing a gate you still have to make sure you are on the inside.

I am now a modest fan of leeward gates. On the plus side they allow more escape routes for potential crash victims. They reward clever thinking, and they keep the racing very tight.

On the negative side, gates require more race committee and expertise. Extra marks are not cheap. And ... there is a higher degree of randomness in the game.

Good Luck

*              Geoff Moore                  *
*            Shore Sails Ltd               *
*             7 Merton Road                *
*          Newport,  RI 02840              *
*                401-849-7700              *
*            fax 401-849-7952              *
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