by Mark Johnson [copyright 1/19/95]

Chapter 5 - Rounding Marks

Rounding the marks on the course can actually be fun to practice. This is a good thing, because many gains and losses are made at mark roundings. Often a pack of boats will approach the mark, basically tied with each other. Because of the nature of the rounding, someone will come out on top, and depending on the number of boats and the skill of the skippers, the last boat could end up 20 boatlengths behind.

Windward Mark

The windward mark, with small fleets, often provides an uneventful rounding, but it can get exciting. The goal for this rounding is to come into the mark on starboard with a full head of steam, and accelerate evenly as you bear off for the next leg.

To have a full head of steam at the mark, you should plan to come in about 1/2 to 1 boatlength above the layline, to be able to bear off as you approach. Then, as you bear off for the next leg, begin to let the sails out evenly. Let them out enough to keep the telltales flowing, but don't let them luff.

Occasionally, you will be below the layline by 1/2 boatlength. In this case, the safe thing to do is tack once to get above it, and then tack again to round. However, it is possible, if you have enough speed, to get around the mark without the 2 extra tacks. The technique is to head straight at the mark until about 3/4 boatlengths, and then "shoot" straight up into the wind. With enough speed, the boat will coast past the mark, pissing off all those who thought you had to tack to get around. Then, just bear off, and continue the smooth acceleration.


Laylines, if you don't know by now, are the lines upon which you can sail close-hauled and just make it around the mark.

figure 26

It is best to avoid the laylines until the end of the windward leg. Don't get to them until there are about 10 boatlengths to go. There are many reasons for this:

  1. While on the layline early, the boats who tack onto the layline in front of you, feed you bad air all the way to the mark.

    figure 27

    You certainly won't want to tack away and sail a lot of extra distance, so you're stuck.


  2. If you are on the layline with boats to leeward and you get a lift, the boats below you can now "fetch" the mark, while you overstood. This means you sailed further than you needed to get to the layline.

    figure 28

    They simply waited for the layline to "come to them." This means if you sailed 4 boatlengths to get where you are, the boats around you that didn't go as far, gained 4 boatlengths from a shift of the wind.


  3. If you get to the layline way early, and the fleet gets a header, those to leeward pull ahead. You can see this by looking back to figure 24.

    Anything that happens with you on the layline early spells trouble. Just say WHOA!

Reach Mark

The reach mark, just like the windward mark, is often uneventful. The object here is to jibe nicely and smoothly, without tangling up with anyone. Also, it is often (not always) a good idea to head up for a short time after rounding the mark. This gives you clear air from those coming down after the reach mark, and it also puts you inside so you're in a good position for the leeward mark.

Leeward Mark

Now, this is the exciting and challenging part of the course. This is the area where knowledge about the rules of racing, as well as skill in boat handling are at a premium. Just as at the windward mark, a lot of separation can occur afterwards, but everyone here is just a little more aggressive and bunched up than before. The beat tends to spread boats out, while the reach tends to bunch them together, so there will be much more traffic.

The racing rules allow those with an inside overlap at the 2 boatlength circle to round the mark more easily than those on the outside (please refer to the rule book for the exact rule). This means everyone will want to be there, and those on the outside must give room, invariably losing many boatlengths.

Below are some skills to practice for the leeward mark rounding. Follow them carefully and you will pick up many places, or at the very least, not lose a lot.

All the following skills can be practiced with one buoy in the water. They are good to practice in groups, but there are still gains you can make alone.

Skills: Rounding Wide, then Tight

When there are a few boats directly behind you (not overlapped) at the rounding, they will have an opportunity to pass you if your rounding is sloppy. The tendency here is to stay close to the mark, so they can't squeeze in at the last second and pass you. This tendency leads to the worst possible outcome.

Every boat has a certain optimal turning radius, and none have a turning radius tight enough to stay close to the mark.

figure 29

If you approach the mark at some distance, then you can round up tight next to it. If those boats behind try to squeeze in too early, they may hit you, fouling you. Most racers will not try this if you look like you know what you're doing, i.e. if you're swinging wide early.

figure 30

To practice this, set a mark in the water and approach it on a port broad reach. Aim to be 1 boat width away when the nose of your boat overlaps the mark. Then, start to head up, heeling the boat slightly, until you reach a close-hauled course. If you are more than 6 inches away from the mark at this point, you were too far. Try this exercise, moving in or out at the beginning, to get closer to the mark when you have assumed the close-hauled course.

Skills: Slowing Down

Often, coming into the mark, everyone ahead will begin to slow because of the wind shadow created by the boats behind. At this point, you will find yourself gaining an overlap on the outside, or worse yet, a late inside overlap, with no rights. This is disastrous, as you may have to do a circle just to keep from hitting everyone. One important thing to remember is, it's better to be right behind than it is to be outside or late inside.

The skill you'll need to learn is slowing down when sailing a broad reach or a run. This can be accomplished in many ways:

  1. Overtrim the mainsail. This will "stall" the sail and slow you down, but slowly.
  2. Steer a curvy course, instead of straight ahead. This means really big rudder movements. Make the tiller movements quickly enough (once a second), and your course changes won't even be that big, but you'll steer extra distance and slow down. Watch out for other boats around you.
  3. Move your weight back to the transom. This creates drag from the stern sitting in the water. This, also, is a fairly quick way to slow down.

One great exercise to do is to get a group of boats and play follow the leader. The lead boat just steers normally, tacking and jibing and sailing straight, while the others stay close behind. Try to keep your bow about 1-2 ft. from the stern of the boat ahead. You will have to learn how to slow down, or you'll hit them. This is also great for building confidence in close sailing conditions.

Skills: Sheeting with Both Hands

In order to round the leeward mark, and keep all your speed, you must not only steer a good course, but the sail must come in quickly. This cannot be done with one hand.

Try sailing in a straight line on a broad reach, with the sail all the way out. Without turning, use both hands and sheet the sail quickly. Obviously, one hand will have the tiller extension, so you need to learn to steer at the same time. Going in a straight line is not too difficult-just move the tiller extension without affecting the tiller.

Once you've mastered the straight line while sheeting, get a buoy and attempt rounding and trimming. Concentrate on trimming and not necessarily on getting a good rounding. Be sure to pull in the sail as far as it will go when you're through.

The whole goal of the exercise is to make sheeting second nature. Eventually, your concentration at the mark will need to be on the rounding and not on sail trim.

On to Chapter 6

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