Getting Around the Racecourse - 505 Tactics

By Ali Meller

In fairness, I should point out before you read this, that I am not renowned in the 505 class for my tactics, however I have been known to pass a boat or two...

Some sailors in slower classes claim the 505 is a "speed" class, with little emphasis on tactics. Those more familiar with the 505 know this could not be further from the truth. In a 505, and in some other high performance classes, you have to have speed and pointing similar to the bulk of the fleet to be a player, but once you do, the racing is very tactical. The tactics do get easier if you are going faster than your competitors.

While the tactical principles are similar in all sailboats, the relative importance of keeping your air clear, speed versus pointing, being inside at the leeward mark, etc. varies with the characteristics of the class, the sailing conditions, and the performance of the boat.

The Start

Whether it is a line start or a gate start, remember that the 505 accelerates extremely quickly, except in very light air, so you can sit close to the line and wait. Those hanging too far back will find that they cannot get up to speed in disturbed air, and are left in the second or third row. The rapid acceleration and extreme manouverability of the 505 mean that you will be playing the starting game at very high speed. A port approach - for a line start - can work well, as the 505 can be up to speed within a very few seconds of a tack. You can start tacking below a starboard tack 505 with ten seconds to go, and easily be up to speed for the start.

In light air, the 505 does not increase speed through the water much when footing, but it does in any breeze. If a boat to windward is threatening to drive over you, and you cannot sqeeze them off, foot slightly to gain separation and clear air. Once ahead of abeam, go back to point mode.

The 505 can also point high - pinch if need be - to climb off a boat to leeward. Just squeeze up a little to gain height, and come back down to close hauled before losing too much way. You canscallop up provided you do not lose too much speed. Sheet the jib harder and tighten the vang to help do this. Work up just enough to be out of disturbed air, then get back up to full speed.

Windward Mark

Don't join the layline parade if you can avoid it! High performance boats are slowed a much greater percentage of their speed when blanketed or suffering from backwind than slower boats. It is much more important to keep your air clear. Often boats that get into the starboard layline for the windward mark parade too soon, suffer, as they are slowed by disturbed air and wake. As they are slowed, gaps open between them and the boats ahead and astern, often allowing a port tacker an opportunity to join the layline parade much closer to the mark. 505s also have a fairly wide range of good angles to sail upwind, so crossing through the layline crowd and tacking above the layline in clear air, then footing to the mark can work well particularly in planing upwind conditions. Setting up above the starboard tack layline also puts you above your nearest competitors as you hoist the spinnaker for the first reach, so you can start the reach in the passing lane.

Spinnaker Hoist

While the vast majority of the time you will hoist the spinnaker for the first reach immediately after rounding the windward mark, do not do so blindly, once in awhile the reach will be too tight to carry effectively, or there will be lots of traffic around you that would warrant you two sail reaching high for a few lengths to get above the crowd. As anywhere else on the course, keeping your air clear is more important with a high performance boat than with slower boats, if there is any traffic nearby, you must get into the passing lane and stay high. If you are rolled by one boat astern of you, you could easily be rolled by following boats as you never get back up to speed.

Eyeball the reach angle and consider windshifts on the beat before you get to the mark to determine if you will hoist or not. If in doubt, whip it out! You can go part way down the reach, then douse the spinnaker and two sail reach up to the mark. If you only have to go high for a short distance, you can simply uncleat the spinnaker halyard, not bother dousing, reach up, and then bear off and rehoist.

There are two approaches to the hoist that will keep you in the passing lane:

  • Hoist Immediately - if you are confident that you can hoist quickly, get the crew on the wire and go high and fast, without the boat astern rolling you, go ahead and do it.
  • Go High First - if in doubt of the former succeeding, go high for a few lengths first, then bear off, hoist, get organized, and go high with the kite.
If you are in traffic there really isn't much of a middle ground. If you half heartedly reach up, and then hoist, the boat astern of you can two sail reach over you, or simply get a better hoist and roll you. If you are going to hoist now, you MUST do it as quickly as possible (you have been practicing, right?). If not, go high to get at least a couple of boatlengths above the boats that do not go high, and do not bear off to hoist while someone is close astern of you two sail reaching.

Keep your air clear for most of the reach, unless the reach is too broad. On a normal reach you can change from "stay high" mode to "get down to the mark" mode as you approach the gybe mark. If the reach is broader than it should be, and people have to work lower to get down to the gybe mark consider the following:

  • Curse the RC for not setting a proper 60 degree gybe angle reach... :-)
  • Provided no one is directly astern threatening your air, start working lower, or
  • Stay high with speed, and plan on gybing well above the gybe mark, and reaching past it after gybing. If the second reach is too broad, consider reaching past the gybe mark without gybing. No one is forcing you to sail a slow downwind angle, you can choose what is the fastest angle downwind.
  • Go low immediately after hoisting, taking the pain of disturbed air for awhile, to get separation from the fleet. This WILL NOT WORK if the reach is tight. It has to be broad enough that the boats that go high are slowed as they bear off down to the gybe mark, you can get enough separation and some clear air down the reach, and come up to the gybe mark late, and at your fastest angle.

Gybe Marks

If you were alone on the race course, you might do a smooth gybe that did not slow the boat down, and minimized the distance sailed, but... YOU ARE NOT ALONE ON THE RACE COURSE. Get in the habit of coming out of the gybe mark high, so you protect yourself against boats astern, and set up to pass those ahead.

I try to gybe so I come out of the gybe closer to the mark than when I start the gybe - it is SO important to come out of the gybe high and in the passing lane. Perhaps the easiest way to think about it is that you want to gybe slightly early, so you approach pointing a boat length or so above the mark - leaving room for your boom, and exit the gybe next to the mark.

If in traffic, hike hard and sail as high as you can while the crew gets the pole on the mast (you could also acquire a pole launcher to speed this move up). A half a boat length of height at the mark could be worth lots of distance and boats later down the reach!

Leeward Mark

A leeward mark in traffic presents some challenges. You want to be above and inside the boats near you, and must fight off boats trying to overlap you to weather. Do not let yourself be pinned outside someone, better to put the board down and douse a boatlength early to slip back, and allow yourself the opportunity to round directly astern - or even a little inside - rather than pinned outside.

You must practice your spinnaker douse until you can do it well repeatedly, and know instinctively how close to the mark you can come and still have time to douse. You may have to carry it a little later than normal to fight off an overlap, but remember that you are better off rounding ready to sail fast upwind with someone inside you than you are rounding with no one inside, and the spinnaker only partly doused! If you are not threatened, take down slightly early to ensure a good rounding, and that you are pointing high and up to full speed upwind as soon as you have rounded.

If you are having problems with the douse or setting up the boat REMEMBER to round the mark and point the boat upwind! You are better off going slowly toward the windward mark, than sailing away from it while trying to complete the douse.

Try to come out of the leeward mark rounding as high as possible. If you can make a smooth turn and flatten the boat as you turn, you can luff up higher for a few moments so as to be slightly above the line of boats ahead or astern. This tactic may also force a trailing boat to bear off below you to avoid hitting your transom, putting them in your disturbed air. This can be accomplished by steering the boat at a point a boatlength or two below the mark, and then not turning too fast. You want to be close hauled as you pass the mark.

If you are trailing a boat, force them to carry their spinnaker too close to the mark, and hope they flub the douse and rounding. With a good douse and rounding, you can sheet in and sail right through their lee, while they are completing the manouver and have not set the jib or main properly. Even if you cannot pull of that move, you may be able to tack away immediately, before they are ready to tack and cover.

I believe you can live with a slack vang for a few moments - pulling the bridle mainsheet hard controls the leech, but that having the jib too tight or too loose would prevent you from getting up to speed after the rounding.

Giving away distance at the leeward mark is probably the most frequent mistake I see on the race course.

The Run

A set of polar diagrams for a 505 would be fascinating. The optimum angle to sail downwind would have to change whenever the wind speed increased or decreased by a knot, and also depending on local wave conditions. Continuously judge your angles and speed relative to competitors to try to get the optimum angle and speed combination for the conditions at that moment.

In very light air, sailing quite high to keep flow over the spinnaker can work quite well. As the air goes from very light to light, sailing low can work very well. You can even sail by the lee with the board right up to slide down to a mark. Somewhere above 15 knots or so, sailing high angles to get the boat planing fast becomes effective, and in big breeze, the top sailors are usually going down the run with the crew on the wire and the skipper fully hiked. The fastest angle may be almost as high as the reaches! Practice your run-to-run gybe technique till it is smooth, and then be prepared to gybe for any puffs, angle changes (and even wave patterns in light air). Puffs are key, the difference in boat speed due to a puff is quite significant.

In many conditions, pumping on waves is VERY effective. Work on your pumping technique and timing, as badly done pumping is quite a bit worse than no pumping at all.

The medium sized flatter spinnakers optimized for reaching do not seem to go as low as the fuller spinnakers, so you may not be able to sail the same optimum angle as competitors near you.

Much as pointing higher upwind is a big advantage, being able to work low of competitors while maintaining speed can be devastating on the run. My crew and I often sit astride the centerboard trunk - motorcycle seat style - as we can lean to one side or the other to steer and balance out the helm, and the slightest puff or shift is more easily noticed.

Leeward Mark End of the Run

Set up to be inside other boats as you approach the mark. On port gybe, cut behind starboard gybe boats - if you cannot cross them - then bear off and gybe on the layline, or close to it. In a spinnaker bag 505, remember that the douse in the windward bag, followed by a gybe and rounding the mark, may be one of the more difficult moves to pull off. A launcher boat does not have to worry as much about this manouver, but often has the skipper steering with knees or foot, while dousing the spinnaker.

In a bag boat, if you set up so that you can gybe to port just a little before the mark, you can do a "gybe-douse", gybing the boat, not rotating the chute, and leaving it no the windward side for an immediate douse. If you are sailing a 505 worlds course, with a beat, two more reaches and a final beat after the run, you should try hard to get the spinnaker down into the port bag by approaching the leeward mark on port, or using the gybe-douse manouver. You would prefer not to have to do a windward hoist, or throw-set, on a tight reach!