System Sailing Decision-Making

Developed by Quantum Sails’ Wally Cross, System Sailing views sailing through numbers and encourages sailors to improve their skills by using charts, diagrams, and post-race documentation, making their successes easier to repeat. For more information on the foundations of System Sailing, read this article on planning your season or dive into the full System Sailing Collection. Here, Wally breaks down the elements that go into decision-making and racing success.

Boat speed and boat handling are skills with clear patterns for success that are applicable no matter what type of boat you’re sailing. Learning how to make good decisions on the racecourse, however, is more challenging to develop. But the ability to make good decisions always starts with boat speed, boat handling, and starting technique.

Boat Speed

No matter how great your strategy and tactics, if you aren’t going fast enough to keep up with the fleet, you will struggle. Clean lanes become hard to find, and you might be sailing around taking transoms. Good boat speed allows you to act on your strategy, keeps your options open for making tactical decisions, and just might be the difference in crossing your competitor clear ahead instead of ducking the same competitor and getting tacked on. Key to keeping the boat going fast is keeping up with boat maintenance. For a full description on how to build a system for boat speed, start with System Sailing 1.1 the Boat and System Sailing 2.1 Sailing with Numbers.

Boat Handling

Hand in hand with boat speed is boat handling. You must have confidence to put the boat in situations where you’ll successfully execute a given maneuver on the racecourse. Practice a variety of maneuvers so you’re comfortable with a variety of options and decisions to make. The tactician may recognize an opening to pass a few boats by doing a gybe-set, but if the crew doesn’t know how to confidently perform that maneuver, it can’t be factored into your decisions. Instead, you might opt to set, extend, and follow the train of other boats in front of you, while the boat behind you gybe-sets and passes you and the three boats in front of you. For a deeper dive into creating a system for boat handling, read System Sailing 3.1 Boat Handling and System Sailing 3.4 Fine Tuning.


The essentials for a good start are pretty basic: start on time, on the line, and up to speed, and your options will be nearly unlimited. Paired with boat speed and boat handling, you can sail the race however you want – tack on shifts, stay in clear air, and go to the favored side of the course. Make sure you develop a system for starting at the boat, starting midline, and starting at the pin with System Sailing 3.3 Pre-Race and Start.

Decision-Making Process

Decision-making starts well before the race. Successful sailors study the venue ahead of time and collect information to inform their race day decisions. Some important things to study before the event include:

  • Typical weather conditions for the time of year
    • Sea breeze or any land effect
    • Patterns of wind shifts
    • Temperature of land and water
  • Current or tide during race day
    • Direction based on water depth
    • Areas of relief
    • Rivers near race area (rain will change speed/direction)

At the race venue, the research continues. The internet is always a good way to get information about conditions and weather and water patterns, but you should also do firsthand “field” research. When possible, consult a trusted local who has raced in the area in different conditions. Regardless of their sailing abilities, their information can be valuable. Once you’ve done your research, break your decision-making process into strategy and tactics.

Strategy (The Plan)

Strategy considers how you would sail the race if there were no other boats on the course and you were racing only against the clock. Create your strategy based on the information you’ve gathered about weather, water, and wind conditions as well as information about the course on race day.

  • On-course race day information
    • Sail upwind for 20 minutes to see what’s happening on the racecourse, looking for wind speed and direction patterns
    • Sail downwind for 20 minutes to see what’s happening on the racecourse, looking for wind speed and direction patterns
    • At the starting line, determine line bias relative to course side

Based on your on-the-water and pre-race research, you’ll be able to make the best plan you’d follow if there were no other boats involved. Once other boats are mixed into the race, you need to determine the tactics to follow that will let you stick as close as possible to your original strategy.

Tactics (The Moves)

Tactics consider the real-time decisions made on the racecourse − including the start − while sailing against other boats. They’re what keep your opponent off guard. Tactical decisions are based on your strategy, the competition, and any changes happening as the race unfolds. When your tactics support your strategy, the results are always good. Examples of tactical decisions include:

  • Start to leeward of a group to hold a lane
  • Sail in clear air
  • Cross when you can
  • Stay in phase
  • Sail toward pressure
  • Sail inside the triangle with oscillating breeze
  • Work the edges of the course in light breeze
  • Position your boat farther in advance on the downwind leg to be inside at leeward mark
  • Round the closest gate
  • Stay with better boats
  • Loose cover when protecting a lead

Finally, keep a notebook in which you record the conditions of and observations on every race. The notebooks of skilled tacticians are detailed and include: 

  • Wind speeds, wave heights, sail choice
  • Sail settings, target speeds sailed, rig tune
  • Current effect and directions
  • Land effect and timing
  • Notes on how to get better results

For more articles, videos, and the System Sailing Playbook, check out the full System Sailing Collection. Contact Wally Cross with any additional questions.

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