System Sailing 3.2 - Tactics

June 24, 2020

I have sailed with some of the most respected tacticians in the world, and no two have the same system.  Some are calm and keep all the information in their heads, while other tacticians are vocal and talk through every move. Some tacticians include the crew in making decisions, while others tend to make decisions by themselves. To some degree, all tacticians are responsible to make decisions that will benefit the boat on the racecourse. And whether good or bad, often race results are shouldered on the tactician. System Sailing tactics involve the entire team when making decisions. As discussed in System Sailing Parts 1, 2, and 3.1, boat speed and boat handling are prioritized above decision-making. Without speed or clean maneuvers, it will be difficult or even impossible to make the best decisions and then execute them. 

Decision Making

All the decisions necessary to have a successful race include strategy and tactics.


The plan for the race based on:

  • Racecourse history
  • Weather research
  • Pre-race information 
  • Competitors
  • Current
  • Current weather

The strategy for the race is made based on a sum of information that will determine where you start and how you sail the race as if you were the only boat on the course. If your strategy is to sail to one side of the course, you will start in a position that will allow you to lead the fleet in that direction. If the wind is shifting more than once in a leg, the strategy would be to sail the favored heading based on the wind direction. Your strategy should be to start in a position to tack on the first shift.


Real-time decisions based on:

  • Strategy for the race
  • Result of your start
  • Competitors
  • Boats of interest
  • Weather, wind, waves, and current
  • Course geometry

System Sailing Tactics

All stages of the race will need a system to evaluate the results once completed. 

  • Pre-race
  • Start
  • Leg 1
  • Leg 2
  • Leg 3
  • Leg 4
  • Finish


One hour prior to the warning signal:

  • Sail upwind for 20 minutes
    • Tack every 5 minutes
      • Record wind direction, wind speed, and heading
      • Evaluate target speed against competitor
      • Evaluate rig tune against competitor
  • Sail downwind for 20 minutes
    • Gybe every 5 minutes
      • Record wind direction, wind speed, and heading
      • Evaluate target true wind angle against competitors
      • Evaluate trim, the sails, and boat float fore and aft
  • Starting line homework for 10 minutes
    • Pinging (Using starting instrument that measures distance to line)
      • Boat and pin ends
      • Mid-line check – turn head to wind to double check pings and grab a wind direction heading
    • Check lay lines
      • Boat and pin ends
  • Last 10 minutes
    • Hydrate
    • Discuss plan (strategy)
    • Agree on sail choice and rig setting


Time determines outcome:

  • Boat end at 5 minutes, sailing on starboard towards pin end of line
  • Tack back towards boat end, based on desired start location on line
    • Boat end – tack at 3 minutes
    • Mid line – tack at 2 minutes 
    • Pin end – tack at 1 minute
  • Information
    • Distance to line
    • Time to start

Leg 1

Options here are a result of the start

  • If you had a good start, stay with the group, sail fast, and look for an opportunity to cross the fleet
  • If you have a poor start, look for clear air and sail to the planned side or sail the lifted tack
  • Half-way point
    • Sail to the center of cone
    • Set up for final shift
  • Windward mark
    • Approach mark on port outside the 3-boat-length circle to avoid rule 18 penalties
    • Discuss plan for Leg 2 before rounding so everyone knows what kind of mode you’re sailing in downwind. If you have a spinnaker, determine what kind of set you’ll use

Leg 2

  • Set the spinnaker and settle in on your lane, target downwind speed, and TWA
    • Look for clean air 
    • Get on the long gybe
  • Half-way point
    • Set up for gate choice
  • Gate mark
    • Set yourself up to be on the inside lane and round in wide and out tight
    • Discuss plan for Leg 3

Leg 3

Learn from decisions made on Leg 1:

  • Look for clean air, and pattern of shifts
  • Check the direction the leaders are headed
  • Half-way point
    • Leverage side, based on information
  • Windward mark
    • Discuss plan for final leg

Leg 4

  • Set spinnaker
    • Get on long gybe 
    • Learn from Leg 2
  • Half-way point
    • Leverage side based on information


  • Discuss line bias and finish at the favored end

System Sailing tactics involve the entire team. From the rail, the information related to water height, wind, competition, and wind trends allows the tactician to focus on making the best plan for sailing that leg. Knowing the trimmers and helmsman are sailing targets or shifting target speeds based on wind direction and speed allows the tactician to focus on decision-making. Constant communication from the team can paint a picture so when it comes time to tack, gybe, or sail a particular direction, the decision becomes obvious. If everyone on the team is doing their job related to your system, making decisions can be easy. Be confident in your system, and good decisions will follow.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about building a tactical system on your boat, please contact Quantum’s Wally Cross. You can check out other episodes of System Sailing here or download the playbook here.

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