It’s the simplest of rules, but just keeping clear would be to miss out on some tactical options. Jonty Sherwill asked match racer Ian Williams for his top tips

With the wind slowly clocking right your original decision that the pin end was the best place to start may be in doubt, so if a half decent result is to be salvaged from this race now may be the time to act.

But the route to the right will be a minefield of starboard tack boats many of which are pressing on, hoping that the wind will shift back. Your view up the course suggests otherwise so having made the decision that it’s time to bite the bullet and make the move.

After your tack onto port a few others are being encouraged to follow and, while some are now risking close crosses with starboard tack boats, your preference is to suffer the loss of taking stern after stern to ensure you get across to the right without incident. Even so keeping a clear lane of air is getting tougher to maintain as other boats further to windward join the exodus.

However, fortune favours the bold and, though either strategy could scupper the recovery you are hoping for, playing it safe could turn out to be the costliest option.

Should you have accepted the risk of getting forced back to the left and possibly picking up a penalty for a late lee-bow tack rather than sticking with your safety first approach?

It’s never over until the finish line, but having a clear strategy for tackling port and starboard crosses will improve your chances of coming out smiling on the other side of each encounter.

1. Port tack boat options

It is important for both boats to know what the port tack boat’s potential options are as in any cross the situation can change extremely quickly.

I look to grade the relative position of the boats as follows: easy cross, marginal cross, strong lee-bow, weak lee-bow, no lee-bow. Combined with the assessments in Tip 2 this frames what options you have and provides you with the tools to get the best possible outcome.

2. Plan ahead

Before you have to make the fine judgement calls of whether you have a cross, lee-bow, or opt to duck make sure you have assessed the racecourse and know what you want to do. Try to understand what the boat on the opposite tack might want and the likely outcome and position your own boat accordingly.

A starboard tack boat may wave you across if they want to continue, but equally could lee-bow you when you go to duck if they want to protect the right.

It is hard to read their mind regarding windshifts or pressure, but if you are close to a layline you know they are likely to want to come away on the long tack.

3. Judging the cross

From the back of your boat, if you are gaining bearing on another boat’s bow then you are crossing. You can judge this by taking a transit through their bow to the land behind. If the other boat is moving forward on the land then you are not crossing, if it is moving back then you are crossing.

Be aware that this technique only works if the distance between the boats is much smaller than the distance from the land. If the land behind is too close I sometimes use a cloud as a transit so it’s more accurate.

A windshift or bad waves can change the situation so you need to keep watching.

4. Fast in, strong out

At any crossing situation, being fast into it gives extra options when coming out. In particular, if the other boat chooses to lee-bow, having extra speed might allow you to climb off and hang in there while pointing high, or even roll over the other boat if they misjudge how fast you are.

Also, a port tack boat that is arriving at what may be a close cross must resist the temptation to sail high, especially in waves. It might look good to start with, but once you start slowing there is a sharp reduction in VMG, which could prevent you from achieving the cross.

If it is close any hunting-up by the starboard boat is subject to Rule 16.1: ‘When a right-of-way boat changes course, she shall give the other boat room to keep clear’. This means that if her hunting-up is so late that it is too late for you to tack away safely, then she has broken the rule.


5. Best duck v late duck

When ducking a boat the best technique is to get down early so that you can bring the bow up and be on the wind as you cross their transom. However, be aware that if they are likely to lee-bow you this style of duck makes it very easy for the starboard boat.

If you think that is likely, eg when near the port layline, then a late duck makes it much harder for the starboard boat to time a lee-bow tack without either infringing or having you rolling over the top.

Bonus Pro Tip:

Note: If you are the starboard tack boat trying to force the port boat to dip, but then decide to tack and lee-bow them, be aware this is an aggressive tactic and may cause confusion in more gentlemanly classes. Also keep in mind Rule 16.2 which includes: ‘… the starboard tack boat shall not change course if as a result the port tack boat [who is keeping clear] would immediately need to change course to continue keeping clear.’


Ian Williams is a five times ISAF Match Racing World Champion and the only European to hold multiple match racing world titles. Twelve times winner on the World Match Racing Tour, with 34 podium finishes, Williams is also well known on the professional big boat circuit as a tactician and has been shortlisted twice for the ISAF World Sailor of the Year Award and twice for the British YJA Yachtsman of the Year Award.