A tight windward mark rounding can challenge your boat handling. Multiple championship winner Charlie Cumbley shares top tips with Andy Rice.

While there may be many factors that feed into a successful windward mark rounding, Charlie Cumbley boils it down to one overriding aim: “Ultimately you’re trying to get to the top mark, sailing the minimum distance at the best VMG.”

Charlie’s five best tips explain how to achieve that goal, although there is an important caveat: you need to tailor your approach to your abilities and your current skill level. Living in a thin lane, tacking in late from port on to a congested starboard layline – these are where small margins can make the difference between succeeding or failing badly.

Get it wrong and you might find yourself being forced to take a penalty turn, or missing the mark and having to gybe around for a second go while you frantically search for a gap in the endless line of starboard-tack traffic.

So while some of these tips work for anyone regardless of skill level, others will require some practise and commitment to improvement.

Don’t be too early

A common rule of thumb is not to get to the laylines too early on the beat, and starboard side is almost always more painful than port. So you’re looking to get as far up the course as possible inside of the laylines and leave your last tack as late as possible – easier said than done if you’re in the middle of the fleet and everyone is fighting for a clean lane and clear air.

Every time you poke your nose out towards the layline early, you’re putting yourself in a position where someone will be tacking on your line, or worse, on your air. So leave your last tack as late as possible.

That said, the further back you are in the fleet, the more you can get close to the port-hand layline because the traffic is starting to thin out. Yes, you’ll have some downwind traffic from boats that have already rounded ahead of you, and whether or not that is a price worth paying can be class specific. With asymmetric boats you’re probably not going to get too caught up, but in a boat like the Etchells that goes pretty much dead downwind, you’re going to have to choose your moment to pick your way through.

Downwind decisions

If you’re hoisting a spinnaker, decide well in advance of the windward mark if you’re going to want to do a straight set or gybe set: knowing this will help you determine your best approach to the top mark. Whether or not you have a spreader mark also needs to factor into your thinking. If you want to gybe set, it’s fine to under-tack the boats that have over-stood the layline and live with some short-term pain as you sail in their bad air.

The most important goal is to make sure you round close to the mark with no one on the inside so you’re clear to go into your gybe as soon as possible. If you know you want to straight set, then it’s better to come in from a higher angle and have the ability to sail over the top of the other boats. Or if you’re coming in from lower, continue on a two-sail reach on a higher angle until you’ve broken into clean air.

Current effects

Tide and current have a huge effect on your approach to the top mark. With tide taking you upwind, this narrows the laylines which means you’ll reach them much sooner. It’s really easy to over-stand the laylines, which is a disaster. If in doubt, better to under-lay because the current will help you point up towards the mark and you’ll likely overtake the boats that have over-stood to windward of you.

If the tide is against you, though, you’ll need to over-stand the layline. With all the boats that are struggling to get around the top mark, and some trying to double-tack their way past the mark, coming in from higher with good speed in clearer air is a much safer bet.

Photo: Alamy

Hold your lane

Holding your lane is a vital skill not just for windward mark rounding but for getting cleanly off the start line and many other parts of a congested race course. The better your ability to hold a lane, the more you can aim for spaces that aren’t available to other, lesser-skilled teams. There isn’t really a shortcut to improving this skill. It’s about knowing your boat, how to change gear in changing conditions, when and how to trim the sails for extra height without stalling, and so on.

Practise the hard stuff

It’s easy to decide to over-stand the layline and give yourself extra breathing room, but you’re not going to learn or improve by always doing that. Practise with some mates and try the more difficult approaches when it doesn’t matter if you stuff it up. Tack into a thin lane and see if you can live there. Don’t get on to the laylines until really late and work out how to carve out a lane without overstanding. In training or club races where you don’t care about the result, give yourself the chance to work on these vital skills. That’s the best way to equip yourself for taking on big fleet championships.

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