The downwind slide in the 49er and other high performance machines (in over 15 knots) is a section of the race course that is far more complex then people first think. Everything you do, from the bear away at the top mark, hoist, pre-gybe setup, gybe point and final run into the mark are all inherently linked together, much like a an elastic band stretched between the marks. For you to maintain your position at the bottom mark, or to have the opportunity to sneak a few extra places, you’ll need to get the whole process right, starting at the top mark. Like the elastic band stretched between the marks, if you pull one part of the band, everything else changes position. If you delay your gybe point, even by several seconds, your entire downwind leg can be ruined.
I’ll just explain. When it’s breezy, the downwind leg lasts only a few minutes. With such high boat speed, you want to get to the favoured side of the course as efficiently as possible. There’s absolutely no time to put in an extra couple of gybes if you gybe too early, and it’s death if you get below the layline and are forced to drop the kite early. However, it’s easy for me to stress the importance of the gybe point, but in a race if you get your processes wrong further up the course, you won’t have the choice where you gybe as it’s up to the other boats around you, and they don’t play nice.
If you round the top mark and hoist slightly high, a boat can sneak onto your hip and, if they are worth their salt, will be able to live there to the gybe point, force you over it, gybe late and roll you. There’s no worse feeling in the world (except for that brief moment when you realise the recipient of that dirty text message you just sent was, in fact, your mother..) than hitting the gybe point at 20 knots and not being able to gybe. You know that, at this very point, your race is ruined. If only you planned your run a little better.
Ok, how about if you gybe set to get away from the pack? Sure, it makes sense to go looking for fresh breeze and a clear gybe point, but you need to think ahead. If you gybe early, you know there’s going to be a boat gybing with you at some point, so rather than just concentrating on the gybe and hoist, the helm has to be looking around.
What I’m trying to say is that, if you are going to get into a good position at the leeward mark, you need to think about it before you even think about hoisting. Look at it this way, if you get it wrong at the top mark and a boat looks like pinning you out to a corner, you only have a few hundred metres to get some space to gybe. You never want to sail downwind defending your position and taking risks, you should be looking to extend, so getting clear water around you is key.
Now, when do you start thinking about this? From my experience, helm’s have an easy job. They lie back and hold on to a stick. But hey, it’s not ANY stick, it’s carbon fibre so it doesn’t weigh too much for them… Anyway, when you tack onto the layline before the top mark, helm’s have a good few seconds to see where the boats are stacking up on them. Helms need to answer a few questions before we round the mark (and in my experience, if things are going crazy, it’s best to not discuss it with the crew, any hesitation can cost you. Two minds are better than one, unless a quick decision is needed):
1: Where’s the wind? Do I want to go left or right? (basically, do I straight set or gybe)
2: Am I going to have a guy on my hip when we hoist?
3: Am I going to be in a position to roll someone or jump onto their hip?
When you’ve answered these questions, you have a firm basis for the set up. If you’re straight setting, the helm should be looking backwards for a few seconds to keep in line with the attacking boats behind. If they go low, stay down with them, if they go high, then push the stick. All you need to do is stay in a position to gybe away when you want to. If you are gybe setting, check to see if other boats are gybing behind you or if the layline is stacked up with sails, ready to cut your wind and ruin your well practiced gybe set.
The moral of the story? It’s important to realise how important the start of the run is for the end result. If you plan ahead and give yourself room to pick your key points of maneuver then you’ll get to the bottom mark with room to sail and attack the other guys who have been pressurised into making mistakes. And always remember, don’t be too aggressive mid run. If a guy looks like he’ll gybe on you then try to wave him through. Try to be a nice guy as it will come back to you in another race. But at the bottom mark, don’t take any hassle, stand your ground, and don’t worry if you ruin someone’s race by making them mess up. It’s there fault for not planning ahead.