Navigating the Leeward Gate
The leeward gate requires a tactical and strategical decision while providing an opportunity to make large gains on the rest of the fleet. Here are some important considerations for deciding which leeward mark to round:
- Strategy. One buoy will put you on the tack towards the favored side of the course;
- Strategy. One buoy may be closer to your downwind approach;
- Strategy. One buoy may be further upwind than the other; and,
- Tactics. One buoy will likely have less traffic than the other.
Only yachts with breakaways do not have to worry about tactics and can base their decisions entirely on strategy. Everyone else may need to consider all four of the above. What often happens is that the leader decides which way they want to go, picks the buoy that put them on the tack towards the favored side, then everyone else, minus only a few, follow the leader. I once observed a Melges 24 in 30th drop to 60th because they were determined to round the mark everyone else was rounding; they were pinwheeled into a vacuum while the other buoy was free of traffic.
The reason why we use gates is to reduce fouling and bad wind created by large fleets funneling into one very small area. When Paul Elvstrom first introduced the gate course in this country, he explained that when two yachts are even on the run, they can start the windward leg still even by rounding different buoys. Otherwise, the inside yacht will take a two length lead over the outside yacht.
If one buoy is one length further upwind than the other then the amount gained is actually two lengths since you have to travel that distance twice, once entering downwind and once exiting upwind. If the wind is shifty, buoys will become temporarily favored. Assume the wind veers (clockwise). Mark 2P will become temporarily favored because it will be further upwind. However, if the wind is oscillating, then mark 2S (the buoy you round to starboard) allows you to take off on starboard towards the next shift.
One final thought. If you make a last moment decision to round a certain buoy, make sure everyone on the crew knows exactly what that decision is.