August 11, 2016   Joe Cline

 by David Dellenbaugh


Mark roundings almost always present a challenge because they bring lots of boats together in unique and constantly changing situations. Fortunately, no matter what kind of boat you’re sailing or which mark you’re going around, there are some guidelines you can use to help get you around the mark more quickly and cleanly.  The following guidelines are for approaching any mark. Then we’ll get into windward and leeward marks.


√ Round each mark so you are close enough to reach out and touch it.
Think back on your last few mark roundings. At the point where your boat was closest to the mark, could you reach over and touch the mark? If your answer is no, you were probably too far away. Of course, there are certain times when you don’t want to be so close, like on a windy day when the inflated mark is tossing all around in big waves. But “touchability” is generally a good guideline. If you can’t reach the mark, you have probably misjudged the arc of your turn, rounded outside of another boat or had a boathandling problem.

√ Before you go around any mark, locate the next mark.
How many times have you rounded a mark with no idea where you are going next? I’ve done this more often than I care to admit, and it sure doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do in your mark rounding should be part of a larger plan, so before you get to a mark, look ahead and try to get a visual fix on the next mark. If you can’t see the mark, try to use a compass course for the next leg.

√ Remember that the goal of any mark rounding is to set yourself up for the next leg.
This is why you need to know where the next mark is. Before you get to any mark, have a discussion with your crew about your strategy for the next leg. Do you want to go left, right, high, low or what? Then try to make your rounding so you are set up to pursue this strategic plan. For example, if you want to go left after the leeward mark, don’t round the mark outside another boat. If you plan to do a jibe set at the windward mark, don’t approach that mark on the port-tack layline.

√ When approaching a mark, do everything sooner than you think.
Marks usually have a way of creeping up on you a little faster than you think. If you wait too long to get ready for the rounding, you risk having a problem (e.g. a knot in the spinnaker halyard) that could be very costly in terms of time and distance. Unless you are fighting to gain or break an overlap, the tiny bit you gain by pushing your preparations as late as possible is not worth the potential cost. So do everything a little earlier than you think. It’s the conservative thing to do.

√ Use more than your rudder to turn the boat around the mark.
A mark rounding, by definition, requires that you turn your boat. And whenever you deviate from a straight line, you have to be careful not to slow your boat down any more than is necessary. Since turning the rudder creates drag, this should be your last choice. First try turning by smoothly adjusting your sail trim and changing your weight placement.

√ Keep your head out of the boat.
At crowded mark roundings (and even some that aren’t so crowded), it’s easy to “lose sight of the forest for the trees.” Many sailors get so fixated on the boat(s) right next to them that they lose track of what the mark rounding means in the big picture. That’s why you have to keep your head up. Look ahead so you can anticipate the problems and opportunities that may come your way.

√ Learn Rule 18 so you know it without thinking.
Mark roundings are usually tactical happenings because they bring a lot of boats together into one small area. If you want to stay in charge of your race and avoid penalty turns, you have to know the rules, especially Rule 18 (Passing marks and obstructions), like the back of your hand. When the fur starts flying, you won’t have time to pull out your rulebook or have a rules discussion with vour crew – so learn the rules this winter before your next regatta!



Keep your eyes on the road ahead.
No one I know ever sails around the windward mark holding a checklist of priorities for the rounding. However, if you were to create a windward mark checklist, here are all the things you should include. Study this list and keep it in your head because you won’t have time to pull it out while you’re racing.

Before the rounding

√ Confirm correct mark and rounding direction.
How many times have you sailed toward the wrong mark or rounded the right mark in the wrong direction? Confirm these “minor details” with the rest of your crew as far from the windward mark as possible.

√ What is the bearing of the next mark?
Before you get to the first mark (you can do it before the start), figure out the compass bearing for the next mark. Remind your helmsperson just before the rounding.

√ Get a visual ID on the next mark.
As you get close to the first mark, have someone try to locate the second mark visually. Is it where you expected? will the first reach be tight or broad? Are there any visual aids (e.g. land sights) to help you find it again after your rounding?

√ Talk through your strategy for the next leg.
Before you make your final approach to the windward mark, know your strategy for the next reach or run. One of your goals for the rounding is to exit the mark in a position where you can easily implement your next-leg strategy.

√ Has there been a change of course?
The race committee doesn’t usually change the course at the windward mark, but it could happen.



√ Watch out for the anchor line.
It’s OK to touch the mark’s ground tackle, but it’s not OK if you hook the anchor line and pull the mark against your hull. Beware of scope, especially in current and waves.

√ Beware of inflatable marks moving toward you.
Your wind shadow will often cause the mark to be “sucked” in toward your boat.

√ Be careful your boom end doesn’t hit the mark.
When I ease my mainsheet around the windward mark, I always watch the end of the boom to make sure it doesn’t get too close to the mark.

√ Check current on the mark.
Here’s a great chance to get a reading on the set and drift of the current.

√ Punch in the mark’s GPS position.
If you’re racing a big boat and you’re coming back to this mark later on, make sure your navigator punches in the mark location as you are rounding.

√ Watch for nearby boats hitting the mark.
Make sure everyone complies with the rules and, more importantly, watch out for 1) boats that get hung up on the mark; and 2) boats hitting the mark and then starting to do their penalty turns.



√ Monitor your back bearing on the mark.
A good way to measure current effects and stick to the rhumbline, especially if you can’t see the next mark, is to watch your bearing on the mark you just rounded.

√ Watch what the RC does with the mark.
If you are returning to the same mark later, see if the race committee picks up the mark after the last boat. This might mean a course change for the next beat.



Set yourself up for the next beat.
Going around the leeward mark is a lot like other mark roundings, except it always seems you have more potential for gain or loss. If you don’t approach the mark correctly, you can easily end up on the outside of a clump. And if you don’t exit from the mark correctly, you will not do well on the next beat. Therefore, you must keep looking ahead and use this mental checklist to help you get the most out of each rounding.



√ Review your strategy for the next leg.
As you get closer to the leeward mark, plan ahead. What will the wind do on the next beat? Which side will be favored? This could have a significant impact on your mark-rounding strategy.

√ Note any course change.
The leeward mark is the most likely spot for a course change by the race committee, so have someone look for this. Be sure you take note of a) the compass bearing to the new mark; and b) whether there is a + or – showing that the length of the next leg is longer or shorter.

√ Check the current.
Any time you are near a fixed mark, check the set and drift of the current so you can incorporate this into your strategy for the upcoming leg.

√ Look at your compass heading.
One thing you need to know right after you round the mark is whether you are lifted or headed. The person who’s responsible for reading the compass should make this call. I prefer to hear how we are doing relative to our previous heading on that tack. For example: “We’re up 5 degrees compared to our median on this tack at the end of the last beat.” Then you must decide if this is an oscillation or a persistent shift in that direction.



√ Plan your takedown.
Before you drop your chute, think ahead. Will you be setting it again at the next windward mark? If so, on which side will you want it for the set? It’s a lot easier if you take your chute down on the side where you’ll set it, especially in smaller boats.

√ Drop your spinnaker early.
One of the most common and costly mistakes at leeward marks is keeping your chute up too long. If you carry your spinnaker for an extra boatlength or two, you will gain only a tiny distance. Unless you are fighting to get or break an inside overlap, this is definitely not worth the risk of having a bad takedown. So drop your chute a little early.

√ Postpone clean-up.
After you round the leeward mark, it’s always a struggle to get back in the groove due to bad air, bumpy water and traffic. The last thing you need is people running around the boat. So don’t do any clean-up that’s not absolutely essential. Once everyone is settled down and you are up to speed, then let one person move off the rail to finish cleaning up.



√ Review target speed.
If your boat is big enough to have instruments, make your best guess at what your upwind target speed will be on the next beat. Then make sure your helmsperson and trimmers know this so they will have a speed target after the rounding.

√ Punch in your position.
If you have a GPS system onboard and you will be returning to this mark, be sure to punch in your position as you go around it.

√ Call out “Clear to tack.”
Tacking right after the mark can be a great tactical or strategic move. However, it can also be a big blunder if, for example, your windward jib sheet is under the spinnaker pole. So have someone up forward be responsible for calling out as soon as they are clear to tack.

√ Take times.
If you are racing on handicap, take times for all the boats in your class as they round the mark. Then figure out how you are doing. This information might be important for deciding how much risk you should take on the ensuing beat.

David Dellenbaugh is a reknown national and world dinghy racing champion. Currently he is an on-the-water judge during the Louis Vuitton Cup and commentator for OLN. He publishes the racing newsletter Speed&Smarts 10 times a year. 1-800-356-2200