Talking Tactics with Scott Nixon

Scott Nixon from Quantum Sails is fast building a reputation as a top flight one design tactician. In the last few months of 2008 he called tactics on the winning boats at both the Melges 24 North American Championship and the Melges 32 Gold Cup. Who better then to talk about tactics with? We sat down with Scott to find out more about the ‘Nixon Way’ and got some great answers to our questions about winning tactics in the Melges 24 fleet….

IM24CA: Tacticians vary in their approach. Some are dictatorial whilst others are more conversational. What’s the Scott Nixon approach to the tactician’s role?

SN: I am a quiet person by nature but I do have a tendency to talk a lot more on the boat. I would say that my style is more conversational, but I am sure there are some teams that I have raced with that would say other wise! When the competitive juices get going on the water things can get tense amongst the crew so I do try to maintain an even tone on the water. I like to think out loud and paint the picture for the team so that everyone knows the game plan. This helps so that we don’t get caught too often in unexpected situations that can cause big problems on the course.

IM24CA: How do you set your goal for a regatta? Do you always believe you can win? How does the goal affect your overall strategy?

SN: I am a believer that goals are very worthwhile but also think they need to be realistic if they are to really work. You can’t possibly win every event and we don’t go into each event expecting to win. I like to set short term goals that can really help towards our major long term expectations. If the goal for the year is to win a certain major event then we may use other smaller events to work on certain skills. For example if we are trying to get faster upwind we may aim to spend more time upwind sailing close to some teams that we think are fast. This way we can learn to sail the boat faster so that we will have the speed and confidence to sail well at the bigger events.

IM24CA: So it’s the first day of a Major Melges 24 regatta and you are on your way to the racecourse. You are confident in your boat speed, helm and crew. What conversation are you having on the boat about the strategy for the day?

SN: If we are truly that well prepared then we need to make sure we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot on the first day of a major event. I would be talking to the crew about our overall strategy, which would be to start well, sail fast, stay conservative, avoid the big mistakes, and control our own destiny. I abide by the old adage that you cannot win the regatta on the first day but you certainly can lose it. Avoiding the OCS, DSQ and other disasters on day one are the keys to setting up for a good overall result. We will do this by staying off the very ends of the starting line, avoiding the port tack layline near to the weather mark and by trying to sail as cleanly as possible. The goal on the first few days is always to position the boat to have a shot at winning the event on the last day. Going into the last day you can be a bit more aggressive and take a few more risks to try and win.

IM24CA: As you do some practice beats and runs, what information are you trying to gather? How do you record it? What input do you look for from the helm and the rest of the crew?

SN: I like to write a lot of numbers down and people who sail with me always get sticky back stuck all over the cockpit. I write down the average upwind headings on both tacks and both gybes, and also all the true wind direction headings and times. This way we can track the breeze and compare what is happening on the course, with what our weather forecast says is supposed to happen. Most of the time the wind directions in the weather forecast are accurate but the timings can be off a bit. Knowing what is currently going on helps determine the trends and where we are in the weather cycle.
Each person on the boat is responsible for certain areas but we all discuss the racecourse before the start. The helm and the tactician should work closely together & compare notes to find the first shift off the line as this will help determine where to start. We have a forward person call the puffs upwind and downwind so the tactician can remain focused on boat placement, max pressure and the next shift at all times.

IM24CA: Now you have checked the line and decided to take advantage of the ten degrees of port bias by starting towards the pin. Conditions on the rest of the course look pretty even. Would you go all out to win the pin? Why? Or rather why not?

SN: I think we would start just up from the pin end in this scenario. Probably a third of the way up from the pin for this start to be safe. This way we can start and go straight and keep our options open since the course looks pretty even. The pin boats may have a hard time getting out of the left if the breeze goes right at all. Also the pin end should be fairly crowded with a 10 degree bias so, the potential for a tangle is always there. Maybe one or two boats will get off strong at the pin but a bunch will get shot out the back and with an even racecourse you can’t afford to start in bad air in the second row.

IM24CA: How much input do you give your helm when approaching the line at the start? What is your role at this point?

SN: This really depends upon the skill level of the helmsperson I am sailing with. When I crew for Terry Hutchinson we discuss the best place to be on the line to take advantage of what we think will be the first shift and then he takes the role of getting the boat off the line. I keep him posted on where the majority of the fleet is starting, where our closest competitor may start, what phase the wind will be in at the gun, and how much wind we will start in.

After that I am responsible for the jib. I need to focus on unfurling the jib at the correct time and going as fast as possible. We always have the bowman call distance to the line, the 2nd person back calls the time, and the middle person looks aft to warn the helm of any potential “hookers” lurking on the line. Consistently good starts are a full team effort that requires a lot of communication and quick decisions that come with practice.

IM24CA: The race starts and you and your crew have got away cleanly with good speed. Where are your eyes looking at this point? What information are you gathering to help you make the decision whether to stay on starboard or tack?

SN: I focus on our starboard tack compass heading right away. Checking to see if or number is normal, lifted or headed. In a perfect world we would live in our lane as long as possible so that we can get away from the bulk of the fleet that is usually still grouped up tight, pointing high and sailing slow as they fight for lanes. Once we punch out I will stay focused on the shifts and the boats immediately around us so that we can stay on the favoured tack and keep positioned well with the boats around us. If boats are tacking in groups around us or we get a good sized shift it will be time to get on the other tack. Keeping our lane open and sailing in clean air are a priority the first part of the beat.

IM24CA: As you approach the first windward buoy, you are in the top ten. What hazards are you trying to avoid in order to get a clean rounding?

SN: Avoiding the stack ups on the laylines is key to getting around clean. For sure the port tack line is a high risk area since you need to make sure your final tack to starboard is a clean one. Setting your port tack approach up so that your last tack to starboard will take place outside the three length zone is always a safe move. Also, if you get on the starboard tack layline too early the group can rack up together, go slow, and you also have the issue of over standing.

Looking for gaps and a clean lane on the final two approaches to the mark will help keep the rounding safe.

IM24CA: At this point how much thought have you given to the downwind leg?

SN: Right before the windward mark or during the offset leg I try to let the team know what phase the breeze is in. If it is in the left phase and we rounded headed, the long term plan will be to go straight and not gybe right away.
If we round in a right phase and are lifted around the windward mark, I may call for an early gybe. This is where you have to be careful and if you are in the front pack you may have to sail a few hundred yard before you can gybe, since the upwind starboard tack layline boats will kill the breeze on the top right side of the course.
If we round in a median wind direction the plan will be to go straight and sail in the best lane possible, which may mean an early gybe if that lane opens up behind. The golden rule of staying on the long leg first normally applies equally well downwind as upwind.

IM24CA: The boats in front of you have stayed on starboard after rounding the windward mark. How do you decide whether to stay on or gybe?
SN: If there is a nice gap behind us I would always want to lead the front group back so I would try and beat them to a gybe. This way you may be able to slow a few boats that are directly in front of you and hopefully, lead them to the next shift. If it is tight and you have boats directly behind, you will have to sail in the best lane and pressure available. You always want to beat the boats behind you to the gybe. It means that your lane is clear and you don’t have to sail extra distance, by going high to clear your wind, while the leaders sail nice low VMG angles. With a fast boat like the Melges 24, clean air is king downwind and the number one priority in determining your gybes. Also if possible it is best to keep the gybe count down since you lose so much speed in the gybes.

IM24CA: Downwind what are the key factors to consider tactically? Where are the opportunities to gain places? What are the common mistakes that you see people make?

SN:Downwind it is normally best to stay on the favored gybe the longest time. But in the Melges where speeds are varied downwind it really pays to try and position the boat for the best pressure and the cleanest lane available. This way you can sail the boat to target speed as much as possible. If you are sailing in bad air in going slow you can be guaranteed that the leaders are sailing fast and clean and pulling away.

The biggest opportunities in the Melges downwind are near the edges of the course. The middle of the course gets so chopped up with bad air and chop that it is tough to make gains in the middle. But with this leverage comes risk, you need to make sure you are protecting the favored side of the course down the run or you will lose to the other side.

The most common mistake downwind in the Melges 24 are the boats that always try to pass in the high lane. They sail high, force groups of boats around them to protect high and then they all end up losing VMG to the boats that are sailing target angles and speeds.
Also at the final approach to the leeward gates a lot of teams come in too slow and inside the laylines. They play it too safe at the bottom of the run. These teams end up loosing to the boats that come in at the proper angles and faster speeds. It’s a tough call in the Melges 24 since the laylines change so fast according to the wind speeds.

IM24CA: Approaching the leeward gate how do you generally decide which buoy to take?

SN:The goal is always to choose the gate that will allow us to sail our game plan on the second beat. If the wind is fairly steady we will choose the right gate if we want to protect the right side and the left gate if the goal is to protect the left. If the wind is oscillating a lot, the goal would be to go to the gate that enables us to get on the favored tack right away. Obviously if one gate is more than a boat length favored it would be hard not to take advantage of that. If we are in a tight pack of boats and the gates are even we will always try to set up for the gate that has the less traffic.

IM24CA: Given that the fleet is generally a little more spread out, how does your strategy on the second beat differ from the first?

SN:The strategy on the second beat really is determined by where we are in relation to the fleet. If we are near the front we will always be a bit conservative and stay between the next windward mark and the majority of the fleet. Reducing risk and avoiding the corners really play into our strategy. If we are not happy with our position and are near the back of the pack we would have to get a bit more risky and go for more leverage by sailing to one side or the other. This way if we time the shifts properly we would have more opportunities to pass boats and move up in the fleet.

IM24CA: Is there ever a time to bang the corner?

SN:Unfortunately, yes! Hitting the corner can pay large when you are looking for a large wind shift or sailing on a very geographically oriented course with a lot of current or pressure on one side or the other. Most of the time the regatta winning strategy is to stay off the corners and play it conservatively near the middle. But, if you have a high level of confidence in a wind shift, current (current relief) or more wind, there are times where hitting the sides hard pays big. Sailing to the corners can mean big gains or big losses, so it takes some patience and maybe even a little luck to make it work!

IM24CA: What are your three (or more) top tips for aspiring tacticians in the Melges 24 fleet?

SN:One tip would be to show up to a regatta fully prepared. This means doing your homework well before the start of the regatta. Researching the regatta venue, finding out info from local sailors, getting current/tide charts and preparing a proper weather forecast. This way you have a feel for what could happen during the day and you can develop a solid race plan.

The second tip would be to have a plan. I see a lot of guys just sailing around before the start and not really doing any pre race homework. Sail the course, check the wind and current and then develop a plan of attack starting with what side of the line you want to start and what side of the first beat you want to protect. If your plan is wrong at least you will learn from what observations you took that made you make the wrong decisions.

The best tip is to have fun and go sailing as much as possible! Go sail on any boat and at any regatta you can attend. The time on the water will help develop your instincts and your decision making skills to get you more comfortable in tight racing situations.