Sailing the Waves: Strategy, Tactics, and Boat Handling

by Andrew Kerr, Sailing Coach

Having recently sailed a ten-race series regatta at Key West Race Week which featured a large amount of waves and cluster chop, I'm happy to pass along some strategy, tactics, and boat handling tips that may help your team sail a fast and consistent series when the waves are up.

Pre-Race Questions

Which tack is better versus the waves? Is there flatter water on the course? To find out, go upwind on each tack and get a feel for the wave formations and find out which tack is better versus the waves if there is one. Very often they are similar.

Do we need to set the boat up differently from tack to tack? On the harder tack, I have found it better to move the lead one hole forward and ease the jib/genoa and mainsheet slightly to sail the boat more open on the leeches to cope with the waves and the rapidly changing apparent wind angles. On the easier tack the jib/genoa lead is typically a hole further back and the sheets trimmed on a little harder as it is easier to point in the flatter water.  

Is there flatter water inshore? At a lot of venues the waves are smaller inshore. Research this when you go upwind in the pre-race period.


Take time to get the communication flowing from the wave caller in the crucial pre-race upwind leg leading up to the start. If it is constant waves, I've found it is even more critical for the wave caller to call out any flatter water so the team can shift gears accordingly. “Flatter water in 3, 2, 1—now—lasts for 2 boat lengths" is a really important piece of information.

Also be sure to work on identifying flatter spots to tack in. "Flat spot to tack in 3, 2, 1—now."

Boat speed wise, if possible you would like to get on on the easier tack to be able to get off the line and find your space and go. The driver will appreciate this if you can choreograph it that way!

Which jibe is better or more stable downwind versus the waves? As an example, at Key West the team found the wave axis to be better on starboard tack as the boat could plane more consistently.

In the absence of wind and angle considerations, the better jibe with the wave axis is going to get the boat going faster. If the wind is lighter and the waves more confused, this will keep the boat more stable. Is one better than the other? Very often the most challenging conditions are when it is light air with confused waves. You'll also want to determine if one jibe is better than the other for keeping the spinnaker stabilized.


In decent sized waves it’s really important to get the biggest gap to leeward on the line that you can so that you can go bow down and full speed as long as possible without a leeward boat playing interference.  

Strategically, you want to look for a low density area on the line, away from crowds and in a place to sail to flatter water on the course or the favored side which at quite a lot of venues is inshore.


  • Try to sail on the easier tack as long as you can to get the best VMG.
  • Minimize tacks as much as you can as the loss from tacking can be substantial. Be selective when you tack.
  • To minimize tacks, either tack in a flatter spot or, if one is not available, tack on the top of a wave so you minimize the loss.
  • If lee bowing another competitor, the adage is that in order to lee bow someone in waves you have to be able to cross them as the boat loses a lot of speed and you risk getting rolled over.
  • If a lee bow will not work, then either duck them for freedom to go fast or tack well early to maintain space and speed. Remember the big picture of which side of the course you want and get the dialogue on board going early.
  • If you're looking for a lane of clear wind, be sure to pick a wide lane so that you can go fast without fear of falling into a boat that is pinching.
  • Avoid packs of boats. They are usually sailing a little high and not at optimum VMG. Go for space.
  • Lay lines to the weather mark should be called with a wider tacking angle in mind. Slightly over standing is always going to be better than a tight lay line.


In the absence of velocity, current, or angle considerations (which may well be of higher priority), it's good to take the better jibe versus the waves (either to get the boat going faster and planning/surfing more consistently) or the one which is more stable if the waves are confused.

Leeward Rounding

  • If you have planing/surfing conditions, then err on the side of taking the spinnaker down a little earlier rather than later so you do not plane past the mark!
  • If the wave is picking the boat up and pushing it downwind, be sure to turn the boat early upwind and trim the main in rapidly. Otherwise you will get pushed to leeward of the mark—sometimes a long, long way.
  • If the waves are confused and slowing the boat down, fly the spinnaker as long as you can into the mark (practice is key here!) for max speed in and out of the rounding.
  • For all the above elements practice and repetition of takedowns and mark roundings is going to be critical so you can make an informed decision on how long it takes to execute the boat handling and the rounding.

Best of luck in your next race or regatta, and may the waves be with you!