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How To Duck Well

YouTube video

For many years, I have lost more places on the racecourse from my irrational fear of ducking another boat. I have even named this syndrome “Canardophobia.” Too many times I perceive ducking as an admission of being behind. But a good duck will help you every time. When ducking another boat, 95% of the time you are on port tack and are not sure if you can cross a starboard tacker. Most ducks go wrong because you wait too long trying to cross the other boat and end up ducking at the last minute, which results in a sharp turn. This not only slows you down, but it costs you progress to windward; and the last-minute duck greatly adds to the risk of a collision – especially between rigs.

This video shows two clips: one showing a duck done well and the other not so well. In the clip where the boat does it right, she goes from ducking behind to being ahead at the next crossing and extends to a four-boatlength lead after rounding the windward mark. To do the duck, sail number 1701 bore off slightly when she was several lengths away so that she could come up slightly above close hauled as she came around the transom of 9463. Even if 1701 hadn’t legged out at all, on the next crossing, she would have had the starboard tack advantage the next time the boats come together.

In the second video clip, the port tacker waits way too long to set-up for the duck and makes a sharp turn to clear the starboard tacker. When crossing the starboard tacker’s transom, the port tacker is still sailing lower than close hauled. So not only is the boat going slow, but it is going slow in the wrong direction. Also notice that the boat’s sail trimmers cannot keep up with the boat’s rate of trim. The mainsail is luffing as the boat is trying to head back up to course. The mainsheet trimmer can’t get the big sail in fast enough.

An early duck allows you to bear away slightly from three to four boatlengths away while the main and genoa sheets get eased slightly. This also gives your main trimmer time to get the sheet out of the cleat and ready to run in case a gust hits. As the boat falls off with the sheets eased, it will accelerate. Once you pass the crossing boat’s transom, head up and sail above close-hauled until you burn off the extra speed. You’ll also find a lift off of the back of the other boat’s mainsail to help you can take advantage of. After a well-executed duck, you should lose very little distance to windward, and you’ll be free of the worry of being protested. Another benefit of ducking a starboard tack boat is that you will be the one on starboard tack at the next crossing situation.

Noted above is that one of the problems with a late duck is risking a collision with the starboard boat and this happened while I was crewing a couple of years ago. During the late duck, the mainsail trimmer did not adequately ease the sheet, which prevented the boat from turning down. As the helmsman fought to turn the boat, a puff hit and the boat rounded up into the starboard tacker’s cockpit resulting in a lot of damage. It was not a happy day for either skipper. A totally different result happened when a collision was avoided in the Storm Trysail Club’s Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta by a quick-thinking J/109 owner. He determined early that his boat would not be able to duck successfully because the mainsail trimmer was struggling to get the sheet out of the cleat in the 15-20 knot breeze. To avoid the collision, he told the helmsman to do a crash tack. The crew hiking on the rail got no notice and ended up with wet feet, but no one and no boats got hurt thanks to the head-out-of-the-boat thinking by the boat owner.

At Block Island Race Week many years ago I had a relapse of Carnardophoia. We were approaching a downwind finish with an asymmetrical spinnaker set. I was on port, while another boat in a faster division was coming into the finish on starboard. I delayed a duck behind for two reasons. First, I thought the other boat was much faster and would be out of our way. Second, if we sailed higher to go behind, we would have to jibe again in order to cross the finish line and that would cost us time. Once I realized that the faster boat was not crossing, it was too late to head up and go behind because our big asymmetrical chute would not stay clear of their backstay. So I jibed at the last minute and our chute wrapped around the headstay since I turned so fast and the crew was not ready. This lapse cost us twice. First, I lost my dignity as we crossed the line in a tangled mess, and second, we lost two places on corrected time by less than 30 seconds. We lost at least twice that amount of time by messing with a boat not even in our division.

The take-away is: duck early so that the crew can trim properly through the maneuver. A proper duck will let you accelerate so that you can burn off that speed after passing behind the other boat allowing you to make up practically all distance you thought you would lose. A proper duck is a safe maneuver, and it avoids collisions. So, stop being afraid of ducking!

Ducking will help you avoid getting into a protest. When you are on port crossing a starboard tacker, you are leading with your chin rules-wise. Basically, you are asking to get protested. If the person on the helm of the starboard tack boat gets nervous and bears off to avoid a collision, the port tacker will lose the protest. Rule 14 says that if a right of way boat fails to avoid a collision, it can be penalized along with the boat breaking a rule. Also remember, the person on the helm of the starboard tack boat is in the back off the boat making it hard to see the crossing and his or her view of the situation will be compressed making the port tack boat look that much closer. Therefore, don’t put yourself in such a risky position. Duck early so that you can turn gradually and so that your crew can keep up with easing and trimming the sails for maximum speed through the maneuver. Don’t get the ducking disease!

Thank you to Lindsay Preece for the video clip of ducking done well.

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