The Medal Race

by Jon Emmett

The medal race is, as the name sounds, often the race which decides the medals at the end of a World Sailing (previously ISAF) Championship such as the Olympic Games. It’s a double-point-scoring race that you have to count in your overall series. Not only that, but with approximately half the usual length of race it is short, sharp, often decisive, and a compulsory race for the top 10 boats, where everyone is fast.

The start is now of increased importance and because the duration of the length is so much shorter, there is less time available to recover and usually no “slow boats” will have made the race, regardless of the conditions. These days the top boats at any regatta tend to be competitive in all conditions because you have to be consistent just to make the medal race.

Everything is now compact. In a fleet race if you are tenth boat from the pin end, then you are perhaps 25% of the way down the line. In a medal race if you are tenth boat from the pin end, then you are at the starboard end!

Boat-to-boat tactics now often overtake strategy in importance, and correct positioning for rivals is vital. After all, your overall position in the regatta may just be related to your finishing position relative to one particular boat, regardless of where you both finish in the race. So, you need to position yourself to get the next gust or shift, or protect the favoured side of the course because it is also much harder to overtake boats than in a fleet race.

Of course, speed is always important but perhaps especially in the medal race. Indeed, the usual warm up would be a practice start and speed work… rather than race strategy. As they say, boat speed makes you a tactical genius. But with the course area often close to shore to encourage spectators, if the wind is off the land, expect a much shiftier and gustier course area than usual. This rewards snappy sailing. You need to have good fleet awareness. If the shift is so big that the front of the sail flaps, you roll straight into a tack rather than bearing away for correct sail trim. Remember, tacking just one second earlier could gain you an extra metre upwind and every single metre counts in the medal race.

Downwind, finding a lane of clean wind is actually just as hard, if not harder, than in a fleet race because the fleet tends to be so close together. This is not only because the race is so short and there is no time for much separation to occur, but also because the standard of the sailors is so similar (they are all awesome). This means thinking ahead and positioning yourself to protect the side of the run you want, which could be determined by the side of the next beat you want, and therefore your chosen gate mark… as I said, you have to think ahead.

Medal races are as the cliché says, never over until they are over, with many positions decided on the last mark of the course (and we have even seen a few photo finishes this year). Watching the medal race can be great fun, and the more people watch these races the better, the more support we have, and the more investment there will be. I particularly like the drone footage because I find the overhead shot enlightening: You can see clearly the wind on the water and the boat-to-boat tactics. Often far clearer than if you were in a RIB on the water!

Tactics are especially important for a medal race, so do check out Jon’s latest book Tactics Made Simple available from Amazon and all good book shops.

Jon Emmett is an Olympic Gold medal-winning coach, guiding Lijia Xu from China to Gold in the Laser Radial class at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He also sails competitively himself in worldwide regattas when he has the time. Check out his Facebook page, Jon Emmett Sailing, where he posts his latest training videos. Jon’s book Coach Yourself to Win contains lots more top tips for all conditions.