Ok; let me give you a warning. This lesson is designed for those that have some experience in sailboat racing. It involves race tactics that include advanced terminology. If you are a basic sailor, the only way to understand this lesson is to actually sail a race. Good Luck.
So your out on the water and the race is about to start. You wonder “what am I going to do”. Well first, you want to figure out how the wind is shifting, which way the current is going and which end of the line is favored.
To find how the wind is shifting, you just have to pay attention. If the wind shifts five degrees to the right and then five degrees to the left every five minutes, then you have an oscillating shift. This means that:
1) You have to pay extra special attention to finding out which end is favored and,
2) Your upwind plan should be easier since the wind shifts back and forth. It makes it so that you can tack onto the lifted tack every time.
If the wind is constantly shifting farther and farther one way, then it is a persistent shift. This means that:
1) It is really important to find the favored end and get a good start because if you do, you will have the advantage over everyone else.
2) You will have to sail on the headed tack for some time.
But wait. Favored end? Lifted and Headed Tack? What are these things? Let me back up. The lifted tack refers to the tack that points you closest to the windward mark than the other tack. For example, if the wind is coming from an angle from the right side of the windward mark, than starboard tack is the lifted tack. Remember the “points-of-sail” chart? It said that you can only sail so close to the direction the wind is coming from. Well if the wind is coming directly from the windward mark, then no matter what tack you are on, you will be sailing as close to the mark as possible. But if the wind shifts, then you can sail closer to the mark than the other side. So if the starboard tack is the lifted tack, then port tack is the headed tack. When the wind shifts in a way that makes it so that you are on the headed tack, it is called a “header”. When the wind shifts in a way that makes you be on the lifted tack, it is called a “lift”. If there is a header, basic tactics say you should tack. Since that is confusing, I made a paint drawing of it.
Now I will explain the favored end. The favored end is the end of the line that is closest to the windward mark. This is the end you should try to start on. There are many ways to find the favored end, but all you really need to know is where the wind is coming from. My favorite way to find the favored end is to tack at the line. When you tack, you should look at when the boom passes the middle of the boat. When it passes the middle, whatever end that the boat is pointing closest to is the favored end. Be careful not to devote yourself to an end of the line too early because the wind can shift. You should choose a side at about 1:30. That will give you enough time to go to the other side of the line (if necessary).
Now you know what to do on a header, what a lift and a header are, and how to find the favored end. Those are the most basic starting tactics. If you master those first, then learning any other tactics will be a lot easier.