A match race between two boats, and therefore two teams, is composed of several steps; each as important as the last, with the level of difficulty constantly rising through the course of the contest.
In a match race duel, every detail is important, you have to use the wind efficiently and manoeuvre with precision to maintain speed. The configuration of the field of play between four buoys means the race is never over until the end. Until you have crossed the finish line, anything is possible.
The field of play may change depending on the direction of the wind and tide, but generally it resembles the following:
Step 1: The pre-start
The pre-start begins 4 minutes before the official start. About 2 minutes before the horn, the start unfolds when the two teams get closer to the line, entering the pre-start area on opposite sides, one windward and the other leeward of the committee boat end of the line (the position is imposed on both teams and alternates for each race). During this step, the challenge is to win the start either by getting ahead of the other boat or by laying a penalty on them.
Step 2: The reaching start (90° to the wind)
Once the race has started, the first beat is about building as much boat speed as you can and then deciding which of the two buoys to go round at the end of the leg: the one to the right or the one to the left, before coming back downwind.
Step 3: The upwind leg
The teams then begin the upwind part of the race, with the boat close-hauled. The leader tries to maintain their advantage with a number of strategies, the ideal one being to get between the buoys and their opponent to cut them off from the wind and slow them down. The chasing boat, meanwhile, must opt for a different tactic; trying to provoke a mistake from his rival that could result in a penalty, nullifying their advantage.
Teams must complete two laps (sailing upwind and downwind twice) between the two gates taking into account the boundaries of the field of play (the exclusion zones), which make for a more closely fought contest and forces teams to make more manoeuvres.
The various tactical options during the two round trips:
- Depending on their positions after the start and on the water, the boats choose a tactical option either depending on the wind, or the one in front chooses to cover the other.
- The aim is obviously to stay as close as possible to the other boat. If both teams arrive at the same place at the same time and there is contact or crossing, there is the opportunity for each team to try to lay a penalty on the other.
Step 4: The downwind leg
This is the phase during which the attacking boat (the boat behind) can more easily take back the advantage (than when upwind) by positioning itself so that its gennaker blocks the wind to the leader in order to slow them down. The tables can be turned on the downwind runs if you can affect the flow of wind to the lead boat.
Step 5: The finish Line
After two or three turns between the buoys, the teams reach the finishing buoy (a black and white buoy), which decides the winner and the loser.
The race organisation boats govern each race and judge each action live on the water, assigning penalties through a system of flags. Before each match, each boat is given a coloured flag to identify it (blue or yellow).
Flag for the teams
Yellow/Red flag = Competitors may submit a penalty request to the umpire by brandishing a yellow and red flag when they feel that a rule has been broken by their opponent.
Flags for the referees
Green/white flag = displayed in response to a claim if the umpire decides that there is no penalty.
Yellow flag = penalty for boat with the yellow flag in response to a claim from their opponent.
Penalty: pass behind the other boat.
Blue flag = penalty for boat with blue flag in response to a claim from their opponent.
Penalty to perform depends on the angle to the wind: pass behind the other boat.
A red flag combined with the colour of the flag of the boat concerned. This is shown by the umpire if e.g. the boats are within an exclusion zone.
Penalty, to be performed immediately: slow down and leave two lengths to the opponent.
For all these flags: the judge lowers the flag when they consider that the penalty has been completed.
A black flag combined with the colour of the flag of the boat concerned = elimination from the race.