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What I learned from playing SailRacer too many times

Spurred on by Alvin’s world record, and stranded indoors by big wind outside, I played Sailracer a shameful 26 times this afternoon.  No, I did not beat Alvin’s record, but I did figure out how to beat the computer three times out of four.

To get there, I tried four different strategies, and the last one unlocked a very important comment that Walker makes in his boat — where to position ourselves relative to the competition as we ride the lifts up the ladder rungs.

The results

First the data, then the insight.  By the way, for fun, I’ve nicknamed the computer “Top Gun”

Strategy Average distance ahead of Top Gun Average Time ahead of Top Gun Win Percentage
Sail the usual course we sailed last year -533m – 3 minutes 0%
Ride the lifts, but tack ten degrees late -100m – 30 seconds 33%
Ride the lifts, but treat the last shift as persistent – 98m – 30 minutes 14%
Build strategic leverage early, get ahead and then cover + 15m + 5 seconds 77%

The key insight:

To beat the computer, we need some leverage over them.   One form of leverage is advantageous, the other is disastrous.  The difference comes from our position relative to the competition.  If we take a little bit of an early loss (a boat-length or two) to position ourselves correctly, the next lift will benefit us more than the competition, and more than make up for the cost of positioning.

When heading toward the rhumbline, the outside boat (furthest from the rhumbline) benefits most from a lift.  When heading away from the rhumbline, the inside boat (nearer to the rhumbline) benefits most from a lift.  (Try it on sailracer, and you’ll see the effect).

To put this into action, tack a bit late on the tack we choose to build leverage.  We’ll fall behind but:

  • If we had been heading away from the rhumbline, after tacking we’ll be heading back toward the rhumbline in the advantageous outside position
  • If we had been heading toward the rhumbline, after tacking we’ll be heading away from the rhumbline in the advantageous inside position

The game plan:

  1. We use this technique early, to develop some strategic leverage
  2. As the lift continues, we gain back the distance lost and eventually get ahead
  3. Stay ahead of the competition by tacking on the headers to ride the lifts up the ladder rungs
  4. In the final third of the race, tack to cover so that we stay in front of the competition to the mark.  We might give up some of the lead we have developed, but avoid the pitfalls of getting caught on the opposite tack in a header.

Of course, this is much easier on the computer than on the water, but it gives us something to aim for.  Try it out on SailRacer and see if you can also begin to consistently beat Top Gun (ahem, I mean the computer).


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