Winning in the
Italian lakes - by Mark Rushall
Sun, wind, good food, food wine, and a
great atmosphere. Many UK and International classes
include a visit to one of the lakes in their fixture
list, and those who haven’t yet tried it are missing
out on a fantastic experience.
Most first time visitors will be sailing
from Torbole or Riva on Lake Garda, or Gravedona on
Lake Como. Since similar principles apply at many other
mountainous lake venues, we will focus on these venues.
Sun block, cap and sunglasses are all recommended. The
water at both Garda and Como is extremely deep, and
can be cold. Summer steamer / shortie plus dry top/
spray top are the most popular clothing combinations
for dinghy racing on the lakes in the summer. The Italians,
being cool people, don’t usually organise racing in
the rain, but a waterproof jacket for hanging around
the dinghy park can pay dividends.
Through France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Gotthard
Tunnel appears to be the fastest route. In theory an
annual pass for both car and trailer is needed for the
Swiss motorways. (I have been stopped at the border
and directed to the nearby ticket office!) Alternatively
take the slightly less stressful French motorways (tolls
payable) and the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
A spare trailer wheel is a must. Full
legal requirements for driving in Europe can be found
on the RAC website. European breakdown cover may provide
additional reassurance. It’s a long drive, and the boat
is likely to arrive filthy, so make sure it’s wrapped
up well and don’t wear your white shorts to unpack!
The summer wind usually follows a predictable pattern.
During the night, the temperature on the
mountains to the north drops. The “Peler” is a cool
northerly wind which blows down from the mountains to
the warmer Po valley to the south, beginning in the
early hours and normally disappearing by 10 am. If the
regatta is behind schedule, racing is often held early
in the morning in the last of the Peler, followed by
a lunchtime siesta through the mid morning calm. If
there is no Peler at night, it is normally an indication
of changing weather. In this case, rain, thunderstorms,
flat calms, and storms are all possible.
On a classic Garda racing day, the decline
of the Peler indicates that the “Ora” is about to arrive.
This is the warm southerly racing wind, emanating from
the valleys at the bottom of the lake, rushing up to
the rapidly heating mountains to the north. The Ora
increases dramatically in strength as it funnels between
the cliffs which narrow toward the top of the lake,
producing the conditions many British sailors travel
2000 miles each year to enjoy. The breeze tends to be
steady rather than gusty, with strength typically 18
knots but can be up to 25 or more!
Riva and Torbole are both situated at
the north end of the lake, where the depth in the centre
is over 300 metres. Courses are therefore laid either
side of the lake causing the shore effect to be the
overriding strategic consideration in normal conditions.
Racing from Riva
The Ora: Generally, the closer to the cliffs, the stronger
the wind. Sail toward the cliffs on port tack, and the
effect is dramatic. Boats to leeward but closer inshore
appear to be on a conveyor belt: visibly gaining each
second, while in turn you are gaining on the boats offshore.
Though there are shifts to be had, hitting the cliffs,
and staying there, is a good option.
Krister Bergstrom won three races in a
row at the 505 Europeans by simply ignoring the port
biased start line, and starting on port at the committee
boat end. Each time, by the time the port end starters
were able to tack across toward the right, he had an
There are a few other tricks, though.
Depending on where the course is laid, there is even
more wind near the several headlands along the lake
side, plus a favourable wind bend around each one. Conversely,
there is less wind in the bays. So there is still more
to be gained from hitting a headland layline whenever
you tack into the cliffs.
Some of the successful 14er’s try to start
on port, preferably with a port “blocker” to leeward,
sweeping starboard boats out of the way. If they don’t
end in hospital, and their track takes them down the
layline to a headland, they will be hard to beat. Assuming
a well port biased line, with the headland some distance
up the beat, a less extreme starting strategy needs
a good leeward gap mid-line, and a well timed start
on starboard tack. Frequently, the boats to the right
slow by stuffing each other, trying to persuade the
windward boat to tack. Drive the boat fast and free,
and the first shift should give the ability to tack
across these boats. If the boats to windward tack first,
it is imperative to tack with them and get the bow down
fast, to turn the line advantage into distance toward
the cliff, before the escalator takes effect.
If the biggest headland is past the starboard layline
to the windward mark, it may pay to overstand, sail
into the extra pressure off the headland, and use the
starboard lift out of the bend to close reach to the
mark at 1 ½ speed.
It is also possible that there may be
so much breeze right in by the cliffs that there is
no boat speed benefit: with main and jib ragging the
boat staggers, doesn’t plane upwind, and tacking is
near impossible. In this case, since the major advantage
inshore is through wind velocity rather than direction,
there is no gain from going “all the way” To give a
little more margin out of the tack in these conditions,
ease the vang 6 inches before the tack: the extra twist
out of the tack gives the crew more time and makes the
boat easier to lay off onto the new tack.
Strategy on the offwind legs is, once
again, wind speed led. On a windward/leeward course,
a gybe set or an early gybe to the cliffs is the most
likely winning strategy. With luck the beating boats
are well clear and are reaching in from above the starboard
layline! As the cliffs are approached on port gybe the
apparent wind comes further and further forward as wind
strength increases, until it’s almost possible to lay
the leeward mark.
Occasionally, especially later in the
afternoon, there are concentrated gusts coming down
the middle of the lake which are irrelevant to the beat
but can be utilised down the run, see “Tracy’s golden
The strategy on a reaching course becomes
really interesting in these conditions. Main factors
are gybe mark position, reach angle, and absolute wind
speed. Sailing the course is the only way to figure
this out. Generally, even on the reach, choosing a course
taking you toward stronger breeze on one side of the
lake will pay, compared with a rhumb line course. It
can pay to gybe on the reach, or delay the gybe at the
wing mark, to achieve this.
The Peler: Basically the same as the Ora,
in reverse. The biggest problem with sailing in the
Peler is that it involves getting up early in the morning.
There is still more wind at the cliff, and the bends
around the headlands and reduced velocity in the bays
are still present. Starting on starboard will take you
toward the favoured left hand side of the beat. However,
traditional wind shifts are more pronounced, and more
relevant. Therefore a conservative “playing the fleet”
approach produces more consistent winners. Remember
that at some stage, the Peler will drop to nothing.
I have sailed a race at Garda where the boats at the
“leeward” mark were already enjoying the Ora while we
were still struggling to get round the “windward” in
the Peler! Fortunately the race was abandoned!
Racing from Torbole
The Ora: As with Riva, the strongest wind is next to
the cliffs. The cliffs around the headlands are not
as steep as on the Riva side, so the effect is more
subtle. The start is far more civilised, a start on
starboard tack taking you to the favoured side of the
beat. The first boat to get the bow down, and out of
“stuffing “ mode, is usually the first to the escalator,
therefore space on the start line and a rig set up for
speed is often more important than start line bias.
At Torbole it rarely pays to overstand the windward
mark: tacking inside a bunch of starboard tack boats
from a port close reach in 20 knots never made it into
the RYA manual!
Downwind, heading for the cliffs is a reasonably safe
option, but there are definite gusts to be picked up
near the centre of the lake. These gusts can be big
enough to create sufficient apparent wind to take you
straight down the lake to the leeward gate. Sky TV viewers
may have seen Tracy Covell’s Laser 5000 “golden moments”,
where she and John Hodgart gybed early onto port and
into one of these “busters”. With racks dragging in
the water, and main and jib ragging, they just managed
to lay the finish line having passed the top six ranked
boats, all sailing in five knots less wind.
Gybing with a fully battened main on flat
water in one of these big gusts can be a heart stopper:
In traffic, when it is likely to be harder to pick a
spot to gybe, I cheat by leaving the cunningham on hard
until after the first crucial gybe. This stops the battens
flicking immediately, taking the sting out of the gybe,
and makes gybing at full speed less of an imperative.
The Peler: As with Riva, applying “traditional”
lake sailing skills of spotting the shifts, sailing
toward the pressure, to work toward the favoured starboard
side of the course, usually work better than “banging
the corner.” When wind is very light, both northerly
and southerly, there is no wind at all in the bays:
once dragged in, there is no way out without infringing
rule 42! Don’t go in there! Better still: stay in bed
and wait for the Ora!
Sailing at Malcesine
Malcesine is situated further south, where the lake
is wider, and the cliffs further apart. The wind tends
not to be as strong as at Riva or Torbole. Racing in
the mornings in the Peler is also more likely. With
less extreme conditions, strategy is correspondingly
less extreme. Spotting shifts and gusts are key, especially
in the northerly. There is more wind near the shore,
but the bays are generally to be avoided.
Sailing at Gravedona
Lake Como provides another beautiful Italian sailing
venue. Como at Gravedona is wider than the top of lake
Garda, and the hills each side of the lake in the Gravedona
area are no where near as dramatic. The usual summer
thermal winds are the north easterly “Tivano”, which
blows early in the morning up to 10 knots until around
10 o’clock, and the “Breva”, the southerly afternoon
wind which usually provides good racing in up to 16
knots from midday onwards. Last year the RS 800’s also
experienced the “Vento”: this is a cold wind which follows
bad weather in the Alps which can (and did) hit 25-30
The parties in Gravedona seem to go on too late to allow
sailing in the Tivano! “Find your tree, and sleep under
it” is Edgerton’s’ race winning preparatory advice
The best sailing area is between Gravedona
and Olgiasca: the headland directly south, though we
have also raced further west between Dongo and Gravedona.
The Breva: There is a definite wind bend around the
point of Olgiasca. More breeze is expected closer to
the land, and in 12 knots plus, the left hand side generally
pays as a result. A clear start is important to be able
to sail fast to the paying side.
However in less than 12 knots the effect
is not so reliable. Oscillating shifts become more important,
and the left hand corner can turn into a disastrous
flat patch. Boats finding a rogue puff on the right
hand side of the course can make big gains. “Heads out
of the boat” is the key to consistent success in these
sub-powered conditions. Once the puffs (or the holes),
either on the water or in the fleet, are spotted, fast
action is required. If the new wind is to leeward, reach
over the fleet to get to it more quickly. If to windward,
tack over to the new wind.
Downwind, the bend generally favours the
right hand side. However in lighter conditions, beware
the lull under the fleet approaching on port tack. Watch
for the gusts coming down the lake and stay in them,
gybing if necessary. Avoid the potential flat spot on
the extreme right of the course.
The Vento: Wear warm clothes! This one
feels as if it has come straight from the glacier. There
is no real pattern: big gusts and even bigger wind shifts
mean that survival is the order of the day.
Fun is the primary reason for returning to the Italian
lakes each year. Some points worth considering which
apply to all venues:
Rig set up:
1 For a given wind strength, the water is generally
flatter than we experience at a sea venue. It’s therefore
tempting to straighten the rig and close the leaches
down a bit to give more power. However a common tactical
lakes theme is that it’s more important to be able to
move forward than to gain height, for this reason we’d
recommend a more open, “reachy” set up.
2 Between leave the beach time and start time the wind
strength can frequently increase 5 knots or more. Know
your rig settings to a tee and be ready to adjust at
the warning signal. For boats where this isn’t possible,
think hard about what the conditions will be, don’t
forget that the locals have seen it all before!
Due to depth constraints, the finish line is often far
longer than at home. Be aware of the bias, and use it
to gain a place on the line.
Never give up
Strange things happen on the lakes. A radical move is
not the only cause. If “down the pan”, sail a considered
race, watch the fleet, and react to signs of change.
The warm weather means that we are often racing in more
extreme conditions than at home. Practise that boat
handling before the event, not during it!
Thanks to the following winners of championships
in Riva, Torbole, Malcesine and Gravedona for their
additional input and lake racing tips:
Chips Howarth: MUSTO Skiff European champion,
Laser 4000 Eurocup winner
Andy Richards: three times Laser 5000 Eurocup champion
Barrie Edgerton: RS 800 Eurocup champion
Mark Rushall, project manager, marine
consultant, and coach, is one of the UK’s leading small
boat sailors having won major championships in a wide
range of performance dinghy & keelboat classes,
including Mirror, Firefly, Lark, Fireball, Laser 5000,
and 1720. Buy
Marks excellent book >>>