Most races follow the standard 'Olympic' course, (see diagram I) using three buoys set out in a triangular arrangement as shown. The second illustration (diagram II) shows how an arrangement of eight buoys allows a course to be set for any wind direction. This layout was used in the 1968 Acapulco Olympics. The purpose of the 'Olympic' layout is to ensure skippers' skills are tested on all points (directions to the wind) of sailing.
The Beat to Windward
After the start skippers are faced with a 'beat' against the wind which will involve tacking the yacht a number of times before reaching the windward buoy. The course therefore actually sailed to the windward buoy takes the form of a zig zag and not a straight line as shown in diagrams I & II). The beat is a very tactical part of the course - many places can be won or lost on the beat.
The Broad Reach
After rounding the windward buoy the yachts sail a 'broad reach' which is the fastest direction, relative to the wind, a yacht can sail.
How to Win Races
To win races a number of quite different 'qualities' are required:-
A sound knowledge of the racing rules (buy a good book or CD ROM of the rules).
An understanding of race tactics and the wind. (There are some good full-size yacht racing books and videos available).
Good quality sails and an understanding of how they work and how to adjust (trim) them and the rig in general. (Read a good book on the subject).
A good start - i.e. on time and in a good position when the start horn sounds.
Lots of practice.
A little luck.