|For the first of two articles
in his series on getting off the starting line, sailing coach
Zack Leonard prescribes how to get out of the gate without
putting a bullet hole in your foot.
secret that the key to a successful regatta is consistent
starting. When the points have been tallied, the trophies
awarded, and the dull ache of hindsight kicks in, most of us
will remember one or two bad starts that led to races we'd
rather forget. The optimist in us will also remember the great
starts that led to good, solid finishes. Call me a curmudgeon,
but given equal boat speed, tactics, and luck, I'd take six
solid starts over three great starts and three horrible ones
any day of the week. The solid starts at least give you a
chance to sail winning races without a whole lot of risk.
or creating a space for yourself on the line—like the
Brazilian boat (BRA) in this photo—will allow you to get
a better start every time.
Good starting begins with the KISS principle—keep it
simple, stupid. The key to consistent starting is to
prioritize properly the essential goals of the start. We've
all fought for the pin when it's favored by 10 degrees, but
the risk-reward equation of that behavior rarely pays off. To
start well consistently, sailors need to learn to avoid the
clustered territory and hunt for good clean lanes.
I have three goals at every start:
- I want to be moving at full speed, on the line,
with clear air for the immediately foreseeable future.
- I want to be sailing toward the favored side of
the course with a wide lane of clear air.
- I want to start as close to the favored end of
the line as safety and logic allow.
Most sailors are surprised by how far down on the priority
list the favored end is. The favored end, of course, is that
end of the starting line that is farther upwind. In a race
with no windshifts and no current disparities anywhere on the
course, a boat starting at the favored end will sail less
distance to the windward mark than a boat starting at the
unfavored end. Of course it's unlikely that any of us will
ever see a racecourse like that.
There are two ways to determine which end of the line is
favored: The simple way is to luff your boat head-to-wind in
the center of the line and determine toward which end of the
line your bow points more closely. Or, imagine a line
extending perpendicular from the starting line. If, when
pointed head-to-wind, your bow is pointing to the left of this
line, then the pin end is favored. If your bow is pointing to
the right of this imaginary line, then the boat end is
favored. This method works well on shorter lines and when one
end is obviously favored. If the line is close to square, or
it's a particularly long line, you'll find it tricky to use
Finding the Favored End: The Simple
Way—Sam puts his boat head-to-wind in the middle
of the starting line to see which end his bow favors.
Because his bow points more toward the committee boat,
that end is favored. If it were to point more toward the
pin or starting buoy, that end would be
The more involved way is to use a compass. If your boat is
equipped with a compass, you can eliminate the imprecision
associated with the simple approach. First, sail along the
starting line on starboard tack with your boat traveling
perfectly parallel to the line. Note your compass course. Turn
your boat head-to-wind and note that compass course. If the
new course is less than 90 degrees greater than the compass
course you were steering down the line, then the pin is
favored. If the number is more than 90 degrees greater than
the course down the line, the boat end is favored.
Finding the Favored End: The Precise
Way—Sam sails along the starting line and notes
his compass course: 290 degrees (Sam 1). He then turns
his boat head-to-wind and notes the new compass heading:
0 degrees (Sam 2). Since the new heading is less than 90
degrees greater than his course down the line, he knows
that the pin end is favored. If the new heading had been
10 degrees, it would have been more than 90 degrees
greater than his course down the line, and in that case
the boat end would be favored.
All that notwithstanding, keep in mind that the favored end
can often be a trap well worth avoiding. While jockeying for a
spot at the favored end, large clumps of boats tend to slow
each other down, pinching, locking rails, and rafting up while
pirate-like fights envelope the crews and would-be boarding
parties exchange volleys of curses. Packs of boats at the
favored end also register frequent OCS (On the Course Side, a
premature start). The truth is that only a small handful of
boats can emerge sailing at full speed from a large group. The
bigger the pack, the worse your odds of escaping with a good
And, if the racecourse is biased to one side due to current
or geographic wind effects, the actual favored side of the
course may be closer to the unfavored end of the starting
line. Such conditions can erase or even negate the advantage
of starting at the more upwind end. Also, if the pin is
favored, but the wind is oscillating, starting at the favored
end can make it very difficult to get onto port tack, so you
end up headed on starboard and eventually out of phase. You
get the point: The favored end is not always the place to be.
Let me offer this one cop-out disclaimer: Smart sailors
know how and when to reorder their priority list because every
race presents a different set of conditions. There are times
when the favored end is closest to the favored side of the
course and it is better to just bite the bullet, start in the
pack, and take your chances.
Speed Ahead If you ever get the chance to watch
a whole regatta you will notice a simple, elegant fact. The
fastest boats usually win. But even the fastest boats go slow
when they are stuck within packs of boats. Regatta winners
often gain their advantage early in each race by avoiding
problems at the start that can keep them from sailing at full
speed. Follow these simple rules to be sure your boat is
moving at full speed at the start and throughout the first
half of that initial upwind leg:
you're racing in a mega-fleet or just against five other
boats, the key to a good start is hitting the line with
speed and space to maneuver.
- It's important for novice sailors to find a
clear, comfortable spot on the starting line. Before the
start, groups of boats typically sail back and forth just
below the line. If you aren't careful, you can get trapped
between boats, and this will dictate that you approach the
line caught up in this group—not a good place to be. When
you sense that you are becoming surrounded, try to tack or
jibe to get to a spot with clear air.
- Once you have found a less-populated spot, make
sure you've got enough space so that you can accelerate to
full speed by the time you hit the line. (In Part Two, I'll
discuss using a line site as a way of knowing where you are
relative to the starting line.) Be careful not to set up too
close to the line, but remember that it takes time to bring
your boat to full speed. On most boats, if you set up three
or four boatlengths from the line with 40 seconds to go, you
should have adequate distance to accelerate to full speed
before the gun goes off.
- In the final 30 seconds before the start, try to
create as much space as possible between you and the next
boat to leeward. Then ramp-up your boat speed and hit your
line sight at full speed when the countdown hits zero. The
real estate you create to leeward in the final 30 seconds is
space that will allow you to sail fast after the start. With
room to leeward, you can foot off to build speed if you're
hit by a bad wave or get slowed by a lull.
|"Remember that a good start only works
when it's done in conjunction with your upwind
Go your own way Once you have started the
race and you are sailing at full speed, it is time to point
the boat in the right direction. Remember that a good start
only works when it's done in conjunction with your upwind
strategy. Before the start you should determine a game plan—an
idea about which side of the racecourse is favored, where you
want to go, and why. If you want to go left, continue on
starboard tack after you start. If you like the right side,
start to look for opportunities to tack to port and get out to
the right. The great advantage of finding a less crowded spot
on the line is the freedom it gives you to follow your game
plan. When you are stuck in a tight group after the start, it
becomes tough to tack, and you can often be pinched off and
forced to tack out to clear your air. If you've ever found
yourself in this situation, you'll understand why racers refer
to it as being "pinballed," so avoid this, if at all possible.
Keep these simple ideas and rules in mind, then work hard
to develop the skills needed to execute them, and you'll be
well on your way to producing consistently competitive starts.
In my next installment, I'll discuss some refinements on basic
starting strategies and suggest some practice drills that will
help build good starting skills.