by Mark Johnson [copyright 1/19/95]

Chapter 3 - Starting

Large gains and losses are made at the start. When your boat comes off the line, you want to be in clear air, have good speed, be on the preferred side of the line and course, and be on the right tack. If you haven't done each of these, you could be lost behind 50 boats, and going slowly. In large fleets, it's important to have a good start, so you must formulate a plan ahead of time, and spend the last few minutes of the starting sequence executing that plan.

Form a Plan and Execute it

It is imperative that you do formulate that plan, and stick to it. Too many times, snap decisions are made because of all the action on the starting line. It's much easier to think things through thoroughly, and then just execute those thoughts, than it is to "wing it." Almost invariably, "wung it" plans go awry.

Technique: Safety Start

If you are new to racing, starts can be very intimidating-you have to think of timing, where you want to be, how fast you're going, and most importantly, how not to run into anything. All this happens with boats all around you-sometimes up to 100 other boats. This section describes the simplest and most effective plan for starting for the beginning racer.

Basic Idea: The entire plan consists of sailing anywhere you want, until 1 1/2 minutes before the start. At that time, head for a point about 6 boatlengths to starboard of the committee boat.

figure 12

You should reach this point with 1 minute left. Tack onto starboard and sit in that spot without moving (see "Skills: Sitting Still," below). At 10 seconds before the start, bear off and head for the line at full speed to start.

DANGER!! Your main goal in this process is to start with full speed without fouling or hitting anyone!! Keep in mind that other people with have your same idea, and you cannot be trapped between them and the committee boat. Look back to figure 12, and you will see two danger zones. These are the places you need to watch for boats you may hit.

During the 50 seconds while you sit still, you need to be constantly looking into these areas for boats heading your way. If there is anyone there, you must figure out where they will go. The best thing you can do if someone is converging on the same spot as you is to do a complete circle and start behind them.

figure 13

If you have full speed when you reach the line, you will sail away from most of the fleet, even if you're late to the line! Most racers concentrate on being in the right place at the start, but not on their speed. They will be on the line but not moving, so you can sail right past them.

DANGER!! I must say this one more time-If you see someone who may hit you or trap you between the themselves and the committee boat, GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE! Just tack around, and go in behind them. Late with speed is fine, indeed!

There are many types of starts, and this is just one. Below, you will find information on the best types of starts for different conditions, and how to determine your best approach, once you are comfortable in the boat.

Check the Wind, and Know What it Means

At the start, because of the way the line and the course are set, there are going to be some large possible gains at the outset. There are three questions you should answer during the beginning of the starting sequence: on which side of the line should you start, on what tack should you be at the starting gun, and to which side of the course should you go?

These questions can be answered in the pre-start, with more than 2 minutes to go. Once they are answered, formulate a plan, and use those last 2 minutes to execute.

Favored end of the line

On which side of the line should you start? This question is simple. Go to the middle of the line and go head to wind. Then look to either side, left at the pin, and right at the committee boat. Whichever is further ahead is the preferred end. This will be the closest end to the windward mark, and why not begin with a head start?

figure 14

Best tack off the line

On which tack should you be immediately after the start? This question is almost as simple. To decide the best tack, you need to decide which will take you straightest to the windward mark. When you are head to wind in the middle of the line, checking the favored end, look also toward the windward mark and see which side of the boat it's on. If it's dead ahead, your initial tack doesn't matter. If it's to the right, the best tack is port, and to the left, starboard.

figure 15

To remember these, just imagine the wind swinging a little further in the same direction. If it goes far enough, you will be able to go to the windward mark on one tack. A simple rule to follow is: take the tack that will take your boat straightest to the mark, always. This is useful, even on the other legs of the course.

Now, of course, you should keep in mind that starboard tack has right of way over port tack, and this will have a bearing on your decision. If port tack is the best to be on, it may pay to start on starboard, and then tack to port as soon as you can. That is, unless you have complete confidence in your ability to stay clear of the starboard (right of way) boats.

Favored side of the course

The favored side of the course is often a little more nebulous than the above considerations. The favored side of the course should be the side where the most wind is. This you can tell by standing up in your boat and looking upwind. Do this about every 30 seconds before the start. Keep in mind that the wind may move to the other side of the course by the time you start. The time to start keeping track of the wind on the course is about 1/2 hour before the start of your race. Get out to the course early to determine what's happening.

Now, reaching the favored side of the course may be difficult, considering where you start, and your initial tack. Try to get there as quickly as possible, which means giving yourself room to tack. If you are pinned to leeward of a windward boat, on starboard tack, it will be hard to get to the right side of the course.

These three ingredients should be mixed and matched to get the most out of the start. If it seems there is much more wind on the right, then you might give up the favored pin end of the line, for a quick port tack to the right. If there is no apparent advantage on either side, then go with the favored end of the line, on the closest tack to the mark. Remember-PLAN AHEAD!!

Get Clear Air and Have Speed at the Start

There is more detailed discussion of clear air below in CHAPTER 4 - BEATING UPWIND, and you may want to read that now (BLANKETING and BACKWINDING).

The best way to get wind is to make sure you are not in someone's bad air. The biggest thing for which to watch is backwinding at the start. This will slow you down, and make your pointing worse, and the worst part of it is you won't be able to feel that the air is bad. The initial goal, once the gun goes off, will be to get up to speed quickly, and this means getting clear air, so separate from those around you if you must.

Also, in the few seconds before the start, you should bear off (foot) about 5-10 degrees to build a little speed. Otherwise, you'll get rolled by everyone who does have speed.

A Sample Plan and Execution

The following is a sample starting scenario. This situation will not apply all the time, but it's a good example. The wind speed is about 10 mph and the line is the length of the 20 boats on the course. See figure 16 below.

Imagine yourself in the boat, and what you would see. Now, formulate a plan for the start, taking into account where you will start, and in what direction you want to go. Then look at the sample solution to see if you were close.

figure 16

Solution: The first thing to notice is that the pin end is further to windward, so this is the favored end. Also, the windward mark is a little to the right of straight upwind, so the proper starting tack is port tack. There is little difference in the wind between sides of the course.

Now, it may be difficult to start on port tack if there is a large fleet of boats, and they are all on starboard coming at you, so you may want to start on starboard, with the intention of tacking soon after the start. This means staying to the right of the bulk of the boats who will naturally want to start at the pin.

You also want to start at the pin, but keep in mind that everyone can't start in the same place. A safer thing to do is start about 1/3 of the way from the pin on starboard, with the intention of tacking soon.

With about 2 minutes to go, start lining up your final run. You will most likely want to be at the committee boat with about 20 seconds to go, heading for your spot. If you are going too fast, and will overshoot the target, slow down by letting the sail luff and heading up into the wind slightly.

With the final 10 seconds to go, start bearing off a little to build speed, keeping an eye on the boats to leeward and windward. You should hit the line at full speed, with a little room to leeward in case you want to foot for speed, and a little room to windward, if you want to tack. Then, since the port tack is preferred, tack as soon as possible.

Fleet Racing

In fleet racing, you'll face many challenges, not the least of which is avoiding collisions before the start. In some races, there are as many as 50 boats swarming around a very small area. This can be unnerving, but try to stay cool.

One thing to remember is that starboard tack has right of way over port, but you're not allowed to maneuver your boat to keep someone from staying clear (i.e., you can't keep changing course in order to hit them, even if you have right of way), whether you're on port or starboard. If you're the starboard boat, go about your business, but keep sailing mostly straight lines. If you're port, change your course as little as possible around other boats, but stay clear.

Below are some skills which will help in this maneuvering, as well as in the execution of your plan.

Skills: Timing Practice

One skill that must be learned is that of timing an approach to an object. This will aid in getting to the starting line, in the position you want, at the correct time.

Set a buoy in the water, or pick a dock, or something fixed, to which you can sail. Then, set a time limit like 30 seconds for yourself. The goal is to sail at full speed and reach the marker at exactly 30 seconds. Keep going back to try changing your distance and speed, until you can judge the distance correctly.

Keep in mind that when the wind strength changes, so will your speed, and thus the time to the marker. Practice this drill in all conditions, when you're not racing. Another good time to do this is during the starting sequence. With about 5 minutes to go, time how long it takes to get from the pin to the committee boat on a beam reach. This will be important information in the plan formulation and execution.

Skills: Close Sailing

Most everything listed above is simple to do when you're alone on the course, but that's not ever the case in a real race. To keep from getting flustered, you must learn to sail close to other boats, defining your limits. How close can you get while still in control?

When there is a group of boats on the water, you can try playing follow-the-leader. Have one boat be at the front, with each of the others following as closely as possible. The front boat should go through normal starting maneuvers, such as tacking, jibing, heading up, bearing off, etc.

Think about staying the same distance behind that boat at all times, decreasing the distance as you get better. This will take concentration, and you will have to learn to speed up your boat, as well as slow it down, using the trim of the sails, crew placement, etc.

If you're alone, try sailing close to trees and docks and other fixed objects, without hitting them. This doesn't give you a feeling for the movement that other boats will, but you can learn how quickly your boat moves, tacks, and jibes. Defining your sailing limits is important in control of the boat.

Skills: Sitting Still

A third skill to practice is sitting still, without losing control. This is important, since you will often misjudge the time to the line, and you will need to slow down or stop.

Sail on a close reach and then head up into the wind until almost head to wind. Then, practice staying in that position for as long as possible. You will be able to do this using the trim of the sails and the heel of the boat. Don't let the boat go straight into the wind, or you will end up in irons, with no steerage. Keep the boat off the wind by about 5-10 degrees.

Finally, when you have mastered sitting still, learn how to get boat under way quickly. This you can do by heeling to windward to turn the boat, and trimming in the sails to pick up speed.

Match Racing

If you will only be racing fleet races, you may skip this section.

Match racing (one boat against one boat) is a much different animal than fleet racing. The goal during the starting sequence in match racing is to control the other boat to gain a right of way advantage. This is done from behind. In FJ's and Lasers the best thing to do is get directly behind the other boat, and don't let them do anything, except sail straight away from the line. It won't be important to start at the gun-only to start in front of the other boat.

If you are directly behind the other boat, and they start to bear off to jibe, bear off a little to leeward of them. Now you are the leeward boat, and they must stop bearing off, or they will hit and foul you. If they begin to head up to tack, head up with them. They can continue to head up, being the leeward boat, but they cannot tack. Thus, you can keep them in line.

Now, this can go wrong if, for instance, you become overlapped. Then, you will not be able to head up (bear off) without hitting them, and they can escape. To keep control, you must learn to slow the boat down.

Skills: Slowing the Boat Down

There are many ways to slow the boat using only sail trim and crew placement.

Sail on a beam reach, and then stop the boat by heading up into the wind and letting the sails go. Find out how long it takes to stop the boat completely. To add to your stopping power, try moving your weight back in the boat, dragging the transom in the water. You will see and hear lots of little swirlies come off the stern. These swirlies indicate drag, which slows the boat.

A way to slow the boat down when broad-reaching or running is to overtrim the sails. This will affect your speed a little more gradually, but should often do the trick in the cases when you won't be able to luff the sails.

Finally, when going on a close reach or close haul, you can push the boom out to leeward further than it wants to go. This makes the sail act as a brake, slowing you down very quickly. However, the boat will be difficult to control. See the next section, "Skills: Sailing Backwards," to control the boat with the sails filled from the wrong side.

Skills: Sailing Backwards

One of the more fun things to practice is backwards sailing. It seems like the boat shouldn't go that way, but this is a handy skill if you happen to be going over the line early, or if you want someone behind you to pass quickly.

To begin, sail on a close-hauled course. Then head straight into the wind, and wait for the boat to stop. Once you are stopped, push the boom out until it is perpendicular to the wind. At this point, the boat should begin moving backwards. Now, the rudder will be acting completely differently from what it usually does. You will need to steer opposite the way in which you are accustomed.

To go backwards quickly, sail on a starboard tack, close-hauled course. Then head up until the bow just crosses head to wind, and the sail has gone over your head. Reach up and push it out, while simultaneously pulling the tiller back toward you, to pull the boat back to the starboard tack, but only about 5 off the wind. Then, wait for the boat to start backing up. At this point, you will need to push the tiller away again to keep the boat on course. This method works the same on the port tack.

On to Chapter 4

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