The Start

Starting is one of the most complex aspects of a boat race with many moving parts, sail trim, team communication, competitors attack and defence moves and the overall strategic view. All aspects have to flow and come together all at the one time on the go Signal.

Many teams spend huge hours working on perfecting crew work and purchasing the best sails for your team, but every weekend turn up to the start line with 15 minutes to go. We all are aware of how this picture turns out.

Like anything the preparation needs to be happening well before your start time, just to have an even chance with the opposition.

The amount of information gathering alone, like your head to wind reading and the favoured end of the start line, will take a minimum 20 minutes, so allow yourself the time to collect the data. It is not possible to collect the data and have some practice runs if you have not allowed 1 full hour before the start time.

The other aspect top teams have at start time is they are very relaxed and composed. You need a clear relaxed outlook to start well. Any raised voice and emotional output during the start period takes your mind away from the critical speed and time on distance calculations. You cannot make clear decisions under emotional pressure and load.

Key data collection points.

    Port and Starboard tack compass headings sailing upwind, a critical part of the tactical information decision making process.

    Startline compass bearing taken from the start boat end heading towards the pin end. eg.  90 degrees.

    Head to wind reading taken from the middle of the line. eg. 190 degrees a square even start line would be 180 degrees so with the wind at 190 degrees we have a 10-degree bias to the boat end. This is informing us to start towards the favoured end.

    The time it takes to sail from start boat to pin end – this is critical information in big fleets. The start line at the Brisbane 2019 Etchells Worlds was 1 nautical mile long – that’s a long sail in an Etchells at 4 knots.

    3 x practice runs at the line in full race trim.

Many, many moons ago on my first ever World Championship attempt, our then Dragon Olympic Gold Medallist at my home club, Mr John Cuneo, gave me some great advice and I still use it today with all the people I coach.

  1. There are only ever 3 boats in a sailboat start; you, the boat to Weather and the boat to Leeward. At all times you must be bow forward on both these boats to have a fighting chance. He would always say “make sure you win the small start first”.
  2. The second point John expressed was starting is like being a boxer; if you stand flat-footed you will get hit. You need to duck, weave, change speed – it makes you harder to catch. One area John expressed is you need to duck move and mostly watch and look around for the openings or attacks.

We have seen it so many times in the starting area if you sit and luff your boat you will be a sitting duck and a target for others.

Keep your eyes dancing all around just like the boxer watching for the knockout punch, we must be aware at all times of the other competitors.

In the last 15 seconds in most sailboat starts it’s key to be getting to maximum speed so when the gun goes you are at max speed.

Reproduced with kind permission of RBYC Melbourne, Australia and Head Coach Adrian Finglas 

Adrian has won many Australian National championships from Sabot, 420, 470, 505, Youth Nationals, Pre Olympic selections in 1992, Win in the Sydney Hobart race, Adrian has an extremely diverse sailing background from professional racing to teaching young children’s Tackers. Adrian travelled the globe for 20 years of his life chasing the sailing challenge either racing himself or coaching. Adrian coached 2 Para-Lympic medals for Australia at the 2008, 2012 games and was the Olympic coach for the Yngling at the 2008 Olympic games

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Making Reaches Work

In this day and age of mainly windward and return races, the art, and skill of sailing a reach is becoming a distant memory for many of us with symmetrical spinnaker boats.

Please note though, that a lot of the tips below are also relevant to two sailed and single-sail boats as well.

If you do get a reaching course or if a planned run becomes a reach due to a wind shift, you will need to draw on your memory to enable yourself to get to the leeward mark in the quickest possible time.

Close Reach:

As you bear away from close-hauled to a close reach, the forces on the sails rotate forward, speed jumps, and heeling forces are reduced so to make the most of the wider wind angle you must retrim the sails for the new course.

You will ease the jib and if your set up allows, you will move the jib lead outwards. The halyard will not be adjusted thus keeping the draft forward and also prevents the back of the sail from becoming rounded. If the lead is not moved outboard, the top of the sail opens and the bottom will hook which increases drag.

The mainsail will be eased, traveler dropped but the vang should remain firm, one of the ways to set it initially is to just snig the vang on whilst traveling upwind and when you ease off to the tight reach, it will stop the boom from lifting and leech from spilling the wind and costing you power. 

The vang is a critical control of twist and if you find yourself overpowered ease the vang which will, in turn, reduce heel and balance the helm.

Fine trimming is done by adjusting the sail and traveler to keep the leech telltales streaming and the helm balanced.

 For a close reach on a symmetrical spinnaker boat, the pole should be close to the forestay but the pole height can be fine-tuned. As an example, on a close reach try lowering the pole so the tack is lower than the clew, this pulls the draft forward, and opens the leech, for a faster-reaching shape.

For best performance, with a symmetrical spinnaker, the luff should always be trimmed to be on the verge of curling.

With an asymmetric spinnaker, you have the ability to play the tack line up and down and this serves a similar purpose to raising and lowering the pole height which can drastically change the sail shape to conform with the angle you are sailing to the wind.

Broad reaching:

As you bear off further, ease the sails using the telltales to match the angle of attack and trim the jib to keep the middle of the sail working. With the mainsail, ease it out to just before it luffs and keep the vang firm so that the top batten is parallel to the angle of the boom.

As you sail down, the spinnaker pole should be lifted to keep the clews of the spinnaker level and in heavier air beware of flying both corners too high, this lets the spinnaker get too far from the boat and will make the boat less stable. If the boat is rolling side to side, try lowering the pole, pull the pole aft and/or choke down the sheet lead.

With an asymmetrical on a broad reach, ease the tack line and allow the tack to lift, easing the luff lets the assy roll out from behind the mainsail to assume a more powerful spinnaker-like shape.

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The Importance of Windward Mark Roundings

As sailors we put an enormous amount of thought in to the start, and so we should, and next we talk a lot about upwind speed and observing and playing the shifts but planning and thought seems to go out the window when considering  rounding the windward mark and transitioning to the downwind leg.

Having a clean windward mark rounding can gain valuable boat-lengths and the keys to rounding the windward mark are to make sure that you get there without sailing extra distance or fouling someone but even more importantly, ensuring that you’ve prepared for and have a plan for the next leg.

Before the start, make sure that you know where the windward mark is, and as you’re sailing up the beat, you should periodically check to see where you are relative to the mark.

Pay attention to the laylines and if you will be approaching the mark on starboard tack, you will want to tack as close to the layline as you can, sailing beyond the layline means that you waste time sailing extra distance and you leave the opportunity for an opponent to come in, tack below you, and still make the mark.

Once you’re on the layline, keep sailing fast but also start planning ahead for the next leg. Make sure that your mainsheet is not tangled and is free to run, if you’re racing a boat with a spinnaker or gennaker, do any final preparations and at the same time think about your strategy for the next leg.

Will you want to work high or low on a reach? If the next leg is a run is there a reason why you might want to gybe around the mark perhaps to take advantage of more pressure or to stay in phase with the shifts you have observed on the upwind leg?

Don’t forget about current as you calculate the layline and if you are approaching the mark on Port tack be aware of your rights, read and learn Rule 18 which makes it very difficult to tack inside the zone without fouling another boat.

A quick summary of Rule 18 and windward mark roundings:

  • If you’re approaching the mark and you will not need to tack, an inside boat that is overlapped when the first of them enters the zone gets room to round the mark. That can mean pinching up or shooting head to wind, and a boat outside will need to keep clear,so if you’re that outside boat, don’t bear off just yet!
  • The trickier situation involves tacking inside the zone. A boat that tacks inside the zone needs to first complete their tack without fouling, and then, if you are in a lee bow position, you must not force the other boat to sail above close-hauled, so in that situation, you can’t force the other boat to pinch or shoot head to wind.

One way to avoid this sticky situation is to make sure that you complete your tacks outside the zone.

It’s important to protect your position on the layline and make sure that you maintain clear air. If you’re on starboard tack and a port tacker is approaching, you may want to foot off a bit (well before they’re close so you’re not hunting) so that if they lee bow you, you can head up and maintain your lane.

If you’re on port tack crossing a starboard tacker and if in doubt, you can avoid fouling by fully crossing them, and then tacking after you’re clear of them.

In this case you might round behind that one boat, but will not foul, too often, port tackers try to jam in a tack on the layline or at the mark, and foul because they do not keep clear while tacking.

You may lose that one boat, but sailing clean is sailing fast. Similarly, if you realize that you’re not laying the mark, the sooner you can tack out and re-establish yourself in a decent lane, the better.

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See The Wind

                            Perhaps the most important skill that  separates the best sailors from the rest of the fleet is their ability to see the wind.

The reason that this is critical is that it enables them to consistently get to the windier side of the course and thus sail faster than their competition. 

Obviously no one can actually see wind but there are a number of ways to indirectly see what the wind is doing, particularly what it’s doing farther up the course.

Flags, smoke or other sail boats in your course area are great indicators but in many cases these are not available so the most consistent way to see the wind is by observing how it effects the water.

The higher up we are the easier it is to see the effect on the water but most of us do not have the luxury of height above the water. In light air, standing up in your boat and looking to windward will give you a better picture and in a larger boat there is the ability to get winched up the mast to look further afield to see what is happening.

Contrasting colours  caused by ripples in the water indicate the presence of a puff and with practice and observation you will get better at predicting the strength and direction of the puff. 

As part of a drill and a way to hone your skills, sail upwind and try to spot puffs ahead of you, don’t worry about tacking for puffs. When you see a puff, try to predict how many seconds it will be before you sail into it, then start counting down the seconds.

By practicing and getting better at this you’ll also develop the ability to discern how strong a particular puff will be which is valuable information because it allows you to anticipate the effect and trim accordingly plus sailing in to more wind can greatly increase your boats speed.

Looking up the course should tell you which side of the course is favoured but don’t discount other variables such as current or wind shifts, remembering that the goal is to spend as much time as possible in the puffs.

An important consideration is to not sail for a puff that is too far away, in most cases it will have dissipated before you get to it.

I have spoken up to now about looking up the course but just as importantly, downwind puffs are even more important because you are travelling in the same direction as them  so they will be with you longer.

If you are in a crewed boat ,one team member should be allocated the task of looking for and communicating to the team regarding wind on the course.

Their observations should be constantly updated re what puffs are doing, where they are coming from,  their strength and what effect they are likely to have on the boat.

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Consider Current When Planning a Race or Regatta

An excerpt below from an interview that I did on the subject of Current and How to Plan for it with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey.

It’s important to know what the tide is doing, what observations do you make on the course in assisting you to know where to go?

Ideally, you have pre-gamed the strategy based on the tidal strength, the times and the course location

It’s good to validate all of the above with physically checking the current, either by tossing an object by a fixed mark or with your eye as you pass marks through the race

Big picture, I’d make decisions based upon what effect the current might have on a leg, but also factoring in the characteristics of the wind. IE: if there is current, but it the same side-to-side on the race track, I would cancel that out and focus more on the wind.

If the current does favour one side, but the wind-shifts / velocity are really big, I would prioritise the wind.

If I can’t see any difference in the wind from side to side, or the True Wind Direction is steady-state, I would put more emphasis on the tide strategy.

Lay-lines play a bigger part in current, as people will make mistakes with this and over-lay (or underlay at the top mark and hit the mark). I’d be conservative on my laylines and hope to pick up some gains there.

How do you gather local knowledge regarding tides and currents?

We are very fortunate these days to have so much info on the internet that is easy to access. There are also books on the tidal flow in places where the tide plays a big factor.

Talking to locals regarding local effects like shadows and eddy’s is also key. I’d make sure I do this for bigger events

Sometimes the best resource is your own experience in practice racing prior to the event and the early races of a regatta.

  • What happened?
  • When did it happen relative to the cycle?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Which of the resources you looked at prior to racing were the most accurate in retrospect?
  • What can you trust moving forward?

The depth of the water across the course will affect tidal flows as will the topography of the bottom, do you take this in to account?

Yes, this is fundamental to tidal strategy. Knowing where you are relative to the depth changes is fundamental to sailing the tide well. Also knowing how quickly the depth changes in different areas, as the flow is generally faster in areas of tighter depth gradients.

In learning the Solent (where I now live), it is really interesting watching good local sailors place the boat. I think that is where I have learnt the most.

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