If you rank racing skills by degree of difficulty and potential for gain/loss, big fleet starts are at or near the top. In small fleets, it’s easier to get a good start and if you don’t, it’s easy enough to recover. Not so in big fleets. Furthermore, big fleet starts are hard to practice outside of regattas.
For this post, we pulled together tips from several sources, including 10 Moves That Don’t Work in a Big Fleet (George Szabo in Sailing World), Successful Starting in Big Fleets (Bill Hardesty in Scuttlebutt Sailing News), How to Win in a Big Fleet (Toby Heppel, Yachts and Yachting), and Size Matters: Tips for Starting in Big and Small Fleets (Clay Johnson in Center of Effort Blog).
Challenges of Big Fleet Starts
If you understand the challenges of big fleet starts, you can start to deal them. Here are six challenges:
- Starting at the ends is risky. If you pick the wrong side, recovery will be tough.
- Long starting lines are often farther offshore, making line sights more challenging.
- Time to sail the length of the line is long, making it difficult to change your mind.
- Boats claim their starting position earlier, so it’s easier to get shut out.
- Hard to recover from being over early and having to re-start.
- The wind is chopped up from all the boats. This affects boats in the front row but is much worse for those behind.
Priority Techniques and Precautions in Big Fleet Starts
Sailors with good starting techniques will do well in any size fleet. The rest of us need to prioritize certain skills and take extra precautions in a big fleet. Here are eight priorities to consider.
#1. Start in a less dense area
It’s hard to hold a lane in a crowd. Unlike a small fleet, you can’t always tack away and get to a new lane quickly. So, prioritize avoiding the crowds.
#2. Consider starting in the middle
Except in very light air light air or when there’s a clearly favored side, the middle is often a good bet in a big fleet. The middle allows you to see which side may be paying off and get there. You can also often take advantage of line sag. However, the middle has some disadvantages:
- Because of the number of boats, the air will be lighter in the middle than on the ends.
- Unless there is a midline boat to round, being over early is a killer.
#3. Get a line sight and use it
It’s more difficult to use a line sight in big fleets, but the effort pays off if there’s line sag. A starting penalty (Black, Z, or U flag) makes line sag even more likely.
#4. Set up earlier
Boats will set up earlier in a big fleet, perhaps as early as 1-2 minutes before the gun. Do not wait and get locked out. A port tack approach may make it easier to find a hole.
#5. Defend your gap aggressively
Since you’re setting up early, you’ll have to work hard to defend your gap. Keep your boat moving so you can use the techniques – discouraging attackers, shooting up, crabbing to windward, and double tacks.
#6. Power up
With the wind chopped up, set your controls for more power than the clear air conditions on the course call for.
#7. Nail the acceleration
The last 5-10 seconds before the gun are the most important in the race. You can either cross the line at speed with clear air or be forced to consider a recovery. Start accelerating before nearby boats if you have adequate distance to the line. At the latest, start accelerating when boats around you go, and don’t let them get bow out on you.
#8. Smart recovery
A bad start requires a smarter response in a big fleet. You don’t want to get bounced around and still end up in bad air. Choose wisely from the major options: bailout before the start, patient bailout, prompt bailout, stay put or foot off.