The start is so important you cannot afford to be squeamish. And you can’t hold back. Greg Fisher, in Sailboat Racing with Greg Fisher
Execute the Start
You’ve done your pre-race homework, decided where to start, and made your starting line approach. Now it’s time to get aggressive and execute the start. Successful sailors aren’t particularly friendly at the start: they fight hard for a gap, and then charge the line at full speed or greater, punching out into clear air and leaving the hesitant behind.
We’ve pulled together the best tips on how to execute the start.
To execute, you must achieve three goals at the gun:
- Be in the front row
- Be moving at full speed (or faster)
- Have a clear lane
Of the three goals, this is the easiest to achieve. As Peter Vaciurguis says: just be there. If you’re having trouble with this, check out his online video, in which he urges you to stay within two boat lengths of the starting line during the last two minutes of the sequence. That way, you won’t be tempted to hang back until it’s too late.
Use a line sight to make sure you are near enough to the line. You may not always be able to use it in the last few seconds before the start, but you can at least use it in the last 1-2 minutes to make sure you are close enough.
Moving at Full Speed (or faster)
To accomplish this, you create and defend a gap to leeward, manage your distance from the line, and start your final acceleration at the right time.
Dave Dellenbaugh has a nice article about this in Sailing Breezes – Create and Protect a “Hole” at the start. Key points:
- Slide in above a windward boat, below a leeward boat, or between two boats, with space to leeward.
- Keep working your boat to the right to maintain the gap.
- Don’t take more than you need; others will be tempted to steal the space.
- Watch behind you both to windward and leeward for attackers.
- React early to attackers.
- Ease sails and turn down to deter approaching boats
- Sail into the gap if necessary – then shoot up to leeward of the attacker.
- Use the sails to help steer.
Manage Distance to the Line
If you get too close to the line, you may be ahead of other boats, but won’t have room to accelerate. If you’re too far back, other boats will gas you. To find the right balance:
- Get a good visual picture of the location of line.
- Use your line sight.
- Some sailors claim they can visualize a spot on the water at the line; they then glue their eyes on that spot.
- Know how much time and distance it takes to accelerate to full speed in various wind conditions.
- Stay with the other boats in the front row.
- If you are too close, you can hang back a little, but you must stay out of the wind shadow and blanket zone of the boats around you.
- During final acceleration, keep your mast at or ahead of the windward boat’s bow. This gases the windward boat, while keeping your sail numbers covered from the judges on the right.
- Try to keep your bow even with the leeward boat’s mast. This reduces the chance of being gassed. This might not be possible with a left end favor.
- Control your speed:
- Luff, back your sails, or make big steering motions to slow down.
- Boats with a jib can luff the jib and keep the main trimmed to slow down and minimize leeward drift.
- Have your controls, especially your vang, set up for the existing wind conditions.
- Be on a close reach angle to the wind. Don’t sail lower than a close reach, or you will use up too much of your gap.
- Start accelerating before boats around you if you have adequate distance to the line.
- At the latest, start accelerating when boats around you go. Listen for ratchets – don’t wait. If boats around you are over early, your individual risk of being called over is small.
- Sheet in slowly at first, then more quickly as the boat accelerates to get to your close reach sheeting angle. Use the hand-over-hand technique.
- Use the final bit of mainsail trim to help you head up to close-hauled, while minimizing steering.
- Depending on your boat type, you may be able to heel slightly to leeward before sheeting in and then flatten the boat as you sheet in the final bit.
If you started with good speed and didn’t use all of your gap to leeward, you should be able to sail in a clear lane after the start, especially if you’ve done your pre-race tuning and concentrate hard on sailing fast for the first minute or two. If you lose your lane, you have to decide what to do. See our post on Upwind Strategy and Tactics – Sail in Clear Air.
You can practice every element of starting. Here are some ideas:
On your own
- Hold your boat within 5 feet of a buoy for several minutes, using rudder and sails.
- Accelerate repeatedly to full speed; try to improve your time and distance.
- Start a fixed distance away from a buoy and try to cross the buoy 20 seconds later at full speed.
- Sail slowly forward towards a buoy, luffing your sails, and see how slow you can go while maintaining control of your direction.
- Sail up to a buoy and stop abruptly, using your sails; then back up.
With a Group
- Set up a starting line with an observer on an end. Sail towards the line and raise your hand when you think you are on the line. The observer blows a whistle when you cross the line. More in Sailing Drills by Rick White.
- With several boats, set up a starting line too short for the number of boats. Run a 3 minute sequence and let the sailors fight for position. More in Sailing Drills by Rick White or Practice Reference Guide – William and Mary Sailing.
- Surprise starts. Helper blows start signal anytime during the final minute. More at Coaching Drills – Sail1Design Problem 4) or Practice Reference Guide – William and Mary Sailing.
- Set up a starting box two boat lengths deep. Sailors must be inside the box for the final minute. More at Coaching Drills – Sail1Design Problem 1).
- Assigned spot. Assign each person a spot on the line. More at Practice Reference Guide – William and Mary Sailing.