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Technical Manual

So You Think You Know How To Start?

by Trevor Gore

The start is the first big test once you're out on the course, and to get a good one, a certain amount of preparation and planning is necessary.

As only one helm can get the perfect start the chances of it being you are slim and the risks involved in getting it are high. Better to be less ambitious and to go for a good start that you can be confident of pulling off, leaving yourself in a strong position to execute your first beat plan. It's pointless getting a great start only to be forced on to the wrong side of the course. The gains that can be made on the first beat are far larger than can be made out of the start, certainly when sailing large Olympic triangles. (In pond sailing it's often a case of win the start, win the race, but let's concern ourselves with proper racing).

It's convenient to separate the various types of (good) starts into three groups - high risk starts (for the Kamikaze pilots) low risk starts (for those who have already sailed their discard) and percentage starts (for those who want to get off the line to sail their own race without too much aggravation).

The high risk start - pole position favoured end

First, find the favoured end, a technique in its own right. The favoured end is usually (but not always) the windward end of the line, and on Olympic courses with a decent OD should be the port end by about ten degrees. Take up position early and defend it against poachers. This requires precise boat control, holding the boat stationary on the line creating a large enough space between you and the mark to bear away into, yet not allowing it to become large enough to tempt another helm into the gap. With a few seconds to go, drop into the gap, bear away and cross the line at full speed on the gun. As no-one should be below you, you won't be squeezed, so should be able to hold top speed until you wish to tack.

Accelerating rapidly from a standing start is difficult to do legally, but everyone else will probably be illegal anyway.

Holding the boat stationary, and accelerating rapidly from a standing start are good training exercises. If you are just one or two boats from the end, avoid being squeezed, head for clear wind as soon as possible then lock in to the shift system.

The major dangers are being forced over, getting the timing wrong and having nowhere to bear away to, resulting in slow acceleration. A slow start from the port end will result in not being able to tack for a while and being forced to the left of the course when you probably want to go right. If at the starboard committee boat end of the line it will be very crowded with a high risk of becoming log jammed, with the resulting risk of collisions and damage.

The low risk start - 2nd row starboard end

The starboard end may or may not be the favoured end, but starting there does allow you the freedom to tack early. Because you won't have the positional advantages of a high risk start it means that all your ground has to be made on the first beat, so you must be sure that you are on the favoured tack as soon as possible. To do that requires you being out at the start area early logging the wind shifts. It's important that you don't get involved with other boats but go for speed on the right tack.

The dangers involved in this start are in dropping back too far then getting boxed in and getting left.

The percentage start

This start is made some 25% of the line length from the favoured end. Here the boat density will be a little lower and there should be more room for manoeuvre.

Take up position about two minutes before the start and hold the boat on the line. Create room to leeward (by luffing the boat to weather harder than the boat to leeward is luffing you) bear away into it in the last few seconds and dive across the line at top speed on the gun. Lock into the shift system and avoid getting involved with the crowds at the favoured end.

The dangers here are being unable to judge your precise position relative to the line and on crowded lines someone else diving into your gap. If this happens you may have to resort to gap diving yourself, but there are unlikely to be any to leeward.

For any start the principle is to cross the line on the gun, from the correct position travelling at top speed in the right direction. In a known fleet it may be better to start with boats about you of similar ability. If they are much better (eg starting next to the National Champion) the chances are you'll get chewed up. If they are really bad in difficult conditions there's a good chance of them screwing you up (eg capsizing in front of you, dropping the tiller or mainsheet).

The things to avoid are being caught stationary on the gun and getting hung up with other boats.

The things to remember are : series winners are not high risk starters, and bad starters are those who get boxed at the favoured end.

The things to do afterwards in priority order are:

  1. Get clear wind early
  2. Correct tack, clear water
  3. Execute first beat plan

Make sure your next one is a good one.


Juries do watch out quite carefully for illegal propulsion on the starting line, so don't take Trevor's fifth paragraph to heart!