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Sailboat Race Starting Techniques Page 1 of 3
by Allan Hoffman
There are several ways of starting races. Starting is a difficult skill to master. It often
Runners stand still behind a starting line, then takes years to achieve proficiency. There is an
wait for the count down of "on your mark", "get awful lot of stuff going on at once. Each skipper
set", and go at the sound of the starting gun. wants to get an advantage, such as a favored
Swimmers, ice skaters, and skiers start similarly. position, while preventing the other skippers
Automobile oval track racers start in a pre- from taking that advantage away from him, all
arranged, rolling grid following a pace car. As while trying to hit that line at full speed as the
the grid approaches the starting line, the pace car bell sounds, but not crossing the line before the
pulls off the track and the race is on. bell sounds. It is very chaotic out there.
Thoroughbred racing puts each horse into a Usually, everyone wants to start at the starboard
separate chute, where they stay until the doors end of the line so they can be on starboard tack,
open and the horses bolt out. Those methods requiring all port tack boats to keep clear of
control the racer's position and how he is them. They also want to be the most windward
allowed to move. boat so they can get the clear air.
The "LeMans Start" in automobile racing is a The problem is that everyone can't get that most
little more interesting. The cars are all lined up desired position. What are the alternatives?
along one side of the track and the drivers stand Well, because of the jam-up at the starboard end,
opposite their cars on the other side. At the the other end of the line and the middle of the
starting gun, the drivers run across the track, get line are less congested. You can try starting
into their cars, start them up, and then drive onto there. But, be mindful of starting on port tack.
the track. Their position in the pack is largely
determined by how well they run, how quickly There is nothing wrong with a port tack start, but
they situate themselves into their cars, how well you must do it cleanly. If you can cross all the
the car starts up, and how well they avoid anyone starboard tackers, then you've aced them all and
else already on the track. got the better start. In reality, though, you won't.
It's a rare occurrence. Be prepared to give way
In sailboat racing, during the starting countdown, by tacking onto starboard or ducking the stern of
the racers jockey for position; each trying to any starboard tack boats. Why? Because those
force a disadvantage on the other racers and to are the rules, that's why. A port-tack boat
gain any advantage they can for themselves, all MUST keep clear of (or give way to) a
at the same time. Provided that he follows the starboard-tack boat. Period.
rules of sailing, exactly where each racer goes
and how he gets there is uncontrolled. You can also follow the first tier of starters
across the line. You'll be just behind them, but
What is the objective of a good start? Most with good positioning for the first leg of the
people will tell you that it is to hit the starting course. If you sail smart during the rest of the
line as the bell sounds, while going full speed. race, you may be able to overtake the boats that
Yeah, I'll agree to that. But, it's not that simple. you followed over the starting line.
During the starting countdown, we have to The most hideous and awful of things is barging.
contend with five to ten other racers, each trying Don't do it. How can you not do it if you don't
to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same know what it is? Barging is when a windward
time. I've been in fleets with as many as 18 boat tries to wedge herself between the starting
boats starting at once. Now, that'll keep you on mark and the leeward boat closest to the mark
your toes. The real question, though, is how do when there is not enough room for her to fit.
you achieve a good start?
Sailboat Race Starting Techniques Page 2 of 3
boat. As soon as the inside boat begins her final
move towards the starting line, where her
objective is to actually start the race, her rights to
room at the starting mark disappear. Poof!
Gone! She MUST keep clear of both the starting
mark and any leeward boats, even if she misses
the mark and does not start. If you find yourself
in that position, acknowledge to yourself that
you have blown the start and accept the penalty
of a poor start.
To repeat myself, do not force your way in and
do not stand your ground by not giving way.
That is against the rules and it is unfair to the
skipper who has developed his starting skills to
the point where he is able to be in the right place
In the drawing, boat A is close hauled and at the right time.
heading straight to the line on starboard, perhaps
a little too fast. She has eased her sails to allow As the leeward boat in a starting situation you
them to luff, thereby slowing down a little. Boat have the power over the windward boats. You
B has come alongside of boat A and has her sails can force them out of your way. Don't let them
in tight, accelerating to the line. Boat C is push you around.
attempting to force herself between the starting My suggestion is to avoid situations where you
mark and boat B where there is not enough room will become the barger and, if you are in a
for her to fit. Boat C is barging. She has no convenient position, close the door on bargers by
right to do that. Boat B should be hailing her to hailing them to keep clear and by not giving
keep clear. them room to start.
Also, in the first and second positions, boat A You've probably seen other skippers circle
could have luffed Boat B up so that B would around at the starboard end of the starting line,
have to pass on the wrong side of the mark. It is then zoop in at the mark at the last second,
perfectly legal and boat B, being the windward getting themselves an excellent start. It has
boat, would have had to keep clear of A. In that everything to do with the skipper's boat handling
case, boat C would have been blocked out skills and sense of timing. If your skills are
altogether. sufficient, by all means try it. Just be prepared to
Forcing yourself in, or not getting out of the way back off or to turn away if the opening you are
of a leeward boat, is completely against the rules. aiming for gets closed down on you. If your
Barging is a risky maneuver. If you try it, be skills are not sufficient, you should do a more
prepared to miss the start. If you follow the conservative start.
rules, most of the times you attempt to barge you The second most hideous and awful of things is
will, or should, miss the start. No one likes it running down the line when you are early to the
when they miss the start, but that is the risk you start. In the drawing, that would be if boat C ran
take when you attempt to barge. along the line, pushing both B and A out of her
Unlike at the rest of the marks on the course, the way. It is not against the rules to run down the
inside boat is NOT entitled to room at a starting line. But, if you do it and there are any boats to
mark while she is on her final approach to the leeward of you, YOU must keep clear of them.
line in order to start. But, again, it's not that Your choices are to cross the line early and
simple. Before beginning her final approach, round either starting mark to re-start, or lose
while still jockeying for position, the regular some speed, or duck behind the leeward boats, or
room-at-the-marks rules DO apply to the inside don't get into that position in the first place.
Sailboat Race Starting Techniques Page 3 of 3
The danger of crossing early is that you lose all Clear air is what you want to sail in. It is wind
of your rights to all boats that start properly. that is un-disturbed and can deliver the full force
You may have to travel with the pack until you of the current conditions. Blanketing or wind
can work your way free to turn around. shadow is when the windward boat's sails
Remember, you have to keep clear of everybody. physically block the air from getting to your
You can't force a boat out of your way in order boat. In the drawing, it is the dark triangle on
for you to go back to re-start. the leeward side of the boat. It is not a large area
There are no brakes on a sailboat, so how do you but the effect is relatively intense. The backwind
lose speed? Ease, or loosen, your sails. zone is the area of turbulence that's left in the air
Depending on the conditions, by either a lot or a after the wind has flowed across the sails. It is
little. If the sails are flapping (which is called the larger, lighter area in the drawing. It lies to
luffing), the boat has no driving force. Hull windward and astern of the boat doing the
friction will slow you down. But, be aware of backwinding.
your booms going out too far to leeward. If they Neither the blanketed nor the backwinded areas
interfere with a leeward boat, then you have not carry the full force of the wind. The turbulence
kept clear of her and you are subject to protest. effects in both areas are considerably less with
Another way to lose speed is to make a series of our model boats as compared to full sized boats,
rapid rudder movements, alternating to port and but you should avoid sailing in either zone, if
to starboard. The further the rudder moves, the possible.
more drag it creates and the more speed you'll You want the wind to hit your sails before it hits
lose. You don't want to hold the rudder over to anything else. It may be wise to temporarily tack
one side too long though, because you'll turn the away from a boat throwing dirty air at you, so
boat. That's why you make a series of rapid that you get into clear air.
movements to both sides. It keeps the boat on
In summary, a good start is one that finds you in
the same line. You can think of it as linked "S"
the front row, free and clear of other boats, not
turns so quick that the boat still goes straight.
just at the bell, but a minute later, after the sprint
If you are following a boat that might be early to off the line. While it is not necessary to win the
the line, watch out for her slowing down. As a start in order to win the race, a good start is
boat clear astern, it is your responsibility to keep always helpful.
clear of her. Either use the same technique to
Getting a good start will give you the freedom to
slow your boat down or take a course where you
sail the first leg as you see fit. A poor start
can safely overlap her.
means other boats may be able to set you off in
the wrong direction or to make you sail in dirty
Lastly, either while starting or on the rest of the
racecourse, don't try to make moves your sailing
skills can't support. With practice, your skills
will improve. Until they do, try to stay out of the
other racers' way. It's just common courtesy.
When you do decide to try a new move (or even
if it's an old move), always leave yourself an
escape route just in case the move does not