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Old 12-18-2003
Zack Leonard Zack Leonard is offline
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Getting Good Starts, Part One

The idea is simple: hit the starting line at full speed and with clear air.  A good start opens up strategic options to keep you competitors under control.
It's no secret that the key to a successful regatta is consistent starting. When the points have been tallied, the trophies awarded, and the dull ache of hindsight kicks in, most of us will remember one or two bad starts that led to races we'd rather forget. The optimist in us will also remember the great starts that led to good, solid finishes. Call me a curmudgeon, but given equal boat speed, tactics, and luck, I'd take six solid starts over three great starts and three horrible ones any day of the week. The solid starts at least give you a chance to sail winning races without a whole lot of risk.

Good starting begins with the KISS principle—keep it simple, stupid. The key to consistent starting is to prioritize properly the essential goals of the start. We've all fought for the pin when it's favored by 10 degrees, but the risk-reward equation of that behavior rarely pays off. To start well consistently, sailors need to learn to avoid the clustered territory and hunt for good clean lanes.

I have three goals at every start:

  1. I want to be moving at full speed, on the line, with clear air for the immediately foreseeable future.

  2. I want to be sailing toward the favored side of the course with a wide lane of clear air.

  3. I want to start as close to the favored end of the line as safety and logic allow.

Most sailors are surprised by how far down on the priority list the favored end is. The favored end, of course, is that end of the starting line that is farther upwind. In a race with no windshifts and no current disparities anywhere on the course, a boat starting at the favored end will sail less distance to the windward mark than a boat starting at the unfavored end. Of course it's unlikely that any of us will ever see a racecourse like that.

There are two ways to determine which end of the line is favored: The simple way is to luff your boat head-to-wind in the center of the line and determine toward which end of the line your bow points more closely. Or, imagine a line extending perpendicular from the starting line. If, when pointed head-to-wind, your bow is pointing to the left of this line, then the pin end is favored. If your bow is pointing to the right of this imaginary line, then the boat end is favored. This method works well on shorter lines and when one end is obviously favored. If the line is close to square, or it's a particularly long line, you'll find it tricky to use this method.

Finding the Favored End: The Simple Way—Sam puts his boat head-to-wind in the middle of the starting line to see which end his bow favors. Because his bow points more toward the committee boat, that end is favored. If it were to point more toward the pin or starting buoy, that end would be favored.

The more involved way is to use a compass. If your boat is equipped with a compass, you can eliminate the imprecision associated with the simple approach. First, sail along the starting line on starboard tack with your boat traveling perfectly parallel to the line. Note your compass course. Turn your boat head-to-wind and note that compass course. If the new course is less than 90 degrees greater than the compass course you were steering down the line, then the pin is favored. If the number is more than 90 degrees greater than the course down the line, the boat end is favored.

Finding the Favored End: The Precise WaySam sails along the starting line and notes his compass course: 290 degrees (Sam 1). He then turns his boat head-to-wind and notes the new compass heading: 0 degrees (Sam 2). Since the new heading is less than 90 degrees greater than his course down the line, he knows that the pin end is favored. If the new heading had been 10 degrees, it would have been more than 90 degrees greater than his course down the line, and in that case the boat end would be favored.

All that notwithstanding, keep in mind that the favored end can often be a trap well worth avoiding. While jockeying for a spot at the favored end, large clumps of boats tend to slow each other down, pinching, locking rails, and rafting up while pirate-like fights envelope the crews and would-be boarding parties exchange volleys of curses. Packs of boats at the favored end also register frequent OCS (On the Course Side, a premature start). The truth is that only a small handful of boats can emerge sailing at full speed from a large group. The bigger the pack, the worse your odds of escaping with a good start.

When in doubt, set up for the clearest air and the least amount of  start-line mayhem.  Be aware of conditions that can erase the advantage of starting at the more upwind end.
And, if the racecourse is biased to one side due to current or geographic wind effects, the actual favored side of the course may be closer to the unfavored end of the starting line. Such conditions can erase or even negate the advantage of starting at the more upwind end. Also, if the pin is favored, but the wind is oscillating, starting at the favored end can make it very difficult to get onto port tack, so you end up headed on starboard and eventually out of phase. You get the point: The favored end is not always the place to be.

Let me offer this one cop-out disclaimer: Smart sailors know how and when to reorder their priority list because every race presents a different set of conditions. There are times when the favored end is closest to the favored side of the course and it is better to just bite the bullet, start in the pack, and take your chances.

Full Speed Ahead  If you ever get the chance to watch a whole regatta you will notice a simple, elegant fact. The fastest boats usually win. But even the fastest boats go slow when they are stuck within packs of boats. Regatta winners often gain their advantage early in each race by avoiding problems at the start that can keep them from sailing at full speed. Follow these simple rules to be sure your boat is moving at full speed at the start and throughout the first half of that initial upwind leg:

  1. It's important for novice sailors to find a clear, comfortable spot on the starting line. Before the start, groups of boats typically sail back and forth just below the line. If you aren't careful, you can get trapped between boats, and this will dictate that you approach the line caught up in this group—not a good place to be. When you sense that you are becoming surrounded, try to tack or jibe to get to a spot with clear air.

  2. Once you have found a less-populated spot, make sure you've got enough space so that you can accelerate to full speed by the time you hit the line. (In Part Two, I'll discuss using a line site as a way of knowing where you are relative to the starting line.) Be careful not to set up too close to the line, but remember that it takes time to bring your boat to full speed. On most boats, if you set up three or four boatlengths from the line with 40 seconds to go, you should have adequate distance to accelerate to full speed before the gun goes off.

  3. In the final 30 seconds before the start, try to create as much space as possible between you and the next boat to leeward. Then ramp-up your boat speed and hit your line sight at full speed when the countdown hits zero. The real estate you create to leeward in the final 30 seconds is space that will allow you to sail fast after the start. With room to leeward, you can foot off to build speed if you're hit by a bad wave or get slowed by a lull.

"Remember that a good start only works when it's done in conjunction with your upwind strategy."

Go your own way  Once you have started the race and you are sailing at full speed, it is time to point the boat in the right direction. Remember that a good start only works when it's done in conjunction with your upwind strategy. Before the start you should determine a game plan—an idea about which side of the racecourse is favored, where you want to go, and why. If you want to go left, continue on starboard tack after you start. If you like the right side, start to look for opportunities to tack to port and get out to the right. The great advantage of finding a less crowded spot on the line is the freedom it gives you to follow your game plan. When you are stuck in a tight group after the start, it becomes tough to tack, and you can often be pinched off and forced to tack out to clear your air. If you've ever found yourself in this situation, you'll understand why racers refer to it as being "pinballed," so avoid this, if at all possible.

Keep these simple ideas and rules in mind, then work hard to develop the skills needed to execute them, and you'll be well on your way to producing consistently competitive starts. In my next installment, I'll discuss some refinements on basic starting strategies and suggest some practice drills that will help build good starting skills.