Few things take the wind out of your sails more than being called over early at the start of a race. During a recent Wednesday night beer-can race, our crew was amped up and ready to roll when our collective energy got the best of us and we allowed ourselves to be forced over early at the start by another boat. The realization that you have to turn back, restart, and then look at all those transoms can really crush your crew's spirit, but what are you going to do? You just have to deal with it. And so we did.
In order to avoid making that mistake in the future, I put in a call to Tony Rey the next day to get advice on the topic. Tony—T-Rey as he’s known—is a former collegiate All-American sailor who spends a lot of time on the Farr 40 circuit, usually in a tactical role. (He’s also assisting Team Tyco prepare for the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race, and will be with Team Dennis Conner for the 2003 America’s Cup). T-Rey's ample racing experience makes him eminently qualified to steer anyone straight on how to avoid and cope with the problems of being called over early.
SailNet: What can you do before the starting sequence even begins to assure yourself that you won't run the risk of being called over early?
Tony Rey: If the race committee is broadcasting on a VHF channel, try to have a handheld VHF radio on deck, with one crewmember identified as the dedicated listener. And be certain you have the radio tuned to the correct channel.
Of course you want to do some research beforehand with the sailing instructions. Will the round-the-ends rule (30.1) be in effect for all starts, or just on the first general recall? Will there be a pin boat with the authority to call boats over early, in addition to the committee boat? And will this boat be calling boats over early via the VHF? (Keep in mind that at most events, this is usually a courtesy hail, and not subject to redress if confusion ensues.)
If you are racing a larger boat with a bow person, work out some system of simple hand signals he or she can use to communicate the distance to the line in the final moments before you start. Of course on any boat you should try to get a transit on either end of the line, using something on the shoreline if it is visible, so that you have a concrete reference regarding where the line is. When I race, I do this before every start; it's particularly valuable when starting in the middle of the line where it is harder to tell how close you are. Remember, if the one-minute rule is in effect, under the new starting system, you have only four minutes after the warning gun to get below the line and its extensions.
SN: What are some tactics to know in order to avoid being pushed over early by a boat to leeward?
|"During the final minute, you should be working hard to preserve your runway."|
TR: Getting a good start is all about creating a long, wide runway for your boat, and using it in the final moments to rocket off the starting line right at the gun. During the final minute before the start, you should be working hard to preserve your runway. The more space you have to leeward, the more you’ll be able to reach off for speed just before the gun. And, if the goal is to continue on starboard up the first part of the leg, the space to leeward becomes even more critical.
To preserve your runway, you need to remember your rights in the pre-start. The leeward boat has a powerful advantage at this time because it can luff head-to-wind, provided it gives the windward boat room to keep clear while altering course (rule 16.1). As long as you keep the distance the same between you and the leeward boat throughout the luff, you should be OK.
Now, if the leeward boat sailed in from behind (and within two boat lengths of your boat), it must bear away to a close-hauled course after the start gun. However, if you have sailed into the windward position from behind, the leeward boat is not required to bear away to a close-hauled course when the gun sounds. Unless you're match racing, this shouldn't be a lasting problem as the leeward boat is also trying to get a good start, and common sense indicates that its crew will bear away well before the gun. Keep in mind that if a leeward boat luffs you unfairly, and you are forced over early, your only recourse is to restart properly, and then protest the other boat.
SN: If the unexpected happens and your boat is called over early, what are the priorities at that point?
TR: Turn the thing around immediately! It is important to understand your rights here as well. Even if you know you are over early, the normal right of way rules still apply to you, until you are sailing back towards the line (rule 20). This means you can luff and slow down if necessary, and the usual windward/leeward rules are in effect. However, once you are pointing back towards the line, you lose all rights, and you don’t get them back until you have returned to the pre-start side of the line. You must keep well clear of boats that have started, including those that are still trying to start.
If, in the final moments before the start, it becomes obvious that you are poked out and will be called over early, you do not have to wait until the gun to fix the situation. Consider sheeting on and accelerating down around the group to leeward, and either finding another runway to use, or jibe completely around and start on port.
|"We bore off and reached over a few boats to leeward, jibed around the pin, and started on port with all kinds of speed....It was scary."|
I remember a J/24 race a few years back in an 80-boat fleet where we did just that. With 20 seconds to go, it became clear that we would likely be over early. Our helmsman bore off and reached over a few boats luffing to leeward, jibed around the pin, and started on port with all kinds of speed. It was scary at the time, but we were able to find a hole through the group, and because we were the first boat on port tack heading to the right, we were first to the windward mark! Remember, Mark Reynolds won a gold medal in the Star Class at the 2000 Olympics using that same maneuver it the start of the final race.
What’s the fastest way to get back to the line once you discover that you’re over early, and what’s the best way to restart and begin digging back into the race?
TR: Figure out what the quickest way back to the line is using simple geometry. If the pin is favored (usually because it is further upwind), then returning on starboard tack will usually be the fastest way to bisect the line from the windward side, since you will be reaching back, instead of running. Conversely, port tack would be the shortest bisection if the starboard end were favored. Again, remember that you have no rights once you point your boat back to the line, so just do your best to thread the needle through the pack.
There is one interesting phenomenon that occurs on a crowded starting line that may be used to your advantage. Let’s assume the pin end is slightly favored, and you are fighting it out in the pack at that end of the line in the final seconds before the gun. You pull the trigger a bit early, use up all your runway, the gun fires, and your number is called. Once you return to the line to restart, you can rejoin the race on either port or starboard tack. At this point, all the starboard tack lanes are usually taken, and the air is chopped up down by the pin. If you head up on port tack and cross behind the sterns of the starboard tack fleet, your boat should experience an artificial lift off the backs of the other boats' sails that will allow you to sail a high angle across their sterns as you clear out on port tack.
If you're in a big fleet, you're probably standing up, hollering like a cowboy and frantically ducking or crossing great masses of boats. I have often been surprised at how slowly some competitors go at this point, particularly after a mediocre, second-row start. They are often sailing high and slow, in bad air, but they are usually pinned from tacking by the next starboard tacker that you are probably ducking behind. If you can settle your heart rate down and focus on sail trim as you cross closely behind the group, often you can eliminate the distance you spotted the fleet at the start with this relative port-tack lift.
As you cross behind the group, your race strategy needs to be revisited. If there is a clear priority to get left up the first leg, then tack back to starboard in the first decent lane you can find, and hope for the best. If not, there may be a gain to be had by continuing on port and getting your bow out toward the right side. If the pin was favored due to a left-hand shift in an oscillating breeze, when the righty comes, you’ll be grinning again.
From a philosophical standpoint, what's the best way to deal with being called over early and not let it get you or your team too discouraged?
TR: How many times have you been amazed at the comeback of the guy who was over early and still managed a podium finish? At the start, it's important to keep in mind that there is opportunity ahead on the racetrack, and the key is knowing when to be patient, and when to pounce. If you’re called over early, don’t despair, just remember that the fleet is now there for your benefit, to use as wind indicators. You can look upwind and see clearly who has more pressure, and where the next shift is going come from.
For example, if you were over early and restarted, and you see that the right side is clearly favored, then suck it up and find the clearest lane you can to that side of the course. It might feel bad initially, but often you’ll make big gains on the boats that went left, and you can work yourself back into the race from there.
Once you clear out, restart, and settle into the race, set some immediate goals. In a small fleet, pick one boat at a time and try to pass them. In a large fleet, target a group of boats. By focusing on the guy with the red sail numbers, for example, it gives the team a goal, and refocuses everyone’s energy away from something negative associated with the early mistake and toward something positive.
If you have really buried yourself, be patient and focus on just making a reasonable gain. If I’m deep early in the race, my goal is to minimize the damage and sail smart so that I can round the top mark or leeward mark just behind the lead pack. Remember, you have to chip away at the boats in front first, and then deploy your passing moves once you get closer.
SN: What about redress? If you feel the committee is in error about the call, what can you do?
TR: Sometimes a race committee calls the wrong boat over if the sail numbers are hard to read, or are similar to another boat’s number. Or, you might have been over early at one point but dipped below the line at the gun (provided the one-minute rule is not in effect). If you believe the race committee made an error, you can file for redress after the race (rule 62.1a). Although you are not required to fly a protest flag, you do have to file your request for redress within the time limit.
If you choose this option, you need to do your homework. Find a witness who can testify knowledgeably about your location at the start. Although your jib trimmer got a great view of the whole thing, a neighboring competitor who was not called over early might be a more credible witness.
If you have access to a video of the start, that can be a powerful tool, but review it before your hearing, to be sure it will truly be helpful to your case. Just as in any protest, keep your testimony short and to the point, and be certain that you and your witness saw the situation in the same way. If you can create enough doubt in the jury’s mind that an error might have been made, you could be reinstated in the race.
Getting Good Starts, Part I by Zack Leonard
Getting Good Starts, Part II by Zack Leonard
What You Need to Know About Sailing Instructions by Dan Dickison
Buying Guide: VHF Radios