Getting Good Starts, Part Two - SailNet Community

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Old 01-15-2004
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Zack Leonard is on a distinguished road
Getting Good Starts, Part Two


Sail No. 7862 gets the best start here, and you can be sure it wasn't just by chance.

Successful starting is one part good decision-making and one part skillful execution. In Part One of my discussion on starting, I addressed the basic decisions one must confront to start well consistently. In this article I'll explain the boat-handling skills needed to execute a great start and describe some drills that will help you work on those skills.

The Ends    When we talk about the favored end, we are referring to the upwind end of the starting line. Ordinarily, the location of the windward mark does not affect which end of the line is favored. If the windward mark is not set correctly it may sit far to one side of the racecourse, perhaps making it closer to one end of the line than the other, but this does not make the closer end favored. The favored end is always the end that's farther upwind.

"Talking with local experts can help you uncover a geographic influence on the wind or other important details..."
That said, don't discount the mark being out of place, because that may be an important factor in the race. For example, one tack may be much longer than the other, which may influence your tactical choices. The advantaged end, by contrast, is the end that will get you to the windward mark first. The boat end may be favored by five degrees, but if there's less current on the left side of the course, you'll get that advantage more quickly by starting at the pin. It's easy to find the favored end. It can be more difficult to find the advantaged end.

To know the advantaged end of the line you must know your race area. Researching the depth of your course area may determine a current advantage on one side or another. Talking to local experts may help uncover a geographic influence on the wind; and, watching which side the leader comes from on the first beat can give you an idea of which side of the course might pay on the next lap around the course. So always weigh the advantage of the favored side with the bias of the favored end and you can decide on the advantaged end.


Someone's over early here. Having a line sight as a reference can help you avoid jumping the gun.
Line Sights    On long starting lines, it can be very difficult to tell when your boat actually is on the line. An optical illusion referred to as "line sag" makes boats in the middle of a long line look like they are on the line when they are actually well below it. One great way to be sure you are on the line is to use a line sight or transit. The concept is simple. Well before the start, at least five minutes before the countdown starts, luff your boat up on the windward side of the committee boat and line up the staff (or sighting flag) on the committee boat with the pin buoy. Note any landmarks on shore that line up behind the pin. Then later, when you approach the line to start, look at the pin buoy. If the church spire, smokestack, or whatever you lined up behind the pin before the start isn't in line, then you aren't on the starting line. If you've got time before the race starts, and a cooperative friend on the committee boat, you can also practice taking line sights and finding the line just by sailing through the line and raising your arm when you think you're on the line. Your friend on the committee boat can then tell you whether you were on the line, behind it, or over it.

Timing    To start well you must know how much time it takes for your boat to sail a given distance and how long it takes to get up to full speed. To get the handle on this, try running practice starts with these drills:

  • Hitting the Line    Try to determine how much distance your boat will sail in 30 seconds by starting well below the line and bringing the boat up to close-hauled at 30 seconds before the gun. Now, don't cheat or you won't get anything out of the exercise. Keep sailing upwind at full speed whether you are early or late and note when you get to the line—early or late. Then do it again, but adjust your starting point behind the line until you can hit the line with perfect timing in all wind conditions.
  • Hitting the Gas    Position your boat two boatlengths behind the line at 30 seconds before the start. Practice holding your position without drifting forward, and then accelerate in time to hit the line when the gun goes off.

Getting off the line fast and clean is what starting is all about—even on port tack.

Space and Speed
Creating space to leeward before the start is crucial to good starting. If two boats are approaching a starting line side by side and slightly early, the boat that can point closer to the wind will create more space to leeward. This space is extremely valuable when it comes time to accelerate to the line. With space to leeward you can reach down below close-hauled to get up to full speed quickly. A great way to practice creating space is to sail your boat upwind with the sails trimmed normally and then practice steering well above a normal, close-hauled course. Practice sailing your boat as high as you can without stopping altogether. You'll learn pretty quickly when the boat will stall-out and lock up in irons. Then work on bearing off just before this point so that you can build some speed and bring the boat back up to a high course again. The front part of the jib should be luffing during this drill, but remember that on most boats, sheeting the jib pulls the bow down and sheeting the main drives the bow up. After that, practice weaving between close-hauled and this high-pointing mode so that you can time your approach to a starting line. When you're ready, start a sequence and approach the line early. Now you can use this technique to kill speed or build speed when you need it, allowing you to time your start perfectly.

Another tactic that can pay big dividends comes from the ability to hold your position without drifting forward toward the line or to leeward. (You probably saw a lot of this action if you watched any of ESPN2's broadcasts of the recent America's Cup Match.) To work on this skill, position your boat near a buoy that can serve as a practice pin. Put your boat one boatlength from the pin and practice staying in the same spot as long as possible. On most size boats you can use the jib to keep the boat from going into irons, backing it when necessary to keep the bow down. On smaller boats you can also use the rudder to stall the boat, pushing the tiller all the way to leeward when the boat has stopped, then pulling it all the way to windward and back again. This is not sculling, it is stalling. This technique is usually only useful in dinghies and small, light keelboats. In larger boats, sail trim and jib backing will have to do the trick. Remember, holding your position while drifting into irons doesn't help you much. The goal is to hold your spot while retaining the ability to accelerate toward the line. Always be ready to put your bow down and move forward.

" The goal is to hold your spot while retaining the ability to accelerate toward the line."
Accelerate and Tack    Being able to accelerate is a fundamental aspect of good starting. Even the best sailors spend time working on sail trim, steering, and crew positioning as ways to achieve fast acceleration from a luffing position. For practice, I like to begin with the boat head to wind, and then back the jib to bring the bow down to slightly below close hauled. Then I'll sheet the jib and ease the main until the telltales show that both sails are properly trimmed for a tight-reach. As the water begins to flow over the keel and rudder, the boat will accelerate and cease slipping sideways. This is when I begin to bring the boat up to a close-hauled course, gradually trimming the main and jib.

In this situation, the mainsail can be slightly over-trimmed to help the boat head up, but it is very important not to over-trim the jib. The jib should remain slightly under-trimmed to help the boat head up and continue accelerating. To practice, try accelerating from a dead stop. Once up to speed, stop the boat by pushing out the boom all the way to leeward as you head up. (I don't recommend this for large keelboats.) You can back the mainsail until your boat comes to a stop, and then bear away again to accelerate, tack, and repeat the process. Remember that all boats get up to top speed more quickly when they are sailing slightly below a close-hauled course.

Keep working on these skills and you'll see an improvement in your starts almost right away. With great execution and great decisions, starting well consistently will become second nature for you and your crew.

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