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This article was originally published November, 2000 on Sailnet.
With less than 50 seconds to go before the start of the fourth race of the 1996 Tornado Worlds, I was starting to feel a little nervous. It wasn't the normal pre-race jitters. Myself and two American teammates—Johnny Lovell and Lars Guck—were all luffing on port tack, two boatlengths below the pin end of the line. Collectively, we were wondering why the whole fleet was bunched up at the boat end of the line on starboard almost 100 yards away. "Are we on crack?" I asked Lars, incredulously. Johnny started laughing and said that somebody must be wrong. At 10 seconds to go we all sheeted in and crossed the line on port at the gun. Thirty seconds later we were crossing the whole fleet by 150 feet! Still scratching our heads, we wondered how 90 boats would give us such a golden opportunity. Most of those guys were great sailors. What went wrong? What could they have been thinking?
For sailboat racers, the port-tack start is the Holy Grail of the game. It’s definitely not for the weak of heart, nor for boats that don’t maneuver very quickly, but a properly executed port-tack start can offer huge benefits, not the least of which is the tremendous ego boost it delivers. And when this gambit works, it usually guarantees that you are sailing a lift with the free reign to head anywhere on the course you’d like without being controlled by other sailors. The downside? Well, anytime you can't cross the hoards on starboard you risk catastrophic fouls or being forced to tack into a controlled position where your options will be limited.
In an effort to map out the circumstances that call for a port-tack start, I've spent quite a lot of time recently trying to start on port during practices against members of the Yale Sailing Team, whom I coach. The first thing I learned is that it rarely works on very short, or tightly packed starting lines. To make a port-tack start work, you don't necessarily have to start right at the pin and cross the whole fleet. If the wind has shifted left, say 30 degrees or more, and it is difficult to fetch the pin on starboard, then reaching along the line on port and looking for a gap to duck into can work fine if the fleet is spread out. In situations like this, it’s more likely that a port-tack start will work in the middle of the line than at the pin, because the pin will be so favored that there will be a bunch of boats there and it will be hard to find a hole.
By starting on port in the middle of the line you gain because you are immediately on the lift. Any distance you have given up by not starting right at the favored end is immediately recouped when most of the boats at the pin slow each other, with the majority restrained from tacking to port right away. The sailor who starts on port in the middle of the line and crosses through a gap, will be moving at full speed with no need to tack. If the left shift that made the pin end favored moves back right, then a port-tack starter is gaining leverage toward the new shift and will usually be a nose ahead of the boats that won the pin, which is nice. In addition, the port-tack starter is more centered on the course and usually won’t be wedged between boats that limit his or her options as the shifts come down the course.While a port-tack start in the middle of the line is nice, nothing compares to a perfectly timed port-tack start at the pin end. Your spirit is sure to soar as you cross the first starboard tack boat by three or four feet and then look under the boom to see that you’re crossing the rest of the fleet by an easy margin on port. You know you’ve eliminated the need to tack right away, and you remain free to tack whenever you choose. Unfortunately, for every glory start there are a hundred tales of woe, and all too often those who try and fail are left with their head in their hands, resembling the protagonist in a Greek tragedy whose pride led to a fall.
The biggest mistake sailors make when attempting a port-tack start is not knowing when to bail out if it becomes evident that the starboard tackers are going to close up the lane. Remember, if there’s a pack of boats on starboard tack that seems intent on starting near the pin, chances are a port-tack start won’t be possible and you’d better move on to Plan B.
The second biggest mistake I often see is sailors who position their boats too close to the line. The advantage a port-tack starter has is that usually he or she is not being held up by having to jockey for position within a pack of boats. And usually, a port-tack starter won’t have to pinch to make the line. Ideally, you want to come reaching in at full speed toward the pin on port. This means that you need to be three to four boat lengths from the line with 15 or 20 seconds to go. Being in this position will let you get the boat wound up for the big moment. If I am trying to win the pin end of the line on starboard and I see someone trying to port tack the fleet, I make it a matter of pride to ‘take one for the team’ and close out the port-tack start. That means that I will reach down to the pin to make the port tacker duck me, even if that means creating a nice hole between me and the pack above. This also makes it hard for me to clear the boats on my hip and tack later on because I'll no longer be in a position to pinch off the boats who started to weather of me. But, if you let the port-tacker cross you, you’re just resigning yourself to finishing behind that boat because you probably won’t see them again.
So, if you are the port tacker, you need to watch out for the leeward-most boat in the fleet and keep that crew from realizing what you are trying to do until it is too late for them to react. There are several good techniques for this. Sometimes I’ll set up on starboard as the leeward-most boat in the fleet and pretend that I’m starting on starboard. Then at about 40 seconds, I look around frantically like I think I might not make the pin, and I sheet in and sail upwind for 15 seconds, then bear off into a jibe and start reaching toward the line on port. Another trick is to stay on starboard to the leeward of the pin with your sails luffing. Your fellow sailors will think you have broken down and will probably disregard you, and there’s your opening.
So, if you insist on playing Russian roulette and living for the port-tack start adrenaline rush that may only come once a year, give these techniques a try. But remember, discretion is the better part of valor and the port-tack start is to be used sparingly. If you find yourself thinking about getting a port-tack start all the time and you can’t get it out of your system, maybe a week or two in rehab is what you need. Good luck.
Getting Good Starts – Part I by Zack Leonard
Getting Good Starts – Part II by Zack Leonard
Adapting from the Match Race Crowd by Dean Brenner
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