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Old 11-14-2001
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Dean Brenner is on a distinguished road
Adapting from the Match Race Crowd


The close-quarter action in match racing can offer some useful pointers for fleet-racing sailors.
Since the Olympic Trials in June of 2000, I have focused the majority of my sailing efforts on match racing and team racing, rather than fleet racing. In addition to being a ton of fun, both these disciplines require more emphasis on boat-to-boat tactics, rather than big-picture strategy. And, because most match racing and team racing events supply identically rigged boats and usually the competitors are prohibited from adjusting any standing rigging, there’s less emphasis on the fine-tune details of boat speed and more on simply trimming the sails and sailing the boats better than your opponents. Essentially this kind of racing reduces the variables and in many ways simplifies the game. For me, it is a purer form of racing.

I recently returned from Fort Worth, TX, where Mason Woodworth, Randy Shore, and I won our third consecutive US SAILING Match Racing National Championship. During this event, I spent time writing down some thoughts on the basics of match racing, considering how they might apply to fleet-racing situations. The thinking is, if you can control one opponent, you should have a better handle on controlling others. In match racing, as in fleet racing, the starts are critical, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

Preparing Your Strategy    Let’s first discuss what is important to be thinking about prior to the first gun. Controlling the start in any racing discipline is critical, but especially so in match racing. In fleet racing, you can often recover from a bad start and have a good race. The courses are longer, and with many boats competing together, it is somewhat rare for another boat or boats to focus on keeping you back after a poor start. You often have the freedom to sail your own race, make good decisions and catch up. In match racing, your opponent’s focus is primarily on you. If you have a bad start you can expect to be tacked on and given little opportunity to make your own decisions and sail your own race. So have a good start!


Simplifying your goals for the start, says the author, is a good way of developing your pre-start strategy.

I like to simplify the goal during the pre-start. In match racing, there are really only four starts that we use: Tight left (where you are to the left of and close to your opponent), wide left (to the left of your opponent with some distance between you), tight right (to the right of and close to your opponent) and wide right (you get the idea). Of these four, very often you end up wanting just one of two: tight left and wide right. If I decide I want to be to the left of my opponent, I will usually choose tight left, on his lee bow. I would prefer not to be wide left, giving my opponent clear air to drive the boat and potentially hold me to leeward of him with the starboard-tack advantage all the way to the port-tack layline. And if I choose to be to the right, I would prefer wide right so I have clear air to choose my own destiny. If you are tight right in an even start, you will risk being pinched off by your opponent and forced to tack to the right. If you like the right this can be fine, but I would almost always prefer to be to the right and in charge of my own destiny, able to choose when I want to tack rather than when my opponent makes me tack.

As in fleet racing, the first thing I am thinking about is the racecourse, which side has more breeze, current, chop, etc. In other words, which side of the racecourse do you want to protect? That will tell you a great deal about which start you want to try to achieve, whether you want to be to the right or the left.

Of course there are other variables that play into this decision as well. For example, on a short course, with a square starting line and an even racecourse, I will give serious consideration to starting to the right of my opponent. By being to the right you will maintain the starboard-tack advantage when the boats meet in the first crossing situation. If both boats start on starboard and the boat to windward is going well enough to avoid being pinched off, it is possible to be able to sail all the way to the port-tack layline, and the boat to the left has little choice but to wait for the windward boat to tack for the mark and follow them in. So in absence of any other strong variable, I will favor being to the right to maintain the starboard-tack advantage.

"During the circling, each boat is trying to gain an advantage over its opponent to prevent them from going back toward the line to start."
Pre-Start Action   
In match racing, each competitor may enter the starting area at the four-minute gun, one from the starboard end, and one from the port end. The ensuing four minutes, known as the pre-start, can be broken down into four distinct pieces, each with its own goals and concerns: the initial cross, circling, leading/pushing back to the line, and the start. In other words, the boats enter at four minutes, and engage each other either by sailing directly at each other in the middle of the line, or sailing downwind and engaging well to leeward of the line. This is the initial cross.

Some circling, ordinarily outside the starboard tack layline to the committee boat, usually follows this. During the circling, each boat is trying to gain an advantage so that they can then prevent their opponent from going back toward the line to start. At some point in this process, assuming one of the boats does not have a controlling advantage, the boats will stop circling and head back to the line on starboard tack. The decision to break out of the circling and to lead or push is a significant one, which directly affects whether or not you will get the start you want. Let’s take a chronological look at each piece in more detail:

The Initial Cross    When the boats enter the starting area, one on starboard, one on port, the starboard boat has the obvious advantage. In a perfect world, the boat on starboard (and to the right of his opponent) will stay to the right throughout the pre-start and maintain the starboard-tack advantage. This is equally important in fleet racing. As long as the boat entering from port remains to the left, that skipper is at risk. So one of the goals of the boat entering on port is to simply get to the right of its opponent.

So you can see that knowing which end of the line is favored as you enter is critical information. If you are entering from the port (pin) end and your end is favored, your best road to get to the right will be to cross above your opponent. In other words, after four minutes you should immediately dip fully below the line, and then harden up on port and sail close-hauled. You are trying to get across your opponent’s bow and get to the right and since the pin end is favored you are further upwind and more likely to cross high. If you are on port when you enter, and the boat end is favored, you will have a harder time crossing high and should consider sailing downwind and crossing low.


In light air, it's preferable to lead back to the the start, which is probably how  the leeward-most boat in this photo got its superior position at the pin.

Circling    There are major opportunities to gain an advantage on your opponent while in the circling process. Good boat handling—smooth turning, acceleration, consistent trimming, and the appropriate weight movement—will be the keys to staying in charge of your own destiny. When we are racing against a good team, I tend to view this part of the starting sequence as the time to stay out of trouble, avoiding any potential fouls. In other words, don’t allow yourself to get into a position where you cannot choose when to head back to the line. Looking at things more aggressively, you are trying to put your bow close on your opponent’s transom, which should prevent them from being able to turn back toward the line.

Leading or Pushing    One of the final, key decisions you will make leading up to your final approach to the line will be whether to lead or push. During the circling process, you and your opponent will be chasing each other searching for an advantage. At some point in that process, you will need to decide when to break out of that circling and head back to the line on starboard tack. If you break out first, you are leading. If your opponent breaks out first and you follow, you are pushing. I usually will come to some conclusion about whether we want to lead or push, prior to even entering the starting area at four minutes. You may not always be able to do what you plan to do, but it is important to know ahead of time what you want. To make your decision, keep these general rules in mind:

  1. If you want to start to the left, try to be the boat that leads back to the line. Conversely, if you want to be to the right, let your opponent lead you back. It is far easier to choose the left from the lead position than it is from the push.
  2. If you plan to lead, you want to avoid leading back with too much time left to start. You will thus have more time to kill and will be at risk of getting too close to the line and running out of room. Conversely, if you want to push, you should be trying to force the game back toward the line as soon as possible.
  3. It is generally preferable to lead back in light air and push in heavy air. In light air, you have a greater chance of slowing the game down and it is harder for the boat pushing, which is in your bad air, to get and keep a leeward overlap. In heavy air, it is easy for the boats to be moving fast enough to run out of room at the pin end of the line, giving the advantage to the boat pushing.


The critical process of pre-start circling in match racing has its equivalent in fleet racing as boats jockey to find the best holes on the line.

Consider the following scenario: my opponent and I are circling outside the committee boat with two minutes to go until the start. My crew is reminding me three things: how much time to go, how many seconds of sailing we are from the starting line, and where we are in relation to the starting area, i.e. outside starboard layline to the boat, on layline, etc. Let’s assume that prior to entering the starting area our crew decided we wanted to start to the left of our opponents. That means we will try to be the first to break out of the circling. With about 90 seconds left we are approximately 60 seconds from the line. We break out but we still have some time to kill.

At that point we would be reaching back toward the line with our opponent chasing us. This is when knowing the precise location of your laylines is critical. The other boat is trying to gain an overlap so that we have to alter course to windward to keep clear. This would then give them some control over us. So we want to go slow enough to kill time, but stay fast enough to avoid any overlap. We are now inside the starboard layline to the committee boat, but not yet to the starboard layline to the pin. Thirty-five seconds to go to the gun with 25 seconds of sailing before we reach the pin. We’re still trying to avoid an overlap.

Now our opponent, who is pushing, also has a decision to make. At some point, getting overlapped to leeward will be a mistake for them. If the boats get very close to the starboard layline to the pin, and the pushing boat gets overlapped to leeward, they will be at risk of not laying the pin. So the pushing boat is trying to get the overlap to leeward, but at some point they’ll have to give up on that, swing their bow up, and get overlapped to windward of the leading boat.

"If you’re leading, slow the game down, and if you’re pushing, speed the game up."

In our scenario here, since we wanted the left, we are happy when our opponent gives up on the left and takes the right. It is critical here that someone on the crew watches the other boat and alerts the helmsman when the opponent swings their bow up. Something like "bow up" will then tell your helmsman to do the same and keep the gap close between the boats. As I mentioned, more often than not a decision to start to the left means tight left. So when your opponent goes inside of you to the right, go with them, and stay close. Then, when the boats bear away to accelerate for the start, you are more likely to be tight on their lee bow, preventing them from getting fully accelerated.

During this part of the start, the key points are knowing when to break out of the circling and head for the start you want, and watching the laylines. If you’re leading, slow the game down, and if you’re pushing, speed the game up.

The Start    In match racing, there are varying degrees of a strong start. The strongest start is characterized by being ahead of your opponent and on their wind. You are in absolute control. At a minimum, a strong start consists of you in the position you wanted, on the line, going fast. Everything you do in the previous four minutes leads up to and directly affects your ability to execute a strong start.

Keep these basics in mind and you’ll find that they can help you improve your starting techniques whether you’re fleet racing or match racing.



Suggested Reading:

Getting Good Starts, Part One by Zack Leonard

Getting Good Starts, Part Two by Zack Leonard

Hard Lessons Re-Learned by Dan Dickison


Buying Guide: Spinnaker Poles

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