The incentive for developing a good starting strategy can be huge. In almost any fleet, getting a good start gets you punched into the front of the pack in clear air, ready to execute your winning first-leg strategy. But as Figure 1 shows (below), starts can be chaotic. There can be lots of boats maneuvering in what seems like an unpredictable manner because prior to the starting signal, principles such as proper course don't apply. The challenge here is to distill order from that chaos by having a coherent game plan and executing it in your starting tactics.
The elements of devising this strategy are influenced by three principles: the first-leg strategy, the set of the line, and some general ideas described as "making it work." Once the starting line is set and you're allowed in the starting area (remember that in multi-class regattas there may be restrictions on access by classes without their preparatory signal raised) you should be gathering data for devising your strategy. One very simple influence on where to start on the line will be where you want to go on the first leg of the race. If you favor the right side of the course, then start on the right and be ready to tack. If the left looks better to you, then start at the left end and extend out on starboard tack. If you're undecided, then try to start in the middle and be ready to tack.
Another element is the set of the line. Here it's important to remember that regardless of where the mark is, the upwind end of the line is always the favored end. This can be determined by a variety of means, but a few include taking compass bearings of the line transit and comparing them with the true wind direction (if their difference is not 90 degrees, then there is a bias); luffing head to wind and siting down the line (the main traveler will intersect the upwind end); and observing earlier starts. In the case of the latter, if the fleet appears to struggle to lay the line on starboard, then the left end is favored. If you do the math, the incentive for determining this bias is pretty compelling: A boat starting at the favored end of a line biased by 10 degrees will be ahead of a boat starting at the unfavored end by 25 percent of the length of the line!
The last element of devising your starting strategy is giving some thought to what kind of approach to make in your final run at the line. There are several types, each with their own pros and cons: the reach out and back approach; the triangular approach (Figure 2); the port-tack approach; and the half-speed approach.
The reaching approach involves doing timed runs while reaching along the line and looking for an opportunity to head up into position. While this is simple, you're nearly always at the mercy of others for your final position on the line. The triangular approach is particularly good for light air since the final approach to the line is done with speed as you accelerate up from a reach to close-hauled. The port-tack approach is ideal for more moderate conditions in which tacking isn't too expensive in terms of boat speed, and it can free you to maneuver into a nice hole (if it's available). And the half-speed approach allows you to modulate you progress towards the line while maintaining your position relative to other boats by alternately trimming and luffing your jib. (Rarely should you luff the main, as you'll be prone to slide too far to leeward.) With experience, you'll find that the use of these approach types will vary with boat type and wind conditions. For example, in light air avoid too much luffing or tacking, especially in heavy boats, which struggle to accelerate.
So, devising a coherent strategy before the flags start going up can get you in position to have the ability and confidence to perform in one of the most important parts of the race—the start. And remember that once your strategy is formulated to communicate that with the crew so everyone can be in on the act.
Off-Season Sailing Seminars by Dobbs Davis
Getting Good Starts by Zack Leonard
Avoid Being Over Early by Dan Dickison
Buying Guide: Roller Furlers
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