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Old 05-29-2002
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Dean Brenner is on a distinguished road
Recovering from Bad Starts


We all suffer from bad starts occasionally. Number 3679 (above) appears to have won the boat end of the line for this start in the Thistle class, but the boat immediately to weather will have to settle for a second-row start.
How many times have you heard someone bemoan the consequences of a bad start on the racecourse? At after-race gatherings it's so common that it's almost a mantra when someone says, 'Well, with one minute to go we were all set up for the perfect start, and then, weíll, letís just say it didnít work out the way we planned it.'

That's the shocker start; and every sailor who races has suffered at least one of these. We've all have been on board when the boat somehow ends up in the fourth row on a starting line with only two rows. But have you noticed that some sailors routinely are able to grind back from a bad start and turn the race into a solid result? And have you noticed that others are never quite able to climb out of the hole, and their bad starts turn into terrible results? Because having a bad start is such a common phenomenon, it's important to accept that these things will occasionally happen and figure out in advance just how you'll get yourself out of a hole at the starting line.

There are a number of ways to have a bad start, and if you sail long enough, youíll probably be unlucky enough to encounter each of these, some more than once. Consider the basic kinds of bad starts:
  1. You are over early and have to turn around and go back;
  2. Your timing was off and you are very late and in bad air;
  3. Your timing was off and you are very early and have to luff and go slow to avoid being over early;
  4. You have missed a layline and are caught barging at the boat or too far below the pin;
  5. Youíve gotten a decent start but because youíre going slow other boats roll you and force you to tack and alter your strategy in the first moments of the race. (This is perhaps the most frustrating of all bad starts.)
  6. You've collided with another boat and must exonerate yourself even before you start so the other boats sail off with you in their wakes.


If you have the presence of mind to bail out early, you'll have a better chance of finding clear air and getting back in the game. These sailors are digging back in by heading out to the right on port tack.
The best advice I have ever heard about bad starts is Ďbail out early.í It is usually pretty obvious in the final seconds before the start that you are going to be over the line early or you're headed for a bad situation. Donít be stubborn and try to hang in there when a bad scenario is shaping up. For example, if you are starting at the pin end of the line and youíre obviously going to arrive too early, instead of luffing and trying to stall the boat so that you donít sail over the line early, it is often better to trim in, get going, jibe around the pin, and then look for a new hole. This rarely results in a perfect start, but it will be better than the start you would have gotten if you had been stopped, luffing on the line, with everyone going by you at the gun. The beauty of this tactic is that youíll have exonerated yourself if the I flag is flying and the one-minute rule is in effect.

Regardless of how or why you had a bad start, these situations will all have one thing in commonóthey prevent you from executing the pre-race strategy you worked out for the first beat, and force you to quickly adjust your approach to the race. Keeping this in mind then, the most important thing to do when you have a bad start is to simply stay calm. Donít yell at the crew, donít yell at yourself, and donít slam the tiller on the deck or otherwise throw a temper tantrum in the cockpit. All of that is distracting to your crew and keeps the focus off the issue at handógetting back into the race! Every experienced racing sailor can tell you a story of a bad start that turned into a good race result. So stay calm and adjust your mindset accordingly. In a good fleet you will probably not win the race after a bad start, but if you work hard, sail smart, and keep a good attitude, you can often turn the bad start into a decent result.

The classic mistake after the bad start is to split immediately with the entire fleet. Itís almost natural to say to yourself, ĎThe left is favored. We had a bad start. Letís bang the right corner!í This is not sound logic and can put you in an even worse position relative to the other boats. If you find yourself in the position of suffering a bad start, take a deep breath and quickly consider your options. To ensure that you make the most of a bad situation, keep the following points in mind:


Once you're locked into a bad start (like the Melges 24 sailors above who were forced back to the line after a premature start) keep your eyes on the boats ahead because their angles will tell you what the wind is about to do.
Keep your eyes up the course.
Itís important to identify the favored side of the course and keep an eye on what the top teams are doing. Try to use the boats ahead of you as an indicator of the wind shifts and take advantage of the information that their headings offer you.

Power up your sail plan. Since you are probably now sailing in dirty air and disturbed water, and will be for the near future, make sure your boat and sails are set up for power. Ease the outhaul and cunningham, and sheet both the mainsail and headsail with some twist.

Search for clear air. The most important consideration after getting a bad start is clear air, and this is where what I call lane management becomes critical. Because of your disadvantaged position, you wonít have the freedom to have clear air, so look for the best lanes you can find. The tendency early in the first leg after a bad start is to sail all the way to the layline. This will usually give you plenty of clear air for a while, because your competitors will avoid the laylines early in the leg. But later on in the leg, when everyone begins making their way to the laylines, your clear air will disappear and you will likely lose any distance you may have gained earlier in the leg. So avoid the laylines as long as possible. If you have bailed out and tacked onto port and are carving your way through all the starboard tackers, make sure someone on your boat is watching for other boats at all times.


Unless the left is favored, the best escape from a poor start is to tack and bail out to the right until you can find clear air. The boat with the all-Dacron sails on the far left in this photo was probably considering that when this shot was shapped.
Set realistic goals.
Identify the boats that are nearest to you and try to pick off a few of them on each leg. Donít swing for the fences and try to hit a home run right away. A good goal for the first beat after a bad start is to simply try to get back in touch with the fleet by the first mark, and get yourself in position to start passing boats as the race progresses.

A bad start doesnít mean the race is over for you and your crew. It just means you have given yourself a disadvantage early on. But by adopting a good, positive attitude and by adjusted your goals so that theyíre realistic relative to your new position, you can get back into the race and take some of the sting out of getting off the line in bad shape.

Making Your Escape

In his classic tome Winning in One-Designs, Dave Perry cites statistics proving that every sailor gets one and sometimes two bad starts in any series of races. So donít let a bad start get you down, because as Perry says, "youíre right in there with the best of them." Instead put yourself in a position to make gains by escaping the worst of whatís holding you back as soon as possible.

Usually this means either bearing away until youíre in clear air or tacking to port at your first opportunity. Tacking onto port is normally the best option because it will usually lead you to clear air more quickly, but this depends on the kind of traffic around you at the time. If you can get onto port tack right away without having to duck too many starboard tack boats, do so. After that look for the first opportunity to get back on starboard in clear air, but keep your eye on the compass and the boats to windward so that when you make your move back on itís a lift, not a header. By then youíll well into your escape and back in the race.






Suggested Reading:

Getting Good Starts by Zach Leonard

Avoiding Being Over Early by Dan Dickison

Port Tack Starts by Zach Leonard


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