Your pre-start routine doesn’t have to be set in concrete but should be fine-tuned according to the conditions, your freshness and any glaring weaknesses that you can work on in the time available.
The routine begins when you wake up. I’ve found that a three hour gap between waking up and starting a race is needed to make sure there’s time to get ready, feed and switch on. If the regatta involves annoying early starts (eg, 10am) it’s good to begin waking up early enough (and going to bed early enough) a week before it starts so there’s no ‘jet-lag’ on the morning of the first race day.
You can vary how early before the race you hit the water according to the conditions. In lighter winds I think it’s important to get out earlier and tune up for longer. Having 45-60min on the race course is great in light winds to allow a little more time to refine your trim by doing speed testing up and downwind.
If the breeze is strong and you’ve already seen a few windy days in a regatta then you should have a reasonable idea of winning strategy and how to optimise your boat speed. So, in these conditions I’d favour 10-20 minutes less time on the course before the start signal to stay a little fresher.
If some specific aspect of your performance let you down in prior race(s), then that should be worked on as best as possible immediately before the next. If it was speed, find a buddy to do some straight lining and make some tweaks to your set up and technique. If it was strategy that let you down, spend more time gathering wind data and begin the race by sailing the fleet rather than immediately tacking away for glory.
No matter the venue or conditions you’ll always want to check your speed is OK, check out the wind and check out the starting line. Ideally, before you leave the shore organise to hook up with another boat to test your speed and to study the wind. It’s nice to have a warm-up partner and a trusted second opinion to test your thinking about strategy.
Once on the race course, it won’t hurt to have a few minutes by yourself to get stuff sorted before joining another boat for some straight line speed testing. Once sailing side by side with your tuning buddy, you’ll soon know how much more speed work you need to do – and how long a day it might be!
If you’re faster or even speed, you can soon move on to checking the wind. If you’re slow, review your sail and rig settings, ask your buddy how they are set up, then make a change and test again. Continue the process until more satisfied you’ve optimised your set up for the day.
CHECKING THE WIND
Once you are getting happy with your speed, still continue speed testing but expand your awareness to tracking your heading on each tack with a compass or via land references. Sail through a few lifts and knocks on each tack to become aware of the range of wind shifts. Working on speed and shifts helps to get your head outside the boat well before the start signal.
If you’re at a new venue and you know little about it, then it can be worthwhile testing to see if one side of the course is better than the other. This is best done by doing a split tack with another boat of similar speed. Simply head off upwind on opposite tacks for 3-6 mins, tack and when you converge if one boat is ahead more than a few boat lengths then some factor has made that side better.
It’s good to discuss the result of your split tack with the other boat – was there anything odd that may have affected the result or could they have done better by tacking in a different spot? Determine the most likely reason for the result – tide, geography, shift or pressure – and how repeatable that affect might be. Note that the split tack result is just another piece of information that you can gather – conditions may change by the time you start, making the split tack data obsolete.
CHECKING THE START
Of course, a key thing to find out is which end of the start line is closer to the wind, and there are a few ways to find out. I’ll explain two techniques, sans compass.
Sail your boat along the start line, on a starboard reach, with the bow and stern pointing at either ends. Set the sail(s) with telltales flowing perfectly and cleat the sheet(s). Tack around and place the boat back on the line and pointing at either end, on a reach, and again check the telltales. If the sail is slightly luffing the boat end is favoured and if the sail is over trimmed the pin end is favoured.
Another really practical way to check the bias on the line is to team up with another boat – one starts on port at the pin end and simultaneously the other on starboard at the boat end. Sail until one boat crosses the other. At that point, the distance between you is a great measure of the bias on the line at that time.
If you believe that one end is well biased and it’s best to start there, then you should check its starboard layline – either to be able to lay the pin end or to not get held out at the boat end. Do this layline check at the speed you’d typically be approaching the start line – it might be creeping forward slowly or at ½ or ¾ speed. Laylines are different if you’re moving slower.
If you figure that you’d like to start away from an end, then you should get yourself a transit by sidling up to the start boat (put your bow on the line, not your eyes) and finding something on the land beyond the pin end to use as a reference. If there’s no land at that end, see if you can get a ‘back transit’ from the pin end through the race committee boat.
Take your time getting a transit – if there’s more than four minutes to go you can even hold onto the start boat for a while to get your reference object.
It’s best to save your start line determinations for the final 10 minutes before the start, or even less, because the race committee can move the line until four minutes to go.
Inside the final 10 minutes I’d recommend doing a few accelerations and sprints to practice the mechanics of starting and getting to full speed straight away from stopped. It’s nice to do this using the start line or another nearby mark.
Inside five minutes to go there’s time for a further check of the line bias and wind direction. Because the fleet often congregates around the boat end it can be good to sail down to the pin end for a clearer view of things. As you sail back towards the boat you can get a sense of how crowded each part of the line will be and thereby pick a nice spot for yourself.
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