Tony Bull says improvement starts at the start.
Sailing is a unique pastime. It is one of very few sports where your ability can actually improve with the passage of time. It is a very feasible goal to be a better sailor at 60 than you were at 40. All you need to improve year-by-year is to be structured and motivated to do so.
To win a yacht race you have to give yourself the greatest opportunity to do so. You can’t just turn up, randomly cross the start line, sail around the course and win on a regular basis. Following a set thought process is a pre-requisite for improvement. Break down your race to segments and work on them one by one.
Do you have a routine you adhere to? The minimum requirement is to get to the boat with enough time to set it up for the day, and get in a test sail.
What is the likely weather? What are the chances of it altering? Based on this, what sails are we likely to use and do we need to change the rig? I am always amazed at the number of crews that sail week-after-week with the same rig setting.
The tactician and helm need to know the sailing instructions (starting sequence, recall procedure, etc) and have a copy at hand to verify any further info that may be needed.
Get out on the course and sail. This is so important! Do a few tacks and gybes to make sure the sheets and lines are run correctly. Get the crew positions sorted and in place so everyone is ready for the manoeuvres.
The tactician should look around the course to see if one side is favoured or if there are trends in the wind that have to be considered. The trimmers should work with the helm to maximise the boatspeed and refine the sail shapes for that day. Work on sailing a bit faster or a bit higher as there will be times during the race where this mode-changing will come in handy, particularly off the start or at a mark rounding.
Starting to win
Are you sailing in a mixed or in a one-design fleet? If it’s a one-design you will absolutely need to do your pre-race setup. The smallest loss in boat speed or height will be highlighted straight off the start line as the boats above you roll over the top of you or the boats below your bow squeeze you out.
It is particularly important in any OD fleet to be able to sail in a height mode even at the expense of a little speed. If you can’t hold your lane off the line you will be forced to tack away before you are ready. Your first beat strategy has gone out the window and you are forced to react to other boats rather than being proactive on the wind shifts.
A mixed fleet will have a myriad of different shapes and styles of craft. What are the relevant strengths and weaknesses of your particular vessel? Does it have good acceleration or does it tend to take a while to build up to speed?
The heavy brigade
If you have a classic displacement style keelboat and are facing a light or medium air start, your game plan should be to look at a timed run to the start. This start (sometimes referred to as a Vanderbilt ) minimises the chance of the boat slowing down as a speed loss will take a long time to build up again.
Even this simple start has its own unique skills. A timed run can be hard to judge. A minute sailing away and a minute back can sound easy but it’s hard to implement. Rarely will one reciprocal course be the same as the other. The wind angle will change and the congestion will make bad wind a lot worse as you approach the starting line, so you will return slower. Be aware of this. It can be easy to be left wallowing at the back of the fleet as your approach is slowed by other boats.
It can also take a bit of skill to judge where the gaps will appear. You don’t want to arrive on the line where all the fleet are rafted up rail-to-rail waiting for the gun. A Vanderbilt start is usually best approached mid-line as that is the most likely areas for gaps to be. The extremities of the starting line tend to become quite congested, particularly on a short line with a big fleet.
With this start it’s all about speed. You need to judge the time-on-distance well and hit the line with good speed. Do it well and you will blast through to the front with sheer momentum. Even arriving a few seconds late will get you even with the lighter, faster-accelerating boats around you. But the key is preparation. If you are going to persevere with this start, practise it. Do a few timed runs to get a feel for it. A bad start can make the rest of the day pretty hard to catch up.
Starting on a lightweight flyer is a whole different kettle of fish. Being smaller, you need to prioritise the clear air aspect of the start. You will need to get near the line early to stake your claim in the front row.
Keep a few boat lengths from the line so you have a bit of room to accelerate into it. Work really hard to keep a gap under your bow so you can sail a little lower to aid your acceleration squirt in the final few seconds. As you shuffle for position, work really hard on this, pushing the windward boats up and keeping away from the boats to leeward.
Having a nice gap to leeward of the line is absolute gold. Just beware of those pesky Vanderbilters wheeling in from astern in the last few seconds and charging into the gap you worked so hard to create. You may need to put your bow down a little early and close the gap until you see them off.
When you are small or slow
If you have one of the slower boats then the start can be difficult. The priority must be to find clean air as quickly as possible.
Try to keep as much space around you as you can, to delay the inevitable as the faster boats begin to roll over the top of you. Look around for clear lanes. It may even take a few tacks to work your way out into the clear, but work towards it in a methodical manner. The wind shadows of the larger boats will have a huge effect and really slow you down.
Some boats require a different technique. I sailed with a mate on a beautiful long-keeled classic yacht which was a joy to sail but struggled for height against the more modern close-winded “tupperware” boats in the fleet. If anybody worked into a position under his bow he would be forced up until the boat slowed and lost all speed.
He became very adept at starting in a position where this couldn’t happen. He had a regular spot right on the pin where no one could harm him as he was the most leeward boat in the fleet. The alternative was to come in at the boat end and tack around the starting vessel as soon as he crossed the line. He developed a starting technique which minimised his boat’s weaknesses.
One misconception of starting a yacht race is that the helmsman is the only one involved. Like all aspects of sailing, it is a team effort. A good countdown is crucial - I like to hear the call every 10 seconds, with the last few seconds counted down. An intermittent call is not good enough.
Having concise feedback from the crew can be helpful, and the tactician should be letting the steerer know relevant issues - where other boats are, how long it will take to get to the line, where the layline is if you are starting at the extremities. Tacking ahead of a group of boats at the pin and not being able to lay the line is not going to end well. Conversely trying to barge in on the windward end is not ideal.
The bowman should be communicating how many boat lengths to the line by holding up fingers. The tactician and the helm will be very involved in the start and someone looking up the course seeing what’s developing can be a race winner.
A lot can change in the five minute starting sequence. The trimmers should be ready to respond to all calls either to trim on or off. The traveller and car positions need to be pre-set to enable the boat to get up to speed quickly. Immediately after the start, check for recall flags or listen in on the radio.
Test yourself and your crew, and don’t take the easy route. The more you work at it the better you will become.
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