Time to change our thinking on startline procedures

Yesterday was a bad day for the sport of sailing at the ISAF World Championships in Santander. A huge crowd of locals watched boats bobbing around for four hours, to get a single one-hour race finished in the Laser Gold Fleet.

There were faults on both sides. I've given race management a serve in my race report (see Related Content) but the motivation for this “spray” is the behaviour of the sailors. Surely, when you have been sitting around in the stinking hot sun for three or four hours, you don't want the agony extended because of a general recall.

By my count there were at least four general recalls in the various divisions, and in the Laser there were two consecutive ones. This resulted in leading contenders Robert Scheidt and Tonci Stipanovic being black-flagged. But if it was a general recall, by definition there were too many sailors over the line for the race committee to identify. Robert and Tonci undoubtedly paid the price for being good enough sailors to claim either the boat or pin end, where they were visible. Those in the middle of the line were blanketed by other boats and got away with it.

It's just not satisfactory.

Other Sports

I was a reasonably good competitive swimmer in a previous life, so I always take a keen interest in the sport. A classic tactic by experienced competitors was to deliberately break, either to unsettle your opposition (a second break by anyone meant disqualification) or to get a few minutes extra rest if you'd already raced that evening.

About 15 years ago the officials got sick of it and instigated a “no false start” rule. Now ANYONE who breaks is automatically excluded. Apart from the famous incident when Ian Thorpe over-balanced at the Olympic trials, it has worked perfectly. Now all eight swimmers stay anchored to the blocks until the gun goes.

In fact, it worked so well that even Track and Field officials thought it worth trying. Remember the bad old days in the 100m when there could be up to three breaks before anyone was DQd? The prima donnas that inhabit this particular discipline were up and down off the blocks like a kid on a trampoline. It was bloody boring. So athletics followed swimming and now has a “no false start” rule too.

Even the testosterone-fueled and steroid-riddled sprinters have managed to grasp the concept. Now the whole field settles and everyone gets away fairly. Trying to anticipate the gun is a risk that's just not worth taking.

Making It Work

Sailing, as usual, is “different” in that our starts don't take place in a controlled environment. There are no blocks on which to place sensors that tell you when the weight lifts off and you can't even put someone in an elevated chair with a video camera to capture the whole line. But there are ways to “see” what's happening.

At the 34th America's Cup, a virtual line and sensors on the bows of the AC72s could tell the race committee exactly where the boats were when the gun went – to within 2cm, from memory.

That was exceptionally expensive technology because it was ground-breaking. Now the ground has been broken, we must be able to come up with a cheaper version that could be used at all national and international championships.

When I'm in NZ I always swim in the Tuesday night ocean swim series at Takapuna Beach. They give me a sensor to strap to my ankle using a velcro band and when I run (or in my case stagger) through the finishing chute the sensor breaks a beam and simple computer software records my race number and time. It's the same system we used in triathlons in Western Australia back in the early 1990s, so it's not new or expensive.

The sensor is about the same size as the battery in your car door opener. It would be a simple matter to tape one to the bow of every boat in the fleet. The “line” would probably need to be developed because the swim/triathlon sensors probably only work when they're close to the unit. But some computer whiz somewhere, using this technology or GPS or a cut-down version of the AC system, could surely come up with a workable solution that projected a line from the start boat to the pin and recorded the number of EVERY boat that broke that line before the gun.

And when it does? Disqualify every boat at the first start. No general recalls. No going back and starting again.

In the meantime, why don't we just start every race under black flag? If swimming and athletics are anything to go by, within about three regattas there would be no-one OCS. Everyone would hold back a few more boat lengths, and anyone who got into trouble and was being pushed over by an opponent would bear away early and rejoin the line.

Something has to be done. General recalls are ruining the sport. And that's the fault of the sailors, not the race committee.

– Roger McMillan

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