Winning isn't everything, but it's a good start

If you’re tired of finishing back in the placings, then one place you might look to gain some ground is at the start.  In this article, Ralph Skelton, looks at strategies and tactics many of the pros use to win the start.

If you’ve ever wondered why certain sailors always seem to win the start, I have some news for you – it’s not luck.  They’re doing something that we’re not and I don’t know about you, but I hate losing.  So I thought I’d spend some time reading a few books to learn about the experts’ strategies and tactics.  

Amazingly most of these books said exact same thing and proceeding on the assumption that if five experts tell you the same thing it must be right, we’ve decided to summarise how these gun sailors are winning the start.

Lesson one: start on the preferred tack

Reach backwards and forwards along the start line, keeping parallel to it.  Note exactly where the main sheet has to be to keep the woollies and leach ribbons streaming.  The direction in which the main sheet is furthest out is the preferred start direction; the theory being that the boat can come further up to windward on that tack than the other tack.
This is good information, but there are some other considerations for you to keep in mind.  Some of our experts wrote that they would weigh starting on the preferred tack against the advantage of starting on starboard (which gives right of way over boats on the opposite tack).  Other considerations mentioned included tidal conditions and the likelihood of wind shifts due to the local land forms.  

Lesson two: timing it correctly

With about two minutes to the start, sail away from your preferred end of the line, along a line as close as possible to the extension of the starting line.  Note exactly the time at which you pass the buoy denoting the end of the line.   Calculate how much time is left between now and the start of the race.   When exactly half that time has elapsed, gybe your boat and head back to your chosen end of the start line.  The reason they recommend a gybe is you lose less time and momentum than going about.

If you have done this correctly, in theory, you will arrive at your chosen end of the line at maximum speed (you are on a reach) at exactly the start time.   All that remains is to harden up as you pass the buoy and you’ve won the start.

What do you mean they’ve all read the same book!?!

WOOPS!!!!   It seems everybody else has read the same books we have and all the boats in the fleet are in the same little bit of water at the same time.   There’s got to be something here that we’re still not getting.  So we decided to put the books away and sit and talk with a few sailors with real experience and reputations for starting well.  Of course, to get them to reveal their secrets we had to promise them anonymity (you’ll see why) and in the end we resorted to the Australian version of water boarding, i.e. we bought them several VBs.   We got lots of advice, some of which I’m sure you can use and some of which is, well, controversial

Here is what I learned:

Winning is a mind game

To have a successful start, you need to believe in yourself.  This may sound a bit ‘touchy-feely’, but these sailors all have an iron-clad mindset that they’re going to win the start and woe betide anyone who gets in their way.  Listening to these sailors I began to appreciate that the start line is no place for shrinking violets.  These people are 110% committed to winning the start.

Who said sailing isn’t a contact sport?

According to these skippers when the gun goes, aggression, or at least the appearance of aggression, is an advantage.  Most skippers will try to keep clear of a boat which has a reputation of making aggressive starts, particularly if she is skippered by a helmsperson who is considered to be a bit wild.   This, of course, plays into the hands of our wild, aggressive starting helmsperson as it gives them some clear water around them at the start.  

Some skippers deliberately cultivate this sort of a reputation.   We know of a winning skipper who had a run in with a well-known pro-circuit skipper whilst they were both manoeuvring at the start of a one design race.  Our winning skipper was on starboard and called for his rights.  The pro skipper ignored him.  “Hit him” our winning skipper told the helmsman.  “But we’ll damage our boat” the helmsman protested.  “We’re sending a message, just do it” he responded.  When the altercation was over and the pro skipper protested, our skipper responded, “You want to talk about it, put your protest flag up and we’ll talk about it”.   Our winning skipper had plenty of room on the start line for the remainder of the series.  That’s a true story.  By the way, I am not in the least advocating that you do this, least of all near me, but it’s a bloody good yarn.

‘Anticipation’ isn’t just a Carly Simon song

A comment we heard fairly often was never wait for the gun to start.  You run your timers from the preparatory signals and cross the line anticipating the start.  If you wait to hear the gun, then you’ve lost the start.

Starts have so many variables: boats, sail trim, traffic, strategies and tactics, winds, experience levels, other competitors, tides and waves, and the reality is that the start line is not painted on the water, it’s a bobbing buoy on one end and a bobbing start boat on the other.  The best skippers try to achieve a ‘good start’ vis a vis the other boats.  Occasionally, perhaps even frequently, that ends up with boats crossing the line early and if they do, you go with them. If the fleet gets called back, fine.  If not, then you’re not going to be disadvantaged.    

According to Yachting Australia, if a starter can identify a boat(s) that’s started early then they should be penalised.  If a number of boats start early and individuals cannot be identified, then the fleet should be recalled, but the starter has the discretion to let the fleet go, if he believes it’s still been a fair start.    

As a competitor your intent should be to get a good start in relation to your competitors, to be first across the line and in the right position.  The idea is to gain the advantage, not to gain an unfair advantage.    

Back to starting line strategies

Another skipper said he tries to almost stop his boat on the line by backing the headsail and easing the main, and pointing very high.   This trick needs a good experienced crew who have rehearsed the procedure many times.  The boat also needs to be set up with plenty of twist in the headsail.   This helps to keep her slow when the headsail is backed, and provides good acceleration when needed.  The appearance of this boat to other skippers is that it is not in full control and should be given a wide berth.  

Another benefit of this tactic is that other boats can’t decide whether this boat is on port or starboard tack, so the “right of way” rules become clouded.  The trick is to do this close to the pin end of the line early enough to reserve your place there.   With practice, the boat can bear away using the backed headsail and accelerate by sheeting the main at the correct moment to be at good speed as the line is crossed, hopefully on starboard as the gun goes.

Tide? What tide?

We also heard the comment that few skippers in Australia consider tidal effects, unlike our English cousins, and since all our estuary and harbour races are sailed in tides, that’s something worth thinking about.   How many of you know the tidal flows in your preferred estuary or bay?  On a long start line the best position may be where the most favourable tide is likely to be running fastest, or conversely where the unfavourable tide is likely to be running slowest.

On the pin end

We were also told that if you do start at the pin end, sail for speed rather than height, all the boats to leeward of you have to gain the height you already have, and should be slower through the water.  This is obviously more pronounced in a one class fleet than in a mixed fleet.   

Conversely if you start low on the line, try to gain height, thereby gaining a lee bow position on the boats above you.   Assuming you are both on starboard, if they tack onto port in close company, there is a good chance of some mayhem and confusion in the boats to weather of you.

Start next to someone less experienced

Another skipper said he tried to have a less experienced skipper to leeward at the start, the actual words were “start beside a dummy”(but I’m opting for the politically correct version) on the theory that if you are looking a bit early at the start, you can fall away a bit and our less experienced skipper probably won’t complain too much.  This is especially true if you have a reputation as a wild aggressive starter.   As our source said, “It’s better to be protested by a less experienced skipper than the starter; you never win protests with the starter”.

Some other brief tips we picked up included

Watch the fleet, not your compass
Always sail your boat – you know when she feels right, and when she is managing the conditions best
You have to believe you can do it  

You need good crew who understand what is happening all the time
The rules will always be strained, just not to breaking point  

It is essential to innovate
If you follow what everyone else is doing, you will follow everyone else over the finish line
Starting in a mixed fleet with boats of very different speeds and characteristics needs a
different plan than starting in a one design fleet, where all the boats have similar speeds and characteristics

Some of what I’ve outlined will seem fairly basic, like ensuring that your spinnaker halyard is clearly labelled, the difference, perhaps, between winning skippers and the rest of us is that they actually do these things.  With that thought, let me go check that my spinnaker halyard is labelled.

M.O.S.S Australia