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Performance Racing Tactics

by © Bill Gladstone

Chapter 3: Starting Strategy
3.1 Introduction

The start of a sailboat race is one of the most exciting and demanding moments in sports. Starts require judgement, timing, and teamwork. They require an understanding of wind and weather; and knowledge of strategy, tactics, and rules. Starts demand dexterity at close quartered maneuvering. Finally, starts require the ability to stay cool and concentrate in an environment packed with distractions. These requirements create a uniquely thrilling, and at times baffling, challenge.

Fig 1a - Starts are one of the most exciting and challenging parts of any race. To succeed amidst the chaos we will firsts need a starting plan. Then we will need to execute the plan despite all the distractions.
Fig. 1b - A good start is one which finds us free to pursue our race strategy a minute or two after the gun.


With so many areas of concern our success will depend on our ability to prioritize - to determine which factors are critical to a particular start. The goal is to hit the starting line at the gun at the favored end, with speed and clear air, and freedom to maneuver at will. A good start is one which finds us in the front row, free and clear, not just at the gun, but a minute later, after the sprint off the line.

To succeed we must create order from the chaos of the starting line. First we need a starting strategy - a game plan based on the information gathered during our race preparation. Once we have a plan then starting tactics will be used to implement the plan. This chapter will look at Starting Strategy - how to make a plan. The next chapter will show us how to execute the plan.

The importance of a good start should not be understated. While it is not necessary to win the start in order to win the race, a good start is usually required. A good start gives the freedom to pursue strategic objectives without interference. A poor start means compromising strategy and setting off in the wrong direction, or sailing in bad air to pursue strategic goals. Fig . 1b.

In this chapter we will concentrate on upwind starts. Chapter 6 covers Offbeat Starts.

3.2 Elements of Strategy

Starting Strategy means deciding where on the line to start. In deciding where to start we must consider three factors:

1. Our Race Strategy for the First Leg.

2. The Set of the Line.

3. Making it Work.

Our Race Strategy will effect our starting strategy, as we shall see. The Set of the Line refers to the angle of the line to the wind. In Making It Work we will look at balancing Race Strategy, Line Set, and other concerns.

3.3 First Leg Strategy

Our strategy for the first leg of the race is the first factor to consider in deciding where on the line to start.

If strategic considerations suggest sailing up the right hand side of the beat, then a start at the right end of the line is preferred. By starting at the right end we are free to tack and go right immediately after starting. Clear air is relatively unimportant, as we will be tacking away. Freedom to tack and go right is the first priority.

If our race strategy says go left, then a start near the left hand end is called for. The advantage here is not as strong as starting right to go right. More critical than the exact position is clear air, and the freedom to continue to the left unimpeded.

If there is no clear advantage to either side, then a mid-line start is indicated. There are several advantages to a mid-line start. From a starting perspective, it is often the easiest and least crowded place to start. From a race strategy perspective, a mid-line start gives the greatest flexibility, as it offers the freedom to go either way.

Fig 2. - Simply put, start right to go right, start left to go left, and start middle to keep your options open.

3.4 The Set of the Line

By the set of the line we mean the angle of the line to the wind. Since we are racing upwind, there is an advantage to starting at the end which is furthest upwind - we call this the favored end. A starting line set perpendicular to the wind does not have a favored end. When the line is not square to the wind then one end - the upwind end - is favored.

Two questions come to mind:

Q1. How can you figure out which end is favored?

Q2. How much difference does it make? How much advantage do you get starting at the upwind end?

Fig. 3 - The upwind end of the line is the favored end.

Q1. Which end is favored?

There are several ways to find the favored end of the starting line. Some are better than others:

1. Compare the Compass Bearing of the line to the Wind Direction. You can then plot which is the favored end. (See the Race Planner in Chapter 2, for a sample plot). Once you know the bearing of the line, you can update your calculations as the wind changes.

Fig 4a - To find the favored end, sail the compass course of the line and compare it to the wind direction, or... Fig 4b -..sail a course perpendicular to the wind and compare it to the line.

2. Sail the line on a course perpendicular to the wind.

Starting at one end of the line sail a course 90° to the wind. This will carry you above or below the other end of the line (or straight down the line if it is square). If your course is above the line you started out at the favored end; if your course is below the line you are sailing toward the favored end. (Using this technique you are sailing the angle of a square line; by sailing to the far end you can see the magnitude of the advantage at the favored end.) Fig . 4b.

3. Luff into irons on the line (or off one end).

Sight across your boat (using the traveler bar for ex.); your sight will be square to the wind. While this is a popular technique, I recommend against it for two reasons: First, you must re-do it every time the wind shifts; second, it is hell on your sails - the worst thing you can do to them. 

Fig . 5 You can determine the favored end ruin your sails by luffing into irons on the line or off one end.


4. Observe other starts. If the fleet lines up bow to bow off the line, then the windward end is favored. If the fleet lines up bow to stern, then the pin end is favored.

Fig 6. You can determine the favored end by observing other starts. If the fleet comes off the line bow to bow, the right is favored; bow to stern the left is favored.<

5. Sail past one end of the line close-hauled and observe the relative distance as you pass abeam of the other end. This offers only a rough measurement.

No matter which technique (or combination) you use you must re-check the line if the wind shifts. The first technique is preferred because it allows you to quickly recalculate after a wind shift. It also allows you to determine how many degrees off square the line is set, and the magnitude of the advantage, as we shall see.

Q2. How Much Difference Does It Make?

Two boats starting from opposite ends of a square line will be equally far from an upwind mark. If they were on converging tacks they would hit bow to bow. If the line is not square to the wind, then one will start ahead, as shown in the diagram. .

Fig. 7 You need not start on pot tack to take advantage of a left end favored line. You will realize the advantage when you tack.

You donít need to start on port tack to take advantage of a pin favored line. You will realize the advantage when you tack to port. Fig . 7.

How far ahead?

For a line 5 degrees off square (most are), the advantage is 12.5% of the distance between the boats. If the line is 10 degrees off square (not uncommon), the advantage is 25% of the distance between the boats.

On a typical starting line, 20 boat lengths long, and 10° off square, the advantage from end to end is 5 boat lengths! A 5 length lead off the line is no small matter - clearly the set of the line is an important factor in our decision where to start. Fig . 8.

Fig. 8 For a line that is 10 degrees off square the advantage at the favored end is 25% of the line - or 5 boat lengths long.

Mark position and favored end not related

Not so clear is the fact that the position of the windward mark does not determine the favored end of the line. Boats starting at the upwind end will be in the lead, and will be able to cross boats starting from the downwind end and lead them to the mark. Even though the downwind end may be closer as the crow flies, it will be further in upwind sailing distance. Fig . 9.

Fig. 9 The position of the windward mark (above) does not determine the favored end of the line. The set of the line relative to the wind, not the mark determines the favored end.

The position of the mark may be a factor in our first leg strategy, and thus may impact our decision on where to start, but it does not determine the favored end of the line. The favored end is relative to wind direction - not mark position.

3.5 Making It Work

Where to start? In addition to our first leg strategy and the set of the line there are a collection of other factors which we will lump under the heading of Making It Work. Wind shifts, crowding, and clear air are among the issues we must consider.

A start near the favored end, but clear of congestion, is best. It provides the advantages of the favored end without risking clear air and the freedom to maneuver and accelerate. Remember - you don't need to win the start the win the race; you just need a good one. We'll look at a couple of situations to get a feel for how to decide where to start.

Pick a section

We don't so much pick a spot on the line as we pick a section - left, middle, or right. Fig . 10.

Fig. 10 Pick a section of line for your start. Your exact starting spot will depend on how the start plays out tactically. Each section has many names.

Mid-Line Starts

Unless there are strong reasons to push toward an end, a mid-line start is the best choice. The advantages include minimal crowding on the approach and strategic flexibility once you clear the line. You can set up for your start with a variety of approaches and you can often get a jump by avoiding mid-line sag (details in the next chapter). Fig . 11.

Fig. 11 Mid-line starts are preferred if you do not have compelling reasons to push toward an end.

Starting at the favored end

When our choice is one of the ends, it is best to target near - but not right at - the favored end. A favored end draws a crowd, and you will get much more consistent starts by staying out of crowds. Slide down the line just far enough to clear the crowd and you will have a much easier time getting a good start. In fact, you may end up with the best start, as the boats in the crowd deprive each other of the air and room necessary to accelerate off the line.

Even when one or more boats do get good starts right at the favored end, many more are buried. By hedging toward the middle of the line, you dramatically increase the odds of getting a good start.

Go Right!

If your goal is to start right and tack out immediately, it may be worth it to go for a start right at the boat. If you get the perfect start congratulationsñand more power to you!

Even if you end up in the second row it's OK, since you'll be tacking out. Sounds good - but in reality the front row boats will be tacking immediately, and you will have to delay your tack to avoid tacking in bad air. The front row a little bit down the line will allow you to sail full speed until you do tack, and may actually allow you to tack sooner! Plus, you avoid the hazards of barging, and of other crowd related problems.

How badly do you need to be the first boat to tack out? What are the odds of pulling it off? Can you afford the risk of being buried? How does that compare with much higher odds of being the third boat to tack by starting down the line? Fig . 12.

Fig 12 To go right, try a start just below the crowd at the boat end. You can get off the line with clear air and be leader going to the favored side.
Go Left!

If everything favors the left side, then get ready to battle! There is little margin for error in these starts, and few spaces in the front row when the pin end is favored. The boat furthest left may be the only one with clear air, but any hesitation may allow the next boat up the line to roll over the top. Again, a start part way up the line may be the easiest way to get the second best start. You'll be able to create space for clear air and room to accelerate. In fact, a jam up at the pin may leave you with the best start! We'll look at the tactics of this position in detail in the next chapter.

Fig. 13 To go left, a start with clear air is essential - you can't tack out. Once again, setting up just clear of the crowd helps assure a good start.

Hit the Shifts

The best start in shifty conditions is one which allows you to sail to the shift with speed and affords you the room to tack when the shift arrives. Blast off from the middle of the line, tack if the next shift is coming from the right, and sail fast. When racing to a shift speed is more important than pointing, and room to tack is critical if you are going to take advantage of the shift when you get to it. Stay clear of crowds and sail fast.

3.6 Conclusion

Starting strategy is a game of choices requiring a balance between overall strategic goals, line set, and crowding. You must consider the nature of each section of the line: the difficulty in tacking clear after a left end start, the tendency for crowding at the right end, and the ambiguity in calling the line during a mid-line start. When the advantage falls entirely to one end of the line you must consider the risks at the favored end as opposed to attempting a more conservative approach at some distance from the favored end. Once the strategic decision has been made on where to start, a tactical plan must be made to accomplish the strategic goal.

Without effective tactics we'll end up in the second row (or worse).


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