Bad Starts, Good Starts in Sailing Sport.

I was interested to read another of Y&Y’s articles on getting out of a bad start but what constitutes a good start, and how do you get yourself into that position on the gun?

The secret to me is that a good start is actually not so much about the half second it takes for the gun to  blast into your stream of consciousness. It is about what happens in the run up, the last minute , of course, but also what happens in the following thirty seconds. In the gamete of 5 minutes and the subsequent thirty seconds you have what constitutes a good start. 

The article above talks about bad starts and that is a good place to start so we black to white so to speak. A bad start can be late and behind other boats, stuck with other boats luffing and not moving, rolled over by other boats to windward, or starting at the wrong end of the line for either a line bias, or the predictable, big first shift to come, or in respect of the tide or current. Take our weekend warrior antics in the Melges this weekend. The line was often biased on the first day, but short enough for us to come in a little behind other boats who would then struggle to cross the line on the gun without being beyond the pin, or stalling up. Day two featured a very well laids start line with a slighty offset windward mark, giving a slight left bias. But we sail with the Otra’ rivers big current flowing out mid race course right to left, and lesser tidal water (sometimes more though) coming out of Toplandsfjord through the narrows at Varod. So going right is favoured due to the large lee bow for around a third or more of the beat. That means getting over to port quickly and even with only five boats out, that means getting a clean start and being at the boat.

The trouble here is that we got what looked to be ‘great starts’ but did not seem to do well out of them. It was infact not the case that we got great starts. We got a great initial position perhaps but a little at the wrong tim and then trimming on speed a little late. We got to the start line on time and in a good position but got rolled to windward once at least and burried in turbulence of leeboats once too. We lacked speed, clean air and the ability to tack port in that extra thirty seconds which is part of the start. 

The thirty seconds after determines if you can as above, do a controlling tack over to port, or stand on with your bow proud of the next man, and covering the guys to port of youu. Necking out like a horse  on the finish line of the grand national. Those determining seconds are built on the preceeding 30 seconds given that  you have the line bias or strategic position roughly right at 1 minute, or more in light winds.

Text books say boldly that the aim of the helm and crew is to hit the line at maximum speed just as the gun goes, but when ever you have a strategy of going for an end or using if you dare, the fleet ‘sagging’ back more along the mid line, you have to commiit to a position along the line. At a minute out the ‘shooting alleys’or slots you will ride out on once you sheet in are usually established. In the big sigma 33 fleets of the 90s, these were often at 2 minutes I remember, it seemed an eternity until we sheeted on.  However if you are in at the favoured end, often the boat end for a reason we will come back to, then your own position at a minute and thirty seconds can nicely mess things up for your immediate slot companions too. 

So very often I find that boats do not start at full speed on the line, and in fact I think I could probably count on one hand the number of races where I have been on a fully close hauled boat sailing its polar target on the start line. 

However having said that top speed is not that often achieved, you do need to have relatively high speed to your competitors near on each side, or you will fall back and be buried unless those folk are rotten sailors or are being hampered by early starters ‘above’ then to windward. 

This was our mistake this weekend. Our helm is a raw-ass at getting into a great and quite dominating position on the start, in fact it is his trade mark, but then he doesnt capitalise on it. We hit the line slower than other boats or squeezed up more than we want to be before we are near close hauled. That is a little puzzling, having been the top dog at 30 seconds out with a fleet dominating position just to throw it away.

A bit of background and we can understand why. Our helm is a former laser sailor and dinghy instructor. So the alarm bells sound here about ‘sheet in and go’ . Despite the Melges being a big dinghy, it still takes  about two boat lengths to get to a reasonable speed you may be lucky to compete with on the line. You need more space to reach into then, so you need to ‘block at the boat’ longer to the right hand side which risks people who have spotted the bias or strategy tacking under you from a port approach and stealing your good start, which I thiink may have happened once, but then we had a very good slot on the boat end. 

‘Boat Speed Makes Me A Tactical Genius’ said Dennis Conor or someone anyway, and that is very true with starts because once you get your eventual slot, you need boat speed to capitalise on it. Here you need to know about your fleet behaviour and if there is a flag I, Z and Black Flag flying after any total recalls etc. The fleet gets more docile and holds back, while often also becoming more tightly packed. In the last minute then you can establish where the CoG ie biggest numbers are lining up for, and if this matches your fleets behaviour – do they line up and sheet in like a stereotypical nationals or worlds? Or do they like to fall off and end up a big frieght train reaching down the line all feeling they are early? 

Why Right Hand Side Starts Are So Fought Over

Boat end start are very popular. First and foremost when you do need to tack onto port, it is much more likely given even boat speed to the fleet, that you will cross fewer boats on a standard port mark rounding circuit, as you take your first and often decisive tack over to port. Also if you do get rolled over or start a little late, there are very few boats sterns to sail away from by tacking over to port, and a high likelyhood that only one boat is free to tack, and they may well want to pin the others out until a sizeable windshift comes. However if you know there are a lot of late comers crashing the boat end party, then you are not free in fact to tack on port. Understanding your fleet’s behaviour and checking for late boats on the RHS then is essential. 

Another reason people like RHS is the use of rules regarding water for the comittee boat and overlap denial there, and using the IDM pocket to hide  in. These are covered in other texts and the rules with explanations by the late Paul Elvestrom for example. Bit beyond here in a way, but yes we used it twice on sunday and failed to make good out of it. Responsible boats in a big fleet will not try and even use the overlap if it is there becauuse they can quickly land on boats they have not seen or whcih are coming on port, with no where to go as they have to reach down to pass the committee boat. I dare say this tactic of ours , pinning the fleet and booking a high place RHS, while a guy rolls over with overlap, is the cause for major insurance claims world over, and if they just eliminated the boat as an obstruction with right to water for those overlapped, they would have a lot fewer. 

Burn Time

The concept of burn-time is really kind of turning the traditional start psychology on its head a little. Here you ‘start’ when the time it takes to sail to the line and assume close hauled is reached. You are then dependent on having a long lane to shoot into, and that is a luxury in some races. In essence though what we could learn is that a little further back and to the right of the boat could be just as good, because in fact we can then force boats to sit around us  to windward at 30 seconds. By lying where we are, we natually block a lot of boats who are coming in on starboard (while of course opening up a little playing field for anyone on port to come into or for boats falling back from the line, to gybe round in.  But given we dont have a rack of port handers at 30 seconds, we have options to bear off and reach round a couple of sterns or to just sail a little free and stick our nose in the boat at speed. Note here, an IDM does not consititute a mark-of-the-course, it is the start line, and you do not have rights to water on it. If you are forced up onto it, the comittee will have a  perfect view and if you go between it and the boat, you are also out. 

Burn time then ok, it is a function of your own boat, crew abillity and the wind and any tidal effects there and then. You can think of it being a line  which you must be on in order to go, way back from the real start line. Here you want an orderly fleet, where either other folk are doing the same, or you have everyone on starboard and y ou have a lane to push up into. It is sheet in and go for keel boats if you like, you are further back from the line and creeping up to close hauled , or using a reach to build speed and come up into a hole as planned, with a knowledge of what this burn time is.

Sucker Punch

Now following up from the end of the last paragraphy, you can pull out a sucker punch when you do see a gap. Usually a gap is caused by one boat holding up several RHS boats by being obstinate, or a little burried in their windshadow by say a third of a boat length. It can be that boats to the LHS are too close and have reached off to get speed early. In any case, you spot it or know it is going to happen due to fleet history and how they are lying at ‘T minus’ one minute or there about. You have yourself in position for either a lane on a gradually built beat, or a reach and turn hard up. Here you can pull a sucker punch on the last boat in the rack who is making the gap by sailing behind and to the RHS of him kidding on that you are trying to put your nose into windward, and waiting for that space. He weill then tend to squeeze up more snuggly to the boat to his windward RHS, closing what he thinks is the gap, but then at T minus X seconds, you drop your bow, reach round the back of him and come up on his quarter. Alternatively the next boat over the gap is the one you sucker punch by rolling over them at speed before, during or after the start. it is a lovely tactic, but perhaps best for bigger fleets who have long rafts and many more suckers!
Boat Dynamics

If you have used burn time or just are following the gist of the fleet and sheeting on, usually when the rack to your left has reached off a little, then you need to understand your boat dynamics for the  weight of breeze you experience before and after the start. The crux of the matter is getting enough flow over the keel and rudder so that they ‘fly’ and then getting the boat up to close hauled and the polar target for that wind. Getting the foils to fly is essential because otherwise you will only draw more leeway if you sheet in and luff up abruptly without having achieved keel speed. This takes you closer to the LHS boat and if he is at keel speed, he will draw forward from you,. It is a really common problem. Keel ‘fly’ speed is determined by the legnth and thckness profile of the keel. It also relates to the angle or attitude to the wind, being more apparent on the beat, but without the speed and flow you will not generate optimal lift on the beat. In many boats you will feel an obvious heel come on near or just after the start because you will find that you edge forward into fresher wind with other bows being equal to you, the keel suddenly flies, or ‘bites’ as some call it, and this generates lift which actually rotates the boat in the same direction as the pressure  from the sails. A lot of boats who experience this have been a bit too close to the line or slow to sheet in, and are greedy with their mainsail settings for the true  wind which will soon hit them. A big heel will knock a lot of the lift off the keel again, and you will draw sideways, risking collision in some designs,. 

A short ‘chord’ keel like a Melges  24 I sail on, or a dinghy will fly at a lower water speed than a spade type keel or an old fashioned long keel. However it will also stall more readily because it flies in a smaller band of angles the boat has to the wind. It is important not to sail a Melges with heavy handed steering or sheeting, and also important not to ‘pinch’ very much. 

An understanding on your boats dynamics on the beat and the tight reach then are key, and understanding what the eventual ‘groove’ is in terms of boat speed and angle to wind (relative wind angle is just as good as TWA) are important and that takes us back to firstly burn time – how long it will take  to get up to the line and be close hauled, and also that in fact 30 seconds after you are likely to be fully in the groove for the true  wind speed you now experience with the bows champing at the bit so to speak.
If considering burn time, then it is good to pracitce away from the ‘stramash’ of a biased end. In a good proper punch up there by the boat, there will be perhaps no boats at all with a good crossing relative to polar target and the start signal. Some crews master burn time, and  use techniques like the sucker punch or lying a back wiith space to their left and ahead in an orderly fleet, pinning the boat RHS up on their quarter, and then daring to use burn time to sheet on and go, while that boat is paying more attention to his windward colleagues and boats further down the line. This is especially truw when you know line sag, often caused by adverse tide, is a feauture of a regatta.  Then you can punch out and have not only speed on the line but also so big a windward advantage that you are free to tack onto port soon after the start. 

Dropping Your Shoulders

The start is the sprint, it is the converse final furlong, where many a race is decided. However by relaxing a bit more and realising that you have rights on idiots or have water to avoid them in, and a protest  flag not in the least, you want to take it a little more scientifically and think of burn time relative to your distance from the line and how you are going to assume close hauled with the right initial speed for the foils and get to polar target speed ASAP. 

It is well and truly worth a few OCS and back round in judging burn time, and worth noting in the log, remembering the wind speed and boat speed at the time you started. It can be that you let someone else play the tough guy on the boat end, blocking the fleet while you cosey in on his lee quater, thus making a bigger pocket ahead and to leeward. It can be as above that you con a boat at the end of a little rack to luff up to defend an approach from behind only to then reach around hime 

Finally – Crazy Stuff!

We have touched on some bold starts, but what about some crazy stuff, without always being dangerous?

The first truly lunatic start, which can be quite beautiful, is the port tack start. Here you are in one of three situations. 1) You are mid to end of fleet LHS, decide on a RHS strategy and get passed the whole fleet on their transoms to then have a really good start at the boat or IDM. This is possible as a good start only when there are no late comers at the boat, and when you start so soon after the first starboard boat at the right hand end, that they cannot possibly tack right ontop of you. If you are a little late or they obviously choose to tack to port, then you have a get our of jail by tacking into the gap they then leave anyway. The second situatioin is where you are at the pin and early enough to maybe think of going once around if no Z flag is up, but then see a big sag in the line. You tack over and get up there, sailing just under the start line at some speed until the gun goes. Then you can either tack back immediately the gun goes or just when you get close to the first STB boat if you want to go left strategically. Lastly when you are near the line and spot a major windshift, where by boats might not even stand the line on STB. Here you can edge out ahead, let the boats sail behind you and tack over for potentially the best of your life if you spotted it first. You will be slow, but terribly well positioned to put speed on if the shift holds, and get ahead of the fleet who will all have to tack to port anyway.

Another crazy is dipping the line when no Z is in rule. A few smart alecs on day one of the sigma nationals in Cork in 96 did this, there being initailly no Z. It was odd to look up and see boats running down towards you 1 minute out, but there was a sag on day one due to the line being a mile long. However everyone had a transit pretty soon after that and they decided on flag z so they could send out spotter ribs for we naughty ones with a transit and boats around us who maybe were over early. But it was one the smoke you know dear boy, not the gun fire!  It can be a get out of jail start from a general recall when you have sailed too far, but it is a craxy one completely dependent on either a big fleet sag, or gaps big enough to gybe in

lastly not so crazy, but the late at the end start. Here you have a decided strategy of going that way, and you choose to follow other boats out rather than attempting a faster start further along the line. THis is useful in handicap fleets where a really big boat controls a perfect start and you follow out on their transom, being smaller, they will soon escape you and on the RHS you are free to tack no matter what. {in end lates are more risky but you can do a corrective port tack if there is a new gap a little further along the line if you start a little burried behind a proper gaggle of boats who want to go that way too. If they get a really good start on a biased line,they will be keen to cover the fleet on the first shift by crossing them on STB in case RHS gets a big advantage and LHS loses its start line advantage, so the air may free ahead of you quicker than you feel, or you can even reach off a little if there is some mental current and tide or a new wind coming from the LHS, such that a craxzy way out to left, way behind suddenly pays. THis can be the case when a dominant, major sea breeze establishes itself over the local coastline sea breezes, or if a front comes in.