Most of us can get a good start once in a while. The challenge is to be good regularly. Here are three simple steps – Ready, Set, Go! – to help build consistency in your starting.
1. Ready: check the wind
10-20 minutes prior to the start, you should do the following, and talk it through so everyone is starting to get into the game and has the same information:
- Sail a bit. Get out a little early, sail upwind, do some tacks, set the spinnaker, and do some jibes.
- Capture the wind data. Using your compass, establish wind direction, and port/stbd courses. Write this data down on your seat, dial in the bezel of your sailing watch, or record it some other way. But get the numbers down.
- Determine favored side of course. In the pre-race, you should also note shifts, either persistent or oscillating. Checking the weather reports can often help anticipate how the wind will move, as can local knowledge about how highs and lows interact. Finally, you should look for geographic shifts where the wind bends due to land, or sections of the course where there is more wind strength or puffs. Pulling all this information together will help you determine which side of the course could be advantageous during the race.
2. Set: create start plan
At the warning signal with 5 minutes to go, you should figure out the following, and have it all set and discussed by 3 minutes to go:
- Determine favored side of line. Shoot the wind and see which side the bow lays more closely to. Starting on wrong end of 20 boat length line with 5 degree favor means giving 2.5 boat length lead to boat at the favored end. It might be worth it, though, to give up a little in order to get a clear lane, so don’t let this fully determine your start plan.
- Pick favored side of course. Based on your pre-race wind observations, decide whether you want to go left or right after the start, or stay in the middle to play shifts. If you want to go right, usually it’s helpful to start on the starboard end of the line. If you want to go left, it’s even more critical to get a clear lane as bailing sends you toward un-favored side.
- Pick a start zone. Using the information on favored side of line and course, target your start zone for the boat (stbd), pin (port), or middle.
- Pick the approach. First decide whether you want to approach the start from port or starboard, and then whether you want to get to the line earlier or later. Figure out where you want to be with 1 minute to go, and then work backwards with the time to make sure you get there. If the winds are consistent, try the same approach several times so you can learn more quickly.
3. Go! Create space and use it to build speed
As the timer runs down to under 90 seconds to go the fleet starts to converge on the line. You must work hard to find a lane to get clear air and get off the line with speed, without going over early. It’s a tough balancing act. Here’s what you should work to accomplish:
- Find a lane and protect your hole. As you approach the line, look for space between boats, go in, and tuck up close to the windward boat to maximize your leeward space. Protect the space you’ve carved out: point down at port tackers (make sure to ease sails so you don’t accelerate) to drive them over early or behind you, and then head back up tight to the windward boat; gas starboard sharks coming in from behind or get them to go above you by heading down and then driving back up tight below them.
- Accelerate. With 10 seconds to go and with a nice hole to leeward, you can dive down, accelerate and hit the line going fast. Just make sure you don’t over-trim the jib and kill your speed.
- Go fast. Right after the starting gun, the skipper should focus on keeping the boat moving and edging out ahead of the pack. The crew should listen for over-early calls, keep eyes open for lane to tack, and call relative performance of other boats (higher/lower, faster/slower).
Ready, Set, Go! Three simple steps to starting. By following these steps consistently, you should be able to build rhythm and improve your starting.