Jamie Lea's Guide to Starting Like a Professional
Dinghy and one-design keelboat specialist Jamie Lea shares some tips on how to improve your start line technique.
It’s generally agreed that the quality of your start is very often what determines whether you get a good, average or poor result in most sailing races. So it’s worth spending some time and effort on improving your ability to get off the line in good shape.
Let’s take a look at the key areas to consider in order to give yourself the best possible chance of getting a good start.
GATHERING GOOD PRESTART INFORMATION
I have a pre-start routine that I like to follow for every race, whether I am sailing on my own, or in a two-person dinghy or as part of a larger sportsboat or keelboat crew.
First, I aim to get to the course area in plenty of time to be able to sail upwind in race mode for long enough to determine the highest lifting and lowest heading bearings on the compass, both for port and starboard tack. Having these bearings jotted down and readily to hand makes it a lot easier to ensure you are always on the lifting tack when you are racing.
As soon as I get out to the racecourse I also begin to monitor and record the wind direction, by taking readings every couple of minutes. This gives me a feel for what the wind direction is doing and I can compare that to what I learned from the day's weather forecasts before I went afloat. Based on that information I can start to formulate a race strategy for the day.
Once I feel confident that I have the bearing numbers locked in, it’s time to sail back down to the start area, again in race mode, practicing gybes and checking out what the downwind angles look like too.
Once I’m back at the committee boat, as soon as the line is in place and settled in, I sail precisely down the line to determine the line bearing using the boat’s compass. That information, along with the wind readings I have been taking, enables me to work out which is the biased end of the line - i.e. the one which is further upwind and therefore closer to the first mark of the course. All other things being equal, that’s the end that I am going to want to start at.
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you have sailed from the committee boat down towards the pin end and have a line bearing on the compass of 270 degrees. For the line to be exactly square and unbiased the wind would have to be coming from a bearing of 90 degrees (right angles) to the line which would be 360 degrees. The next step is check the actual wind direction again by pointing the bow of the boat head-to-wind and checking the compass reading.
In this example, if you have a wind bearing of 350 degrees then the wind is angled 10 degrees nearer to the port end of the line (10 degrees of port end bias). If the wind bearing was 010 degrees, then there is 10 degrees of bias towards the starboard end. Remember that the wind can keep changing though so keep checking it right up to the last few minutes before the start. If you find the wind has changed dramatically at that point, then it’s time to change the end of the line you plan to start at.
My final mission before the start is to try to establish a transit through the line and onto an easily identifiable point on the shore (buildings, rocks, chimneys, radio masts are all good for this). When I look for a transit, I first try to pinpoint a landmark that’s exactly on the line and then for safety I also try to pick out another landmark which would put me a couple of boat-lengths below the line. I find this really useful to enable me to judge my final approach to the line.
Other people will have their own way of gathering this prestart information and likely in a different order to me, but the important thing is to aim to cover off all of the things I have mentioned before every start.
DECIDING WHERE ON THE LINE TO START
Once all this information has been gathered, the next step is to decide whereabouts you would want to position your boat on the line at start the time. There are a number of things to consider when deciding, but after collecting all your prestart information you should have a much clearer picture of where you want to be.
Here are the things I always consider:
- How much bias is there on the start line?
- How long is the line? Bias will have a greater effect over a longer length of line and can be almost insignificant on a short line.
- Is there any tide or current? If so which way is it running? Is it pushing you over the line, holding you back or coming from the side?
- Is there a known geographical benefit of going to a particular side of the first beat – maybe for tidal relief or a wind bend or to avoid a wind shadow or something else – that might outweigh the effect of the line bias?
- I try to avoid starting underneath boats I know to be ‘footers’, who will sail fast and low off the line, or starting to windward of boats known for pinching. who will sail high and slow and make you do the same.
- What does the weather forecast for the day and the trend I monitored during my pre-start preparation tell me about the way I want to sail the first beat? As an example, if the forecast is for the breeze to go left all day and the wind has been trending left in the pre-start, I would be aiming to line up at the port end of the line at the start to take advantage of that.
- Work as hard as you can to create a space for yourself on the line.
OK, so we have decided where we are going to position ourselves on the line and we are now in the final minutes to the start gun. This is a critical period because this is when you can start to create that ‘magic’ gap to leeward of you, which will mean that you don’t get lee-bowed at the start and instead have a lovely space to foot off into and build speed.
To achieve this, the key areas to work on are:
- You will be sailing slowly as you line up for the start but you must never lose steerage. Always keep a small amount of way on (forward motion and water flow over your keel/centreboard and rudder) in order to be able to manoeuvre.
- Try to subtly work up close to and slightly forward of the boat immediately to windward of you. In doing so you are starting to open up the ‘magic’ gap to leeward of you.
- The danger here is that boats can come in from behind and poach your hard earned space. So, stay alert to that and quickly put your bow down to block the gap if you see a poacher on the prowl. Once he has gone off down the line you can go back to squeezing up to your neighbour to windward.
- Keep monitoring your line transit on the shore. If you are confident you got a good sighting, then you may be able to steal a few precious metres forward on your unsighted competitors.
- Give yourself time to be able to accelerate and build speed. You need to be at full speed with a clear lane at start time so don’t leave it too late to accelerate by pulling the trigger too late.
- Once you are off and running, make the best of your start by hiking hard and focusing solely on boatspeed for the first few minutes.
- Even the best sailors don’t get good starts every time, but by following a regular routine as I have described will give you the best chance of having information you need to make an informed decision about where to start and you should soon begin to see an increase in your ratio of good starts to mediocre ones. Practising your time and distance boat handling on the final approach to the start line will help too. You can use a mooring buoy or any fixed floating object to do that. Give yourself a countdown on you watch and aim to have your bow passing the buoy at full speed when the watch gets to zero.
DON'T FORGET TO DEBRIEF
After racing is over, have a think about the day’s starts that went well and those that went badly. No need to pore over every aspect for hours on end, but take a few minutes to try to identify why the good ones were good and why the bad ones were bad.
Keep plugging away like this and with a bit of luck – we all need some of that! - pretty soon you should be starting like a pro.
Good luck, sail fast!