Practicing starts…

I found a nice little write up on practicing starts that I sent to Timothy, but decided that I should save this on the ships log to recall later.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the author.  But I thought the routines he described makes sense, so I posted here with some minor edits and formatting to make it clearer…  Later, when I have some time to spare, I might make some diagrams to illustrate the maneuvers…


There are 4 primary things you want to accomplish in a start:

  • Start NEAR the favored end of the line
  • Start On Time
  • Start with 110%+ of upwind target boat speed
  • Start with clear air to leeward.

We can get into why but these 4 goals drive everything else. Now at starting lines, things happen fast, because boats are near each other and sailing TOWARDS each other, so the SITUATION is complex. That means your reactions need to follow KISS – Keep It Simple…Stupid! That does mean practice (and I’ll get to the exercises below) but it also means following a couple of general guidelines:
  • Zero is an Even Number… What that means is that if you have identified which area of the starting line you want to start in, in the milling about before the start, you want to be NEAR that area on even clock numbers and away from that area on “odd” numbers” And if you get out of phase on that, adjust your sailing around so that you get back in synch
  • Try to use THE SAME TYPE of approach for each segment of the line.  i.e. use the same technique ALWAYS for the Starboard end. For the Port End be consistent in your technique and same applies for the middle. that doesn’t mean all three have to be the same, but it does mean you keep a consistent pattern for each of those three.
  • Your boat needs AT LEAST 15 seconds of reaching power to get to 110% of upwind speed. your goal then is to make sure that your ‘space on the line’ allows you to do that.
  • A moving boat can adjust its position, a sitting boat is a target.
  • Stay within 5 boatlengths of the line ALWAYS during the sequence.
  • NEVER GYBE within 2 minutes of the start…ALWAYS TACK. Gybes stall the foils and the sails and make you a sitting duck for too long.
  • Always count down the time in steady increments.

Now each of these “rules” gets broken sometimes in the hurly burly of a start, but if you TRY to follow them, you will get ever improving and CONSISTENT starts. Now to practice starts you need 3 people on your boat – no more (4 if your main is so big you need a main trimmer). You need Driver, Jib trim, Bowman and optional main. You can add your tactian if you want, but your tactician should NOT be telling you how to start. its too confusing. I’ve tried coaching green drivers through starts, and it invariably is a cluster.

So then there are two sets of drills you can do – Single boat and Double boat. run ALL of these drills with 2 minutes LESS on your clock than your club’s normal starting sequence. That way when you get to actual racing you will feel like you have loads of spare time to get set up.

You have Three Commands: Power, Back, LUFF.

Your trimmer must respond IMMEDIATELY to these commands. Your trimmer should also call the time in either 10 or 15 second increments, counting down the last 15 seconds. But the intervals need to be consistent, and the trimmer should PAUSE before answering the time to stay in cadence… why?  because a cadence gets YOU in a rhythm. Random intervals knock you out.

Your Bow is responsible for calling two things: Distance to the line and the LAST THREE DIGITS of any boat hidden by your genoa that is on converging course.  The way the bow shows the distance to the line is by holding out fingers behind their back if you are below the line. A balled fist means ON the line.  If you are ABOVE the line then the hand comes up and shows fingers. this way the fingers are in a consistent place, AND when you get up in the competition – THEY can’t see them

Single Boat Drills:

Hover Drill

Find a mark – any mark. AT the “start” of your sequence, be at the mark reaching at full speed. Your goal is to sail at full speed UNTIL 1 minute to go at which point you want to be Fully stopped with your bow as close to the mark as you dare. for the next minute, you will luff you sails. You are allowed to pump them or back them periodically, but your goal is to hover as close to the mark as you can for a full minute. the first time you try this, you will probably last about 10 seconds. The longer you can do this, the better your downspeed boat handling.

The trick to this drill is to be CLOSE to “Head To wind” but not quite. and to have lots of slack in the main sheet and use ALL the parts of the mainsheet for trimming by grabbing the sheets as close to the boom as feasible.

Time and Distance Drill

Start as with the hover drill. But now your goal is to be At the mark, at 110% of target upwind speed, coming up to close hauled at ZERO. Sail until 1:30 from the start. Now rag the sails and coast. NO ADJUSTMENT ALLOWED. At 30 seconds to go, sheet in and make for the mark – once you sheet in, no slowing down is allowed. First few times you try this you will be completely off. Learn to adjust. Now the easy approach for this is coming in from STB. For a more advanced version of this drill, Sail off to the port of the mark and come back on port. coast through the tack once you let the sails go and see if you can still hit the mark.

The trick to this drill is to use a CONSISTENT APPROACH Pattern (notice the reinforcement of my earlier comment). this will get you used to CONSISTENTLY being where you need to be for a given wind condition, and give you an idea of how long your boat takes to accellerate

Sheet In and Go Drill

Start as with the Hover Drill. But now your goal is to hover exactly at the mark from 45 seconds to zero. this will teach you how to accelerate when you are almost pinched off and how to transition from Hover to closehauled without your trimmer dragging your bow down with the Jib. Sail at full tilt until 45 seconds. at 45 seconds you need to be stopped with your bow as close to the bouy as possible. Hover for 30 seconds. At 15 seconds sheet in, but keep your bow “below the line”. The goal is to be “close hauled” at zero as close to the mark as feasibly and still with good speed.
the trick to this drill is that your jib trimmer has to start trimming in the jib gently so that he doesn’t pull the boat down with the Genoa while the foils are still stalled. And you need to get the main on quickly
OK, get good at those drills and you will be in the top 1/3 of your fleet’s starters. But you still will lose out to “Mr Starting Line” as he comes and plants his boat immediately to leeward of you. So you need to learn how to defend “your hole” (the space to leeward of you on the starting line that you are going to use to accellerate into). and you need to learn how to ATTACK Mr Hover (the guy who gets to the start line with 1 minute to go and then hovers there).

2 Boat Drills

This requires 2 boats, and there are 2 drills with each boat having a different assignment. the “target” is always the boat on STB. This boat on STB ALWAYS starts out in Hover Mode – ie near the Mark, stopped with sails ragged.

Port Attack/Defend Drill

In this drill the Target boat gets 30 seconds to get into “hover mode”. The ‘attacker’ starts out on port 10 boatlengths away. the “Target’s” goal is to drive the defender either behind him, or far enough to leeward of him on the line that the Target can accellerate for at least 15 seconds prior to the start.

The Attacker’s goal is to tack underneath the “target” and get close enough that if the “target” sheets in before the attacker has started to bear away, contact would occur. The Attacker does this by sailing towards the Target from port, tacking below- completeing the tack with ragged sails, and then luffing as close to the Target as possible without fouling the Target.

The Target defends by… pulling the bow down from “almost head to wind” quickly by having the jib trimmer drum the jib on hard for a few seconds (but ONLY a few seconds) to start the rotation. the sails BOTH get luffed completely as the bow is pointed STRAIGHT AT the bow of the Attacker. Remember this “bow to bow” change of course has to be done while the attacker is at least 3BL away, but you don’t want to do it until they are about 5 BL away because otherwise you burn too much distance to leeward.  Once ‘bow to bow’ the Attacker cannot tack closer than your bow. As soon as the attacker starts to tack, dump the helm to leeward to push the bow up, and grab all parts of the main and sheet it in PAST MIDSHIPS. this will cause the boat to weather vane. Now its important to release the main as soon as the boat starts to turn, otherwise you will get too much speed and push your bow across the line OR WORSE, force yourself into a tack.  THIS is the mechanism for protecting your leeward hole from attackers from Port.

Both boats hover until time to start and try to beat the other boat over the line at speed. If Target TIES Attacker, then Target wins. If Attacker pins out Target, Attacker wins. Reverse roles every 3 tries.

Drill 2:

Attack from behind:

Shark Attack
setup the Target as before. Attacker instead starts 10 BL to STB (astern) of Target. But the goal is the same. Sail below Target’s stern and luff up under them as close as possible.  Attacker’s trick here is to delay the turn up as long as possible and use backwinding the jib to stop (but not tack).  This is the one place where your tactician can help you in the start. They can call “Shark coming”. But otherwise when the ‘shark’ is 3-5bl astern (depending on speed) helm calls “Power” until the bow starts down followed by “LUFF”. again the goal is to come parallel to the line with as little fwd speed as possible.
Now the Attacker will start yelling ‘come up’ quite a ways out (this is common practice by Mr Starting Line) but YOU don’t have to react UNTIL their bow overlaps your stern. THEN YOU MUST IMMEDIATELY BEGIN to come up. But Attacker must give you ROOM to ‘stay clear’ that means they have to give you room to pivot the stern of your boat.
what this means is that you put the helm down and sheet in the main (again with all parts agressively) to force the bow up AND THE STERN CLOCKWISE. Attacker MUST KEEP CLEAR of your swinging stern. Because if they don’t they have violated RRS 15 by failing to Give Room To keep Clear.
Now the trick here is that Target swings the stern faster the faster the attacker is moving. if the attacker is moving slowly, then you swing your stern a bit more slowly. the goal hear is to use the swinging stern to keep them from turning up towards the wind until their keep has passed well behind your stern. That way you are guaranteed they cannot get closer than 1/2 BL to you. and that’s enough to start accelleratig at 10 seconds.


Ok do those drills – ideally for 2 weekends prior to the start of your season, and you will see a marked improvement in your starts. I do the “single boat” drills in every new boat I go racing in. Because its the quickest way I have found to get yourself in tune with how the boat handles, and it also gets your crew in tune with how you start.

South Beach YC – IRC Invitational

August 21, 2001  Race 1:  RC called for a course one which is a simple windward and leeward sausage.

No time to do much except to follow the faster rated boats.  Short race. Shorter comments.  The only notable is that due to shifty winds, I overstood the windward mark, but also over estimated the current.  Nonetheless we finished second..

August 21, 2001  Race 2:  RC called for course 2 which is now a twice around windward and leeward….

We favored the right side of the line because of better pressure.  Tupelo went left but in lighter air.  Looking at the track, we were definitely in a persistent header by the time we were at the weather mark on the first leg.  On the other hand, look at the nice lift coming out of the leeward mark.   We still had that header towards the Bay Bridge.   Some of the fast boats with pro aboard did bang the corners pretty hard and pretty early.  Guess they were hoping to take advantage of the lift by the bridge.  Sure makes it hard to call the layline.

One nice tactical move we made in the third race is to cover Hawkeye as she approached us from port near the windward mark, since we were starboard, Hawkeye fell off to pass to our stern.  We tacked to port to cover immediately after they passed to cover them tightly, not so much because they were our primary competition but because I don’t want them to starboard tack on us if we cover them too loosely.  We effectively pinned them below us and allowed us to control when we want to tack to the layline.  It worked beautifully. By the time we reached the weather mark, they were two boat-length behind.  See photos:

Hawkeye approaching on port almost even with us.  I called for gear #1 build boat speed, so we pressed the boat down a bit.  This had the psychological effect of postponing decision on Hawkeye as they think they might make it and perhaps try to point a little higher which will cause them to lose speed.

Hawkeye realized that they cannot make it pass us, decided to pass to our stern.  We now set ourselves to gear 2:  best VMG mode, not to point too high and maintain speed so we have some reserved power to make tactical moves.

After Hawkeye passed to our stern, we tacked in less than one boat length to cover them fairly tightly.  Our primary objective here is to keep Hawkeye from tacking on starboard because if they tack, they would be tacking on to our wind shadow and we can tack on a close covering position again.  This prevented Hawkeye calling starboard on us and had to wait for us to tack to the lay line.  This also means they have to sail a slightly longer distance as they have to wait for us to tack then tack themselves.  The net result of this tactical maneuvering is that from dead even at the port and starboard point, we gained two boat-lengths in a span of five minutes by the time we rounded the mark!  Yeesss!

August 21, 2010: Race 3:  We finished first!.

August 22, 2010:  Race 4:  We finished 4th.   Race 5 was cancelled after wind died.

Overall results:  Second in series.