How to Start a Sailing Race Effectively

By: American Sailing, North U

My journey to becoming a sailboat racer is evolving. In the past few months, I have become acquainted with racing terms, phrases and the sailboat racing rules. I have begun browsing clinics, seminars, and webinars in American Sailing’s North U curriculum. I sailed out on a Wednesday night to watch the local racers get started on their weekly races. Shockingly, I have even begun to play with trimming the sails!

I have evolved. 

I see other boats in the marina and have an internal conversation about how I would beat them in an imaginary race. Geometry, weather prediction, and my boat’s performance are no longer taken into consideration just to get me back to the dock before happy hour ends. I am now trying to become an efficient sailor.

Could my first race be on the horizon?

Let’s let out the main for a moment and slow this thing down. I need more knowledge. I need to know how to start a sailing race.

Starting Tactics for Sailboat Racers

When it comes to racing, mastering effective starting tactics is crucial for a successful race. However, it’s important to recognize that starting tactics can vary depending on factors such as the specific race, wind conditions, and the rules of the event. It’s a dynamic aspect of sailing that requires adaptability and strategy.

The Value of Observation

One valuable approach to improving your starting techniques is observing other sailors. By attentively watching experienced sailors in action, you can gain insights into their strategies and learn from their successes and mistakes. This observational learning can provide valuable knowledge and inspiration for refining your own starting tactics.

Gain Crewing Experience

Gaining practical experience through regular practice and participation in races is key to honing your starting skills. Each race presents a unique set of challenges and conditions, allowing you to test and develop your techniques. Learning from your own experiences, analyzing what works well for you, and making adjustments along the way will contribute to your growth as a competitive sailor.

Embrace the Process

Starting a race effectively is a skill that evolves over time. Embrace the learning process, stay open to new strategies, and continue to refine your starting tactics based on the dynamic nature of each race you encounter.

Six Ways to Improve Race Starts

Starting a race effectively can significantly impact your results. Here are six ways to improve your starts as instructed by Bill Gladstone of North U. 

  1. Starts are chaos.
    If you’ve never been on a starting line before it is hard to prepare yourself for the seeming chaos that is a sailboat racing start. You’ll also need to get used to how crowded and close-quartered the line can be. Maneuvering within a few feet of other boats is an everyday occurrence for racing sailors and takes some getting used to.
  2. You need to have a plan.
    To make order out of the chaos you need to have a starting plan – and then you need to be ready to improvise on that plan as circumstances dictate. There are some standard approach plans – reach and reach, port tack approach, half speed – and positioning plans to choose from. Have a plan and share it. The whole team should know what the plan is. Do a dress rehearsal. It won’t be the same as the real thing but will give you a baseline to work from.
  3. Teamwork and efficient communications are key.
    There’s no time for explanations and discussion. Things happen fast. For example, we are always ready to tack; there’s no, “Ready about, Hard-a-lee.” It’s just, “Tacking.” Efficiently communicating the position and behavior of rival boats with clear simple terms is critical. Time is short. 
  4. Don’t be late.
    It takes practice (and teamwork) to accelerate to full speed and hit the line on time – even when sailing alone. In the crowds and chaos of a start it is trickier still. Set up early and push to the line. If you are early you can waste time by oversteering to sail extra distance; but once you are late, you are late.
  5. Avoid crowds.
    You’ll hear plenty about starting at the favored end and all that. True enough. But more important is keeping clear enough of crowds that you can sail your boat and hit the line on time and at full speed. It doesn’t matter so much where you are on the line. Sail your boat and hit the line on time and at full speed.
  6. BONUS item: Clear Air.
    To sail full speed you need to be in clear air – clear of crowds. But wait – there’s more: Surprisingly, for an upwind start – and most starts are upwind – you should position yourself so there is plenty of room to leeward, under your jib. Having a boat close to windward is much less of a problem.  Preserving room under (to leeward) of your bow will allow you to sail full speed coming off the line. 

Once you are off the line, at full speed, in clear air, then you are racing… And most races are decided by speed. You’ve got to be fast to win. That’s a topic for another day.

If you encounter a boat in your marina starting and stopping and generally looking confused, that might be me. I am working on taking some of Bill’s advice, and will soon no longer be a spectator. Instead, I will be a racer!

Ready to get in the race? Take a look at this North U course on Racing Tactics.