Rabbit Starts: The Complete Guide

Gate or rabbit starts
Credit: RS200 Class Association

Rabbit starts, also known as gate starts, are an alternative to the traditional sailboat start. Though rarely used these days they are sometimes used in large events (so if that’s your scene read on). I’ll explain how they work and give you my top tips.

How Do Rabbit Starts Work?

If you’re a visual learner check out the diagram above.

  1. Rabbit starts require one of the fleet to be designated the role of the rabbit (also called the pathfinder).
  2. This boat is chosen before the race. It’s usually a boat that finished between 4th and 10th in the last race.
  3. At the starting signal the rabbit rounds the starting pin on port tack.
  4. A rib called the gate boat follows close behind matching the rabbit’s speed and heading. Sometimes a second rib is used as a guard boat. They place themselves to leeward of the rabbit in order to protect it.
  5. The rest of the fleet starts once they cross behind the gate boat on starboard.
  6. The rabbit boat continues for a pre-determined time on port tack (usually 1.30-3 minutes). After that time they are allowed to tack away if they wish.
  7. The gate boat continues a while longer before stopping. They then end the starting period by taking down the G flag with a sound signal. This is often 5 minutes after the starting signal. Anyone not started by this time has missed the start.


The Advantages of Rabbit Starts

Apart from being the only time when it’s acceptable to shout “Port” and expect a starboard boat to get out of your way, gate starts have several advantages over traditional starting.

Firstly, Gate starts are probably the fairest way of starting for big fleets. Gate starts, in theory, remove line bias and ease crowding on the line (reducing the chance of pre-start fouls). With traditional starts the longer the line is, the more biased one end will be over the other.

Secondly, they don’t require a race management team. At my home club during the Covid shutdown, we found rabbit starts were a great way to get racing started without need for a race team. Race duties aren’t terribly popular so these informal gate starts may continue after Covid at our club. It also means we don’t need to lay two starting marks- we just used a mark of the course as the starting pin. As we weren’t using ribs we only used a rabbit boat (no gate boat or guard boat).


The Cardinal Rule: Thou shalt not touch the Rabbit Boat

Any touching of the rabbit boat will likely result in disqualification for the culprit (whether it results in a restart or not). Though if it’s not your fault then you can protest and carry on.

The “Gate boat” rib is treated as a mark of the course. If you lightly touch it or scrape alongside, then it’s no different than touching a mark and the starter must do a penalty turn.

However, if the contact is more significant (such as a T bone) and it interferes with the Gate Boat’s job of following the Rabbit then the culprit is disqualified and the start will likely be abandoned.

As the gate boat is a starting mark surrounded by navigable water Rules 18 and 19 don’t apply. No boat can claim mark room or room on the gate boat.

Under the RRS introduced in 2021 the definition of obstruction is changed to include as obstructions “an object… or line so designated by the sailing instructions”.

The gate boat and rabbit are both objects. So this could mean that should the Sailing Instructions state that the gate boat or rabbit counts as an obstruction then an inside overlapped boat is entitled to room under 19.2(a).

If you know your rules please let us know below if this will be the case from 2021.


Tips for Rabbit Starts


Tips for the Rabbit Boat

To be the pathfinder or not to be? That is the question?

Although rare there are times when you can choose to drop back a place before the finish line so as to finish in the position that will make you the rabbit (or to avoid being the rabbit if you like). But to do this you need to decide whether you think being the rabbit is an advantage.

I recommend being the rabbit as you get to cross much of the fleet by 3 or so boat lengths. Of course there will be times when you are headed and have to stick it out but overall I like being the rabbit.

If it’s a very shifty day you may want to avoid being the rabbit as you could well miss the first shift.

Another factor to consider is the forecast. If you know the wind is shifting gradually right then you may be forced to sail on a header for a while but you also will be first out to the right side giving you maximum advantage from the persistent shift.


Other Tips
  1. Try not to give away the port tack sailing angle to early. You don’t need to test it too often because your starting position and your initial tack is decided for you. If you don’t give away the port tack angle the other boats will have less clues as to where they need to line up.
  2. Spoil the start? If you see a big shift to the left and you know that being on port tack for 3 minutes is going to hurt your race then you could let the sails flap or dive off into the pack to get the start abandoned. You could also start early or late. These are cheeky moves but my understanding is that you get one chance to do this before you get disqualified. In all likelihood the race officer would like to restart anyway in this situation.


Tips if you’re not the Rabbit Boat

Workout where to line up


Sail along on port a few times before the start. This will give you an idea of the track the Rabbit Boat will take and so will help you gauge how far forward to line up.


Then there is the question of which end to start. There are several factors to consider beyond the factors important to traditional starts.

  1. Is the Rabbit Boat quick or slow? If the Rabbit is slow you want to start as near to the pin end as possible as the further away from the pin you start the more you are disadvantaged by the Rabbit’s slow pace. However, bear in mind others will also work this out so there maybe a lot of congestion at the favoured end. There are several reasons the rabbit maybe slow:
    • As a boat is only required to be the Rabbit once if there’s a long regatta the Rabbit could be a boat that finished well down the fleet. This is especially the case in smaller fleets when you’ll get through the fleet sooner. Knowing how good your competitors are is key.
    • If the wind is getting lighter you don’t want to be held up waiting for the Rabbit to reach you.
  1. Is the Rabbit Boat headed? If so you should start near to the pin to take maximum advantage of the shift.
  2. Which side of the course will be favoured? Starting at the pin end will allow you to work the left side of the course. Whereas starting further down may allow you to tack out to the right easier.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that in light winds there will effectively be a shorter line as the Rabbit boat won’t sail as far in their time sailing on port. This will mean the line is more crowded.


Power Ducking

When you duck behind the gate boat adjust your sailing technique to maximise your speed. The water coming off the gate boat will be choppier than elsewhere on the course and you will likely still be accelerating when you duck the gate boat. This all calls for setting the sails up for max power. You’ll also want to steer to and power through the waves which may mean not pointing so high. This makes having a gap to leeward even more vital.


Closing Thoughts

Though you may not encounter them often knowing how to do rabbit starts is a useful skill as you may find yourself doing them at important events. My hope is this guide acts as a good starting point to build from and is a resource you can come back to whenever you need. In the meantime, if you wish to improve your “normal” starts you may find this 3 part guide useful.