Being on the start line when the start gun goes is good. But it won’t help you much if you’re at a standstill as your competitors will just sail over you, leaving you in their disturbed wind and wake.
If you could just reach along the line and head up as soon as the gun goes then being on the line with speed wouldn’t be too hard.
Unfortunately for us, that’s not usually an option as boats approaching from behind could push us over.
Instead, we have to approach the line timing it so we hit the line just as the gun goes and almost at full speed. This requires us to know how long (in both time & distance) it takes us to accelerate. Say for instance it takes us 10 seconds to accelerate in which time we travel 3 boat lengths.
This knowledge means we know we need to be 3 boat lengths away from the line when it’s 10 seconds to the start time.
To know when it’s 10 seconds to go you’ll need a sailing watch. Maybe one day there’ll be a second by second audible countdown or a big clock in the sky to look at. But for now we’re stuck with good old-fashioned race watches.
If you don’t have one it should be top of your to-purchase list. If you don’t have a watch or lose the time then just track forward with the rest of the fleet and you should be able to make a decent start.
Other Boats & The Trigger Pull
Our acceleration is also dependent on other boats. All the other boats will tend to trickle forward slowly so at 10 seconds to go they are in the correct position. So we need to stick level with them as if we drop behind we’ll be in their disturbed wind, which will slow our acceleration.
If the other boats are good they’ll also be able to accelerate in a shorter distance which means they can position themselves closer to the line. This ability to accelerate is called a trigger pull. If we are slower to trigger pull we’ll have to line up further back than the better boats which leads to the problems listed in the above paragraph.
So practicing your trigger pull will make a big difference to your results- and it’s not an exercise you need other boats for, so you can just practice it whenever you have some time on the water.
The Leeward Gap
Our ability to accelerate is partly dependent on the space we have to leeward (to our left if we are on starboard tack). This is because sailboats find it easier to point closer to the wind when they are traveling faster. Likewise, aeroplanes set their wings for more power when taking off and only once at full speed do the wings flatten into a ‘least drag’ shape. So a slight bear away off the close-hauled sailing angle is useful if we are to accelerate efficiently. Bear off slightly, build up your speed, and then once at full speed you can start to test how close to the wind you can point without losing significant speed.
But in order to bear off, we need space to leeward of us. If another boat is close to us we won’t be able to bear away. That’s why it’s important to find a large enough space on the start line. Lining up close to the windward boat will give you the maximum space to leeward.
So you’ve got a nice big gap to leeward. All sorted right? Nope! If you think your gap is attractive other sailors will have the same idea and try to take it. That’s why watching out for this and being able to defend your gap is crucial.
The best way to do this is simply bear away momentarily when you notice someone eyeing up your gap. This temporary bear away makes the gap look smaller and shows the other boat your willing to fight for it. Often they will sail onto a gap that looks easier to take.
So, that’s all you really need to know to be on the line with speed at the start gun. As with anything in sailing you’ll get better the more practice you put in. Next time you go out racing have 1 or 2 things you want to work on. Then even if you don’t have a good race you’ll have at least made progress.
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