Sailing Race Starts: How To Work Out The Best End Of The Line To Start

Despite a race officer’s best effort there is usually one end of the start line that is advantaged over the other. The longer the line the greater this advantage will be.
There are 3 main factors that determine which end is advantaged:
1. Wind direction
2. One side of the course being favoured over the other
3. Other boats
However, just because one factor indicates that one end is favoured doesn’t mean it is. This is because the other factors may indicate the other side is. For instance, if the wind direction means the starboard (right looking upwind) end is favoured, then that end may become crowded as the majority of the fleet want to start there. This can actually have the effect of making the other end more favourable.
If there are several factors at play you’ll have to weigh up which end has the most factors going for it. Or perhaps one factor is more influential than all the others put together.
Firstly, let’s quickly clarify some terms so no one is left behind.
· The starboard end (or committee boat end) is what we call the right hand side of the line as you look upwind
· The port end (or pin end) is what we call the left hand side of the line as you look upwind
· The line is “square” if each end of the line is equally as far away from the next mark.
So, here’s an in-depth explanation of each of the 3 factors one by one:
1. Wind Direction
The race officer will try to lay the start line so each end is equally far upwind. However, the wind has this annoying habit of not staying put and will tend to shift several degrees either side of the mean (the average wind direction).
If the first leg of the course is an upwind it obviously helps if you can be further upwind than the other boats at the start time. This is possible if the wind shifts.
If the wind shifts clockwise (a veer in sailing speak) this advantages the boats starting at the starboard end as they are now further upwind than the boats starting on the port end. Alternately, if the wind shifts anti-clockwise (a back) this will favour the port end boats.
However, finding out which end the wind direction makes favoured is not obvious. One easy way to do it is to position yourself in the middle of the start line and go head to wind. The sail should flog over the centre of the boat. It’s now acting like a flag. And flags are very useful if we want to know the wind direction. So we have our massive flag and as it’s flogging over the centreline of our boat so our bow will be acting like an arrow pointing at where the wind is coming from.
If the wind is coming anywhere from the port end to perpendicular to the start line this tells us the wind is in a backing phase (has shifted anti-clockwise from the average wind). Therefore starting at the port end is advantaged as we’ll be further upwind there. Alternately, if the wind is coming anywhere from the Starboard end to perpendicular to the start line then the starboard end is favoured.
The simple version: Go head to wind at the centre of the start line. Let the sail flog over the centreline of the boat and if the bow points nearer one end of the line than the other then the end it is pointing to is the advantaged one.
It’s worth testing the wind direction bias several times in the run up to the start time as the wind direction may well change and with it the advantaged end of the line.
2. One Side Of The Course Is Favoured Over The Other
The following are some factors that can make one side of the course advantaged over the other:
1. Stronger Breeze
2. Favoured Tide
3. Wind Bend
4. Less Chop
5. A Persistent Shift Is Forecast
Therefore it only makes sense that if you are starting at the end of the start line closest to the advantaged side you will reach the advantage sooner.
3. Other Boats
If one side of the line is advantaged because of the wind direction and/ or one side of the course being advantaged then the other boats are likely to realise. This will mean that the majority of the other boats will start at the “advantaged” end of the line.
If there are more boats around us it makes it more difficult to start, especially for less experienced sailors. Therefore, there will become a point where the “favoured” end of the line becomes un-favoured. At this point you deem that the least congested end of the line will give you a better chance at getting a good start.
  1. Being on the line 2. With speed 3. At the right end
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