3 Steps to Better Starts
There are three basic considerations for getting a good start. First is determining which end of the starting line is favored, second is deciding which side of the course is favored, and third is positioning yourself relative to other boats. For the purpose of the article we are going to assume a windward start where the first leg is a beat.
Figuring out the favored end is pretty straight forward, in the absence of other considerations you want to start at the end that is furthest upwind. The most accurate way to do this is to sail past the leeward end of the line and then tack around so that you are sailing straight back towards the weather end of the line on port tack; line up your boat so that you are on the course that will take you directly through both ends of the line and record the compass heading. Next go head to wind and record that heading. Subtract 90 from the bearing of the line and if that number is bigger than the bearing of the wind then the left end is further upwind, if it the number is smaller than the bearing of the wind then the right end is favored. For example if the bearing of the line is 325 degrees on port tack and the bearing of the wind is 225 degrees you subtract 90 from 325 and the result is 235. The wind at 225 is 10 degrees to the left of perpendicular so the left end of the starting line is further upwind. If the wind is at 235 then the line is square and both ends are equal. If the wind is 245 it is 10 degrees to the right of perpendicular so the right end is favored.
Get your bearing on the line as soon as the committee has the line set. That way as you continue to take wind readings before the start you will always know which end is favored in the current shift. It is important to get a good wind reading as close to the actual start time as possible because often the wind will shift and as it does the end of the line that you thought was favored may change. As a side note, if you are sailing on a course where they use a leeward gate you can use the same procedure to determine which end of the gate is favored for rounding.
Step two, picking the favored side of the course, is the hardest which naturally also makes it the most important. There are three factors that are important in making your decision, wind shifts, wind velocity, and current. Local knowledge can be a big help here but never let it be your overriding consideration; I have seen people sail off to one side of the course all too often just because that is “what always works” only to find out that it doesn’t. Since you were sailing around well before the start recording the wind direction and the time of day each time you checked, you now have a good starting point. In general wind shifts fall into three types; oscillating where the wind directions shifts back and forth, persistent where the wind gradually shifts in one direction throughout the day, or a combination where you have oscillating shifts but the overall picture is still that the winds moves further and further in one direction as the day goes on. By looking at the data you recorded you should be able to see a pattern of what the wind shirts have been doing, and the general time period of the shifts. In oscillating conditions very often the shifts will occur at about the same interval. Remembering the #1 rule for upwind sailing, sail into headers, you want to plan your start so that you are sailing towards the next header or at least have the ability to tack and go in that direction without much interference. If you think the next shift will be to the left you want to start on starboard tack as far down the line as possible so that you will be one of the first boats to get the header, and that when you do will gain more advantage from it that anyone that is to weather of you. If you think the next shift will be to the right then you want to get onto port tack as quickly as possible so that you lead the fleet into that shift. Depending on how big you think the shift will be, and how much the line is favoring one end or the other, it is very likely that you may not want to start all the way at the favored end if it is the end away from the direction you want to go. For example if the left hand end of the line in favored by a couple of boat lengths but you are expecting the next shift to be 5 or 10 degrees to the right, then starting right at the pin is probably not going to work very well. The further you are towards the left end of the line the more boats you will have to weather of you on starboard tack that will keep you pinned down unable to tack towards the shift. And when you do you are much more likely to have other boats tack on top of you plus as the wind shifts to the right you will be headed down towards the transoms of the boats that sailed into the shift first even though they started at the un-favored end of the line.
The next factor is wind velocity; you will always be faster if you sail in more wind than your competition. It is important to go over several good weather predictions the morning of the race and then couple that information with what you see locally. The wind will generally build more towards the direction that the wind is shifting; this can also be affected by the geography of the land around your course, and weather systems that are approaching.
Current can also be a factor. In some areas it will be the overriding consideration while in others it will make little or no difference. In areas with lots of current there are generally good tide and current tables that will give you the information you need, but it always pays to get out on the course early enough that you can sail or power to different parts of the course and see what the current is. If current is going to make a difference then it is important to plan your start so that you are free to sail towards the area that will have the least adverse affect, or the most positive affect. Depending on the strength of the current this decision may easily outweigh the wind shifts or wind strength.
The third step is positioning yourself in relation to other boats so that you can have the maximum negative effect of them, or so that they will have the least negative effect on you. This is the tactical side of sailing rather than the boat speed side, but making it work will be impossible if you haven’t already figured out which side of the course has the advantage. Knowing how your boat performs relative to the other boats in your class is important. Make sure you aren’t starting right to weather of a boat that you know points really well, or to leeward of a boat that you know is faster and will roll over you in short order anyway. As much as possible you want to start next to other boats that you know are slower than you are so that you will quickly have the ability to tack and keep clear air if you want to. When sailing in the later races of a series you should always know which boats you need to beat to place well. If you are ahead of them in the standings then it will be important to start with clear air in the same vicinity as them so that they don’t get an advantage of a shift, puff, or current that you don’t get. If they are ahead of you in the standings then you want to start where you have the tactical advantage over them and can force them to go to the un-favored side of the course. If you think the wind is going to shift to the right then you want to start to weather of them where you can prevent them from tacking until you do and then try and time your tack such that there is other traffic that will prevent your competition from tacking for a while longer. If you think the wind is going to shift towards the left then you want to start just to leeward of them where you can force them to tack away and sail towards the un-favored side of the course.