What to do if you get a bad start

The first thing to do is to get your head back in the race and concentrate on the situation you are now in - analyse the bad start later.

What the Experts Say

Mark Mendelblatt as quoted in Dick Tillman – The Complete Book of Laser Sailing

This is no time to panic…it’s equally important to sail the boat fast whether you’re in clean or dirty air

Videos with help for recovering from a bad start

Here Olympic Gold Medallist Paul Goodison talks about what to do if you get a bad start

This video shows Anna Tunnicliffe recovering from having to go back at the start. And in the Medal Race at the Olympics. And for the Gold Medal.

The Laser Medal Race at the Olympics in 2008. The Italian boat towards the pin end is the only boat in bad air - note how quickly he tacks off to secure a clear lane.

The Yngling Class at the 2008 Olympics. The Russian and Norwegian boats realise they won't make the pin, so gybe round and cross behind the fleet on port. Early and decisive action limits the damage and secures a clear lane as early as possible.

Books with information on recovering from a bad start

The Complete Book of Laser Sailing - Dick Tillman, page 124

Online articles and websites with help for dealing with a bad start

A good article on recovering from a bad start, with advice for either end of the line and mid-line starts that have gone wrong

The great Terry Hutchison talks about how to recover from a bad start

This piece also looks at how to come back from a mistake at the start

This article covers some common trouble areas, and has a good section on recovering from a bad start

This comprehensive article on starting tactics has a section on pitfalls at the start and how to deal with them

This article focuses specifically on recovering from a bad upwind start

In this podcast featuring Jon Emmett talking to Paul Goodison about starting, Paul Goodison describes briefly what he does when he gets into a bad position at the start.

This comprehensive article on starting well has a brief description at the end about what to do when it all goes wrong

What We Learned...

What to do if you get a bad start

Ok, so there is plenty of information available as to what to do in order to get a great start. But it doesn’t always work out that way, especially as you are learning, improving and trying new things.

So what do you do if it all goes a bit pair-shaped at the start? The first thing to do is to get your head back in the race and concentrating on the situation you are now in. There is no point in analysing right now what went wrong, no point in being furious with yourself or an opponent for the mistakes that led to getting a bad start, and there is definitely no point in throwing accusations at your crew or helm for having landed you in this mess.

Having accepted that what is done is done, you need to quickly and calmly analyse your current situation. Remember your plan for the first beat – which way did you want to go, or, if you were going up the middle and playing the shifts, what phase do you think the shift is in at the moment (this may not be easily discernible due to the bad air you are almost certainly in, but take an educated guess from what you know about the timing of the phases and also from what tack the top sailors are on)?

Most people try and tack off as soon as possible, and this is generally a good idea. However, do consider the following:

  • If you want to go left and are on starboard, would footing be a better option? If there is a clear lane just below you then sacrificing some height to get out into clear air and be heading to the side of the course that you prefer could be a good option.
  • Are boats ahead of you tacking off? You could be jumping from the frying pan and into the fire if you tack from one bit of bad air to another. Depending on how bad your start was, you may have little option but to seek the lesser of two evils, but do get your head up and check what is happening above you that will affect your wind.
  • Are there boats coming up on starboard that will mean that you have to tack back quite quickly? Not necessarily a bad thing if you are in cleaner air, but worth considering as it may reduce your options once you are stuck on someone else’s lee bow. Also, if your class is a slow-tacking boat, consider how much time you might lose by making two tacks in quick succession – is it better to stay where you are, or is it worth the time loss?

That said, the importance of clean air should not be underestimated. It is amazing how much of a difference getting clean air (and, indeed, clean water) can make. Unless there are good reasons not to go hunting for clean air then the sooner you do it the better. As soon as you have a better situation you can look to quickly restoring your (now slightly altered) race plan.

One final thing to be conscious of is boat set-up. Generally you shouldn’t be fiddling with your boat set-up immediately after the gun – you should have the boat perfectly set up for the first beat as you cross the line. But remember, your set up was for the prevailing conditions, not for being stuck in bad air and other boats wake. You need to keep the boat going as fast as possible for the conditions you are in, and if you are footing out of the situation rather than tacking off, then you should adjust the boat set-up to reflect this.

Get clear air, get in phase, and get back to plan as quickly and as calmly as possible.

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