Practising Starting

There are quite a number of skills needed for good dinghy sailing starts and these can be practised easily on your own or in small groups

What the Experts Say

Ed Baird – Dick Tillman - The Complete Book of Laser Sailing

‘We’d sail maybe 10 to 20 short races. Pretty soon it didn’t matter how you did in each race…you just tried your best all the time, experimenting with different starting techniques each race’

Ben Ainslie – The Laser Campaign Manual

‘To practise (holding station on the start line), use the tiller to hold your boat head to wind and in position. Be aware it is illegal to scull so don’t allow your tiller to cross the centreline continually. Also try tacking back and forth to hold the boat in the same position.’

Videos for Practising Starting

Ben Ainslie talking about and demonstrating starting skills

This video from Jon Emmett has him demonstrating holding station and accelerating off the line

This video shows boat-handling skills needed for starting - look especially at 2 minutes 17 seconds and 3 minutes 32 seconds

Books with information on Practising Starting

Laser Campaign Manual - Ben Ainslie, page 20

The Complete book of Laser Sailing - Dick Tillman, page 129

Be Your Own Sailing Coach - Jon Emmett, pages 40, 42, 44 and 50

Websites and Online Articles for Practising Starting

Lots of different drills for practising starting

This useful guide for beginners and less confident racers covers some good practice drills for improving your starting

Some more practice drills for starting, with videos.

This comprehensive article on starting has a good list of the skills you need to hold position and accelerate at the start

What We Learned...

There are quite a number of skills needed to make good starts on a consistent basis:

  • Holding Station
  • Protecting Your Space
  • Sailing Backwards
  • Time and Distance
  • Using Transits
  • Acceleration

Each of these can be practised easily on your own or in small groups, and it is useful to do this on a regular basis as this area of racing is crucial to improving your results.

We have a section on practice exercises, but here are all the key exercises for practising starting:

Holding Station

This is absolutely essential to getting a good start as it enables you to get in position early and watch the start develop from a position of strength.

Find a buoy and manoeuvre your boat so your bow is just to leeward of the mark and start your stopwatch. The boat will slowly drift to leeward. Try to stay as close to the buoy as you can without going beyond it (i.e. treat it as if it is the committee boat end of the line). As soon as you are more than two boat lengths away from the buoy stop and start again, taking note of the time on your stopwatch. The aim is to hold position for as long as possible, with the eventual aim being to be able to hold position within the two-boat length space indefinitely.

Tips for improving this area:

  • Release the vang – a loose vang will depower your sail. Even with the sail flapping a tight vang will push the boat forward, making it harder to keep the boat moving as slowly as possible. Also, a tight vang will try to push the boat head to wind; likewise a very loose vang will see the boat slip sideways. Play with the vang to find the best setting for holding station.
  • Use the tiller in short jabs to maintain a head-to-wind position. Be careful not to scull (clearly prohibited under rule 42).
  • Practise quick double tacks – sheet as little as you can to keep acceleration to a minimum (just enough to see you through the tack), use the tiller more than normal to create rudder drag, and push the boom out as you turn to back the mainsail and stop you moving forward and beyond the buoy.
  • Keep the boat flat – this will help stop the sideways drift. If you need sideways drift for some reason then raise the daggerboard.
  • Learn how to sail backwards

Protecting Your Space

There are two ways to protect space to leeward

  1. Shutting the door – practice as above in Holding Station, but include regular periods where you drop your bow down below a close-hauled position (as if on a beam reach but with the sails flapping). You use this skill when you see a boat sailing along the line looking for a gap to sail into before the start – it discourages them from taking your space to leeward.
  2. Work boat to windward – again, as above in Holding Station, practice double tacks to make space back to windward.

Sailing Backwards

Sometimes it is necessary to reverse out of a bad spot on the line and find another, better position. Two important things to remember though:

  1. You have no rights when sailing backwards
  2. 30 seconds is probably too late to use this manoeuvre - you should only really use it when you have comfortably more than a minute to find an alternative spot.

Practise bringing the boat head to wind, and then push the boom out as far as it will go. Make sure your weight is bell forward to keep the transom out of the water. It is important to practise:

Steering – steering will be reversed. If you are able, practise sailing backwards around some buoys to improve your manoeuvring skills

The transitions – you need to be able to start sailing backwards quickly, and also to understand how quickly you can do this and how fast the boat is likely to move. This is essential to avoid getting into rules difficulties. You also need to be able to go from sailing backwards to sailing forwards again quickly and smoothly.

Time and Distance

It is essential that you understand how quickly your boat accelerates. This will differ between classes, but also within a class it will depend on the wind and sea conditions. You should also bear in mind that the water and wind will be more disturbed on a busy start line, and this is likely to affect your boats ability to accelerate.

Park your boat next to a buoy. Accelerate as quickly as you can, and take note of the distance sailed in order to get up to full speed.

Now sail back below the buoy, and try to judge the distance to match the distance sailed to get up to full speed. Accelerate hard again and see how well you judged the distance.

Repeat the exercise, taking note of the difference that gusts and lulls make. You can then vary the practice – if it takes 8 seconds to get up to speed, then do an imaginary start where you want to be passing the buoy at full speed after an 8 second count down. Try to ensure that you are never too far away from the buoy to get there at speed and on time.

Using Transits

For this exercise to be effective you need a coach boat. The coach boat anchors, having dropped a pin end buoy. The coach stands in position, acting as a starting mast. Each of the sailors takes a transit, then, one by one sails to the middle of the line. When they have the boat stationary on the line (using the transit(s) they have got) the sailor raises an arm and the coach can then inform them whether they are on, over or behind the line. Repeat the exercise until each sailor is consistently on the line.

Remember, it helps considerably to have a straight line to look down when using a transit – a bowsprit, a straight line down the centre of the bow area of the boat or something similar will help utilise your transit to its best effect.

Also, a lot of top sailors take a transit from the back of the committee boat as well as from the actual start mast. This acts as a ‘safe’ transit – i.e. you are certain to be behind the line with this transit. It can be useful in the holding station period or the acceleration period to ensure that you are not over at the start.


Firstly you should practice your technique for accelerating:

  1. Get yourself stationary in the ‘holding station’ position.
  2. Put on the vang to the required setting for the first beat.
  3. Get your ‘bow down’ using the rudder, but not allowing the sail to fill.
  4. Tilt the boat to leeward to help bring the bow back up, and sheet in hard, bringing the boat smoothly flat again and steering gently to bring yourself into the close hauled position and going at full speed.

Find two or, most preferably, three sailors of similar ability. Line up in a close hauled position about a boatlength apart and the same distance upwind, all holding station. Once in position the middle boat calls ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO’, and all three boats accelerate as hard as possible from a standing start on go. Once up to speed stop and start again, with the boat most to leeward in the previous start becoming the boat most to windward, with the others shuffling down

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