Racing to Win – Accelerating off the line

Accelerating off the line at the start is arguably the most important skill you can have in order to get consistently good sailing starts.

What the Experts Say

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

The most critical moments occur in the last 30 seconds before the start and continue until 30 seconds or so after the start. This is when you will either create a hole to leeward, accelerate and hold your lane, or when you will fail to do so and lose your lane.

Jon Emmett – Be Your Own Sailing Coach

It may pay to set the rig up for slightly more power…so you can keep your height and not fall into the boat to leeward of you. This also helps if the wind and waves are very disturbed.

Ben Tan – The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing

‘Novices often get caught off-guard…when the boats around them…suddenly sheet in and zoom off, leaving them blanketed.’

Ed Baird – Laser Racing

Drive your boat a little bit harder than you would on the open course. Sail it half a degree lower than normal. This will ensure you are making the best use of your foils…and keep your boat speed up’

Ben Ainslie – The Laser Campaign Manual

You really need to practice accelerating, and in particular getting the mainsail in as quickly as possible.

Paul Goodison – Laser Handbook

The key to acceleration is timing.

Videos for Accelerating Off the Line at the Start

Jon Emmett demonstrates accelerating off the line in this video

This video has some examples of the importance good acceleration makes to your start
Here it has an example of the importance of timing - giving your boat enough time to get up to speed and hit the line at full pace

Here a high quality 470 fleet show how quickly you can accelerate to full speed with good technique

Good acceleration technique is also shown here

Some 420s practising accelerating off the start line

This video is useful to see what happens when you pinch in the first minutes after the start. The sailor we are with tries to point too high (something he comments that he thinks he may be doing) and slowly gets rolled by the boat above him.

Books with Information for Accelerating Off the Line at the Start

The Laser Campaign Manual - Ben Ainslie, page 90

Laser Handbook - Paul Goodison, page 120

Complete Introduction to Laser Racing - Ben Tan, page 122

The Complete Book of Laser Sailing - Dick Tillman, page 122

Be Your Own Sailing Coach - Jon Emmett,  page 41 and 44

Websites and online articles for Accelerating off the Line

A useful article on Getting off the Line well (from

Paul Goodison writes about accelerating off the line in this excellent article on starting, and here he talks to Jon Emmett about starting, with a great description of the last 30 seconds before the start.

Some good practice drills (with video) for accelerating off the line

really good article on starting, with some material on accelerating off the line

A forum thread with advice for accelerating off the line well

good article on crewing in light airs with some useful stuff on accelerating at the start

What We Learned...

Racing to Win: Accelerating Off the Line

Accelerating off the start line is arguably the most important skill you can have in order to get consistently good starts. As long as the line is not hugely biased, and you are towards the end that you feel will benefit you most, you will not lose a lot of positions by being five boatlengths away from the ideal spot. But you will lose a lot of positions if you are slow off the line as you will be plunged into dirty air, confused swell and your options will likely be heavily restricted by other slow boats, making it harder to find clean air and a clear lane.

There are a number of exercises you can do to practise your acceleration and you should make time for them. You will see a difference in your results.

It is important to remember that confidence is crucial to making a good start. Know how far you are from the line, and make your own call as to when you need to accelerate. Waiting for other boats to go only means that they have started accelerating before you. You are already playing catch up. However, if the boats around you go early you have little choice but to go with them.

The first key to accelerating well off the start line is to have at least a boatlength to leeward to accelerate into. Don’t go into a gap too early (for small fleets you should find your position after the one-minute signal, even as late as 20 seconds to go; for larger fleets you may have to find a slot earlier). Creating space early is an invitation to your competitors to slot in and take your space to leeward.

Once it is time to accelerate (different classes take different lengths of time to get up to speed, so figure out your time and make sure you give yourself time to be at full pace when the gun goes) pull on your vang to the desired level. Now get your bow down to below close hauled. Jab the tiller towards you with the main eased and, if you have a jib, then use it to pull your nose around.

You should have practiced pulling the mainsheet in quickly using the hand-over-hand method (another skill that is easily practiced but much overlooked). Tilt the boat to leeward and roll it back towards you as you sheet in – this will help start bringing the boat back towards the wind, and a good, smooth, powerful roll will help acceleration.

You need to sail slightly below close hauled for a short period to reach full speed before pointing up to hit the line on a close hauled course and at full speed. (Sailing below close hauled for a short period also engages the foils much quicker than accelerating from close hauled as the flow attaches to the foils more easily).

Now you need to work, work, work to get your nose in front of those around you and hold your lane.

Sail settings are crucial at this time. The vang needs to be set just right – too much and the boat is hard to manoeuvre; too little and you won’t accelerate enough. Some recommend releasing the Cunningham if you are able to keep the boat flat as this will tighten the leech and give you more drive off the start line. Only do this if you can keep the boat flat (and for the opening minutes of the race you should be working as hard as possible as every inch gained is places gained at this stage of the race) because if you are heeling then you are slipping sideways and losing your lane.

Don’t be tempted to pinch at this stage. Most of the time you are looking for speed just after the start, and pinching will often slow you slightly, in turn decreasing the effectiveness of the foils and causing sideways drift. You want to get your nose out in front in order to be able to implement your first beat plan, and also to be able to catch the first shift and consolidate your position.

Summary of the sequence for accelerating

  1. Pull on the vang to the required upwind setting.
  2. Pull the bow down by jabbing the tiller to the windward side. Keep the main eased.
  3. As the bow moves below close-hauled, heel the boat to leeward.
  4. With the bow below close hauled start to pull the boat flat while sheeting the main in rapidly.
  5. Keep the boat below close hauled to accelerate and engage the flow over the foils.
  6. As you approach full speed bring the boat up to a close hauled course, sheeting the main in to the correct upwind trim.

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