Winning the Start – Essential Skills for Dinghy Sailing

A good start in sailing can be crucial to a good race result, and whilst races are not won at the startline, they can be lost there.

What the Experts Say

Ben Tan – The Complete Introduction to Laser Racing

‘at the start every inch translates to more positions gained or lost than any other time during the race’

His recommended routine:

  1. Start Timer
  2. Fix the Transit
  3. Determine Line Bias
  4. Plan Strategy for Start and Beat
  5. Approach the Starting Line
  6. Create and Protect Space to Leeward
  7. Sheet in and Go!

Jon Emmett – Be Your Own Sail Coach

‘a good start is one where you have clean wind, go in the direction you want and where you can hold your lane 30 seconds after the gun’

Dick Tillman – The Complete Book of Laser Sailing

‘At the gun, you want to be moving at top speed, be on course, have clear air, an open lane, and be on the favoured tack’

Paul Goodison – as quoted in Jon Emmett – Be Your Own Sail Coach

Before Warning Signal

  • Become comfortable in the conditions
  • Devise plan and strategy
  • Get transits

After Warning Signal

On Preparatory Signal

Before One-Minute Signal

  • Sail upwind to double check set-up and line bias

At One-Minute Signal

  • Check timing again and get in position for final approach

After One-Minute Signal

  • Try to maintain sight of one end of the line
  • Be aware of what is happening around, especially boats that could take the gap to leeward

25 seconds to go

10 seconds to go

3 seconds to go

  • Boat at full speed to hit line

First 30 seconds after start

  • Concentrate on boat speed and holding lane

Videos for general starting skills

A collection of starts with examples of good positioning, timing and acceleration

This video shows the importance of being in the front row, and looking for a space early to avoid being in the second row (or worse...)

Jon Emmet shows holding position and accelerating off the line in this excellent video

This video of a Finn Gold Cup Medal Race shows a high quality fleet line up all in the front row and going fast at the gun. One boat mis-times it slightly and is over.

Another Finn Gold Cup Medal Race, another good example of starting. Be aware of how long the fleet is able to hold position on the line, and how nearly the entire fleet has clear air and good boatspeed at the gun.

good video of 470s accelerating off the line at a world championships. Note how little time they need to go from stationary to full speed.

The Laser Medal Race in the 2008 Olympics. Ignoring the two boats well below the line (they were match racing for the gold, so their priorities were different from a normal fleet start), the rest of the fleet lines up well. The Italian boat is the only one in bad air, and he tacks off immediately to secure a clear lane.

Books with information on Winning the Start - Essential skills for starting in dinghy sailing


The relevant page references:

Complete Introduction to Laser Racing - Ben Tan, page 117

The Complete Book of Laser Sailing - Dick Tillman, page 44

Be Your Own Sailing Coach - Jon Emmett, page 38

Links to other web pages for Winning the Start - Essential skills for starting in dinghy sailing

This article takes a comprehensive look at all the key points to consider when starting

Paul Goodison gives his tips for winning the start

And in this audio clip he goes through the key things needed in making a good start

Robert Scheidt talks through his routine at the start

This is a comprehensive article on the tactics of starting well

really good article on starting

Karl Taulbee's article on starting well

This piece has advice from a number of successful sailors on starting

This article covers a number of things, but has some good stuff on starting well

A good, if basic, article on starting. Useful for beginners.

This tip is for a specific type of situation, but is really useful all the same.

Another basic article on starting, geared specifically to catamarans.

Finally, the Apparent Wind blog offers 12 ways to sabotage your start

What We Learned...

A good start can be crucial to a good race result. Some consider the start to be as much as 90% of the race, and there are times when this is true (Paul Goodison says ‘starting can make a difference of between 10 and 90 percent of doing well in a race (depending) on the course and conditions'). For most racers the start is more normally around 50% to 80% of the race, and the smaller the fleet, the more likely it is that you can recover from a bad start. What is clear is that the start is very important to your final result, and a good start makes getting a good result a whole lot easier.

It is also important to recognise that you don’t need to ‘win’ the start. It tends to be a risky strategy to try and be the boat that wins the committee boat or the pin end – too much can go wrong, and too much is out of your control. It is more important to have a better start than all the boats in your immediate vicinity, and also to be towards the favoured end of the line. Clear air and a good lane are crucial. You should also be aware of the level of competition – higher quality means more risk in trying to win an end, while lower quality fleets give you the opportunity to claim the favoured end.

All the experts agree on the most basic points, so it is worth going through all these things and either making sure that you do them correctly, or practising them so that you are confident in your ability to do them well under pressure.

Other things you need to consider when starting:

  • Boat set-up
  • Length of startline
  • Course Marks
  • Check for Spinnaker twists
  • Wind oscillations and trends
  • Check for weed
  • Ensure cockpit is dry
  • Know what the tide is doing

Try to visualise your start between the Warning Signal and the One-Minute gun. Have a clear picture in your mind as to how your start will unfold (and be confident when imagining this). This will help you be well prepared for the final moments, as well as highlighting any pitfalls that are likely to occur as the start unfolds.

A good tip for club racing is to sail along behind the main group on port. Look for a good gap near where you want to start, and tack into the windward side of the gap. If you time this perfectly you can maintain speed through the tack and have space to accelerate into, giving you good speed to hit the line. You will almost certainly be going quicker at the gun than boats going from a standing start. However, for higher quality fleets or crowded start lines this strategy is risky, and finding a spot on the line earlier will be more likely to result in consistently good starts.

Another useful tip is to try to start next to someone who is slower than you. If sailing in a handicap fleet with mixed classes this can be quite important – starting just below a boat that is quicker than you will mean that you are very likely to be rolled and in bad air soon after the start. Don’t get stressed if you can’t achieve this – it’s not always possible – but do bear it in mind as it can make popping out ahead of the surrounding boats a lot easier.

Do also try and experiment with different techniques and settings. For instance, try setting your boat up for power off the start line, to be adjusted to a more balanced setting after the first few minutes of the beat. It may help you get your nose in front by giving you more speed in the confused water. It may not, but trying it will mean that you know one way or the other.

Finally, a tip worth mentioning for starting in big fleets or in the middle of a crowd of boats. In a large crowd, the Bernoulli effect comes into play, and the wind blowing between the boats has the effect of sucking them together (much like in this video). so when lining up early for the start on a crowded line, remember that this effect will reduce the amount of room you have to work with.

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