Rogue Race Officers and the Importance of Start Line Bias

It is a funny aspect of club racing that the quality of courses you sail varies dramatically.

Some days you get a Race Officer who is virtually a pro, and the course is set with almost supernatural accuracy - perfect beats, perfect reaches, perfect race length.

Other days the course may be set by someone who doesn't sail that regularly and has never been properly shown how to set a course. On these occasions you get an array of different legs, from tight fetches to broad reaches, sometimes with no actual beat at all.

I prefer something more towards the former, but the latter does hold a special place in my heart.

One of the general traits of the non-professional course setter is the amount of start line bias - there is almost always heavy bias to one end or the other. I was recently sailing in a club race with a start line that was heavily pin end biased - to the point that you almost couldn't cross the line on starboard tack.

Start line bias can lead to some interesting moments

Start line bias can lead to some interesting moments

This presented me with a problem (or at least I thought it did). I had visions of our fleet of fifteen or so boats all piled up at the pin end, all wanting to tack onto port in order to get across the line. I had a strong feeling it was going to be pretty messy.

So with about a minute to go I was arriving at the pin end with a plan. I would set up to windward of the bunch, pull the trigger well and try to tack onto port early and get a jump on the others that were stuck down there waiting for the rest of the fleet to tack.

Except there was no bunch.

There were only four boats at the pin end. Me, a guy who is probably the best sailor at the club, another boat who normally finished in the top half of the fleet and another who was a mid to bottom of the fleet sailor.

The other dozen or so boats were all crammed around the committee boat fighting for space.

I braced myself for a last minute dash to the pin end from the rest of the fleet, but as the seconds ticked down I could see that there was no movement - no-one was heading our way. And so, with thirty seconds to go I changed plan and decided to start on port right on the pin. I could duck the rock star sailor if he started on starboard at the pin, but I should get a fairly clear run otherwise.

And that's what I did. The best sailor had started a boatlength or two up from the pin - I presume so he could luff around the mark if he got held on starboard tack by someone on his hip. This meant that there was a little gap for me to squeeze through, and I was off and away. I led our rock star by a few boatlengths at the top mark, followed by the other two boats that had started at the pin end. The rest of the fleet was nearly a third of the beat back.

After the race I got to chatting to the other sailors. What happened at the start, I wondered. It turned out that most of them hadn't really thought that much about the line bias. It was clear to everyone I spoke to that they had got the start wrong, and that the other end of line was better, but no-one had really done much thinking about it before the start.

It struck me as so odd. Choosing where to start is one of the main things I think about until the last couple of minutes before the start. And then I'm in to trying to execute the plan (not always with perfect results...). It made me wonder what other sailors think about whilst I'm thinking about the start. Perhaps I should have asked them.

The thing is, for medium or lower level club sailors, improving starts is one of the easiest ways to improve results. Getting a good start in a club race can give you a real lead over most of the fleet which generally helps with results. But it also means you sail more of the race with better sailors, something that will also help improve your skills. You learn more sailing with guys that are better than you than you do with competing with people that are the same level as you or worse.

One other thing struck me as really odd. As the fleet lined up with a minute or so to go, I wonder why no-one looked around and saw that the rock star and I were at the other end of the line. In this fleet we were the two best sailors, and if we chose to start at the other end of the line that would probably suggest that there was a reason for it.

When I was starting to learn about race strategy, copying top sailors was one of the ways I did it. At first I would follow what they were doing, and then try to figure out the reasons for their decisions. Then, as I grew more confident of my understanding, I'd decide what I thought I should do, and then I'd compare how my strategy worked against a top sailor. Where did we do the same things? Where did we do something different? What were the reasons for the differences? And which strategy worked better?

And if I saw a top sailor doing something dramatically different to me - like starting at the opposite end of the line - then sometimes I'd just copy again.

It's a decision I'd rarely regret.

3 thoughts on “Rogue Race Officers and the Importance of Start Line Bias

  1. Right on. In my one and only win in our pursuit race series last year I did a port tack start at the pin end of a very pin biased line. I don’t pretend to be very good at starts but if I see an opportunity like that I will go for it.

  2. Port bias is indeed interesting Damian.

    If it’s just a crap line, even winning the pin can be an error if you get pinned going left with no freedom to tack. Often, in that situation, the beat is one-sided too, mostly port sailing. The rule of thumb is long-tack first, another reason not to be on starboard.

    But if it’s a big left shift, being on starboard means you are sailing on the header. Yuk! I’d rather approach the line on port, looking for a chance to cross. On a short line, I’ll happily start on port at the committee boat – by the time the rest have woken up, the clear wind and lift have more than compensated for a length or two of line bias foregone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *