Starting Strategy & Tactics

With Dave Dellenbaugh

The start of any sailboat race is a critical moment that will have a big effect on your potential success in that event. If you get off the line cleanly with clear air and good speed, heading toward the favored side, you’ve made a great first step. But if you end up in the second row with the oxygen masks dropping down, you’re in for a long game of catch-up.

One thing that’s clear is that starting is not an end in itself. You don’t get extra points for winning the start at the pin end, and no points are deducted for getting the worst start in the fleet. Starting is simply a means to an end – the ultimate goal is getting a good finish, so your start is only valuable to the extent it helps you do that. You don’t have to win the start in order to win the race or, certainly, the regatta.

One key thing about starting is having the ability to balance the trade-off between reward and risk. It’s tempting to go for the huge rewards that come with ‘winning’ the favored end. But the starting line is also filled with risk because it’s the one place where all the boats are fighting close together.

In order to follow your plan among this frenzy you need good skills in all parts of the game – strategy, tactics, boathandling and so on.

As a general rule of thumb, if you like the left side of the first beat you should start on the left side of the line. If you like the right side of the course, start on the right of the line. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many boats do not follow this basic principle. Of course, this may be affected by line bias. If the pin end is very favored, for example, you might start there even if your game plan is to go right. But most of the time your position on the line should synch up with your first-leg strategy. If you aren’t sure which way to go on the first beat, start toward the middle so you keep the option to go either way.

Dave Dellenbaugh is the publisher, editor and author of Speed & Smarts, the racing newsletter. He has been Olympic coach, America’s Cup tactician and two-time winner of The Canada’s Cup.

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