Sweaty hands, racing heart, shortness of breath, weakness in muscles… sounds familiar? Of course it does. Rather, it will do to every dinghy racing helm. As those last few seconds to the start tick away - taking an eternity - we are assailed by all sorts of emotions. There's hope, of course, anticipation; even fear perhaps. They’re all in there squirming away trying to drive us over the edge into… raw panic.
That's the panic that causes us to oversheet, to pinch, to heel over, to stop, to forget our acceleration routines… in short, that causes us to make a bad start.
Yet we shouldn't have to feel like condemned people about to be shot. We should be able to control our destinies. All we need to do is follow the golden rules. They obviously aren't foolproof but they go a long way towards keeping things cool.
1. As those seconds tick away there is nothing that we can do about our position on the line. That was taken care of long ago when we went through our "checking which is the right end to start" routines.
In fact, there are quite a few ways to find out which is the best end. The most simple and therefore the easiest one, is to sail along the line, sheeting the mainsail in as perfectly as possible. Once you've got that organised, tack but be careful not to alter the mainsail setting as you do so. As you sail away back down the line, check to see if the mainsail is set as perfectly as it was before. If it is not, then one or other end of the line is the paying end.
If the mainsheet has to be eased, the wind is further behind, and the end you are sailing from is the paying end.
If the mainsheet has to be pulled in, the wind is further in front, and the end you are sailing towards is the paying end.
If the wind is shifting, you will have to check and keep checking. So don't sail outside the end of the line because it may be impossible to get right back to the paying end if the wind changes.
2. If it is obvious to you which is the paying end, then it will be obvious to everyone else. That leads to the fleet all ganging up together in one place.
The result of this congestion is that the wind drops as it goes up and over the top of the mass, wash increases and confuses the wave pattern, and, worst of all, boats congregate early and as they stop, they raft up. If it is a big committee boat you can even run out of wind under it. So, I’m sure that as we know to our cost, it is only one or two boats maximum that get away. The rest all wallow in their dirty wind.
Much better to be just away from the paying end. To leeward of the bunch, at the windward end for example, with all the luffing rights, etc. that gives you. Hidden from the race officer's eyes, you can nibble up to the line and be ready to bear away, accelerate and go as soon as the gun goes. O.K., so you've lost a few metres by being further down the line, but at least you're safe. Besides, the raft of boats to windward acts as a buffer against those poor unfortunate naive sailors who come down from beyond the committee boat hoping to find space.
If it’s the leeward end that pays, then this playing for safety is even more important. The timing to get this end right has to be so perfect that it just isn't worth the risk to start right next to the buoy
3. Never go outside the windward end of the line. As windward boat, you have no rights. Rule 18.1(a) is clear when it states that you are not entitled to water at a starting mark surrounded by navigable water.
Besides which, as you bear away hoping for a gap, it will already be closed and you're speeding up to a certain 720 or worse.
4. Try to keep speed on. If you have to hover, do so a few seconds away from the line. Then you've got a chance to build up speed before the hordes envelop you. And envelop you they surely will, if you try to hover exactly on the line.
You will already have worked outhow long it takes to get going in the conditions. So that is your guide to the safe hovering distance.
5. Practice your acceleration techniques and keep the boat upright, otherwise you will be in the dirty wind of the boat to leeward. Try to bear away as the gun goes to get a bit of speed. You can only really do this if, as you nibbled up to the line, you luffed up minutely from time to time to create a gap between you and the boat to leeward. Don't overdo this. Otherwise the gap will be spotted and will be filled by a boat coming in from behind, who then has rights over you because you're windward boat! How unfair can you get?
6. As the fleet comes up to the start line, the wind will drop all the way down the line. So ease kickers. Don't oversheet jibs. Don't sit too far forward (or aft). Then, as the fleet spreads out, bring the controls back on to their proper settings.
7. Keep a good watch out all around and get your crew to do the same, reporting in all the time. Crews should be doing the timing too. In big fleets, don't expect to hear the gun. There will be too much other noise and besides it is visual signals that count.
8. Don't try to tack too soon around the front of the committee boat. His anchor warp is dangling there desperate to entangle you. So, in your pre-start checks, have a look at the anchor cables at both ends.
9. If you've made a really
don't blow it in the euphoria of the moment. Relax and get on with the
race. But a small smile is permitted!
10. My favourite routine is to sail along the line on port, towards the right end looking for a gap to tack into. If you remember in Golden Rule No.5, there will be gaps being created all the time. All you have to do is find them!
11. It was Paul Elvstrom who said that "if you're not over the line once in every five races then you’re not trying". Well, if that's your view too, be over the line in non-important races. But I bet that it will be the other way round!
Finally, if all else fails, keep your cool. There is a whole lot of race left to go.