Starting – The Over Rated Art

Starting at a sailing regatta

When we see other sailing groups training, the disproportionate emphasis placed on the skills of starting never ceases to amaze us.  There is little doubt that in Optimist sailing the late starter is disadvantaged – the slower the boat, the more time is spent being bounced from one rapidly closing lane to another.   Yet sail coaching seems to focus on getting the starts better, despite the fact that no sailor can start perfectly every time.  We consider the management of ALL situations post start to be far more critical than the act of leaving the line for this reason.

Modern Olympic sailing places far more emphasis on the ability to make the best decisions on the course, not just on the start-line.  Position is far more important than the immediate win.  There are NO chocolates or trophies for the first one over the line.  The evolution of short course “theater” style racing does place a premium on starting skills, so they should not be ignored, but maybe the value should be considered more closely depending on the nature of the race.  It is the old risk vs reward calculation, and generally the shorter the course, the bigger the reward.

Many great sailors are not the best starters.  Why do the rules that many sailing coaches apply in training not really apply to the top sailor?  Maybe because the most critical decisions happen after the start – how can a few seconds count to such an extent in a race lasting over 30 minutes, with the massive deltas that we see developing in most fleets?  The rich may get richer sometimes, but they are also first into the holes as often as they are first into pressure.  How can you race from behind?  Well, the advantage of being able to see what the fleet is doing maps out the course better than if you are the first one to tread that path.

We must remind ourselves that a sailing regatta is won by the boat with the lowest score, not by the boat with the greatest number of wins.  To sail from behind means that we may evaluate whether the leader is on a good course, and emulate that, or on a bad course, and sail away from them.  To this extent the leader is vulnerable.  We must also remember that start skills have different priorities in different classes.

The real food for thought is this:  A sailing regatta series is dependent on low scores, not wins.  To win an individual race means risk – often of an unacceptable nature.  This mentality begins on the start line, and if we push the start, we push the risk of disqualification.  Is this mentality conducive to achievement of success?  We may have differences of opinion on this topic, but the ability to foul up an entire regatta for the sake of a meter gain on the start line seems absurd, and surely a penalty that World Sailing should look into.  The borderline early start surely does not merit dsq, but a reasonable penalty.  Defining borderline or penalty is not something that we wish to go into detail, but the changing of this extreme penalty would presumably add value to media coverage in ways that are currently not considered, and encourage more aggression at the start.  Now back to the rules as they stand ….

Where is the most gain made on a race course?  We would say that getting in phase with wind patterns gives the biggest return.  The first shift, be it pressure or angle driven, offers the best sailors their first opportunity to drown out the lesser sailors.  The first shift AFTER the start, that is!!  So decision making on the course is critical to success, and in terms of scoring outcome, nailing the first shift is probably 10 times as valuable as a good start.  On the other hand, a third row start can be pretty destructive, so we make these statements with the full recognition that adequate starts are essential.

How do we coach this skill?  In our opinion a solid, consistent starter will always outscore a brilliant starter who gets pinned by a nearly as brilliant starter on their hip.  We have all done it – popped out like a bullet, and been unable to get where we want without taking transoms.  The choice is stark – the little voices in our heads ask what is the point of starting so well when I now have to duck boats?  Of course the ego logic is to wait, and that can be destructive.  A good start does not guarantee a good race, although it can make that vital fist shift easier to nail.

The next time you are practicing the skills of leaving the line, think carefully how to use the winning play.  It counts.  At Toplevel Sailing (foremerly WSA), we coach starting as a skill, but winning is never enough – the winning start is safe and productive, not dramatic and risky.  Anticipation of the position of the first shift is the key.

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