We’ve written loads of blogs without really mentioning starting – the skill that so many people think is the be all and end all of racing. Obviously a bad start handicaps a sailor, so we always seek to avoid the bad start – the one where you’re tangled up with other boats, or even worse the committee or pin marks or boats. Over a long period of coaching time, we have been able to rationalise starts so that there is a distinct prioritisation to the skills involved and the execution of a start, and just as importantly the goals of a start for a top sailor.
How many times are you on a line, feeling like you’ve pulled the boss move, and with ten seconds to go, things turn pear shaped and the dream start vaporises? This simple and common situation gives us the first priority. Always understand that until the last ten seconds, everything else is window dressing and unimportant to results. If you’re on a crowded startline, which is rare nowadays in some classes, then maybe we can extend that period to up to 30 seconds, and we must always know that sailors are human, they make mistakes, and it’s up to us to capitalise on those errors – the type where a sailor is so intent on defending the gap to windward that they leave a big hole for us to dive into, or where two boats are so engrossed in screwing each other that they leave gaps and we can just sidle in and say thanks!! All that happens within the last thirty seconds, even on the most crowded line. So let’s just think about what skills we need to develop for successful starting, and we start by asking what is a successful start!
A successful start is one that keeps you in touch with the leader, keeping a clear lane and giving yourself options. There’s no other way of looking at it – if you don’t sacrifice a bunch of boat lengths within the first 20 seconds then you’ve done your job well, you may even be winning it, and as a bonus probably got some clean air, and you’re set up for the race. Races are rarely won at the start, but for sure they can be lost there.
So “practising starts” involves too many skills and unknown movements of others to just “practise starts” and try to take away from a relatively small group of boats the skills and reactions needed in a large fleet. Indeed, big fleet starts are so much a matter of experience that the only practise is to get onto start lines in big fleets armed with the needed skills to compete against a bunch of top sailors.
We can now examine what some of those skills are, and how we develop them. The “real” list prioritised is this:
Have more momentum (even 0.1 knots) than your opposition
Always pull the trigger (sheet the main) on time,never later than the opposition
Observation leading to opportunities, whether that be space, tacking or looking up the course for pressure patches coming down
Stealing a space
Creating a space to leeward to accelerate into
Moving to windward whilst seemingly static
Using the boom to steer, rather than sculling
On two person boats, keeping the boat where you want it by using the jib (crew skill)
Keeping a check on shifts and positioning yourself to take advantage of them
Keeping a check on the leading sailors and seeing if they are all together and if so, why
So now we see the skills in starting are many. The manner we train at Toplevel Sailing is to first teach the mechanics of the skill, on a solo basis if we can, then see how the skill measures up to other sailors, and then train in the biggest fleets possible.
Despite various efforts to condense “starting” into a few words, the skills of a good start would fill a book. The returns on focussing so much on winning starts are very questionable, but the advantages are obvious. Everything becomes easier when you haven’t got too many boats to get past. Our general outlook at Toplevel Sailing is to redefine the start to an expectation where the sailor “stays in the game”, which all too often spoils a race when things go wrong. Our first concern is that the sailor must always have momentum so they don’t get rolled out of the start. They must have an awareness that starts are won and lost in the last 20 to 30 seconds, not during the entire sequence. The other main concern is that they don’t do anything crazy – get involved in situations involving ramming a course boat, get capsized on, and all those wonderful situations that can really make a race difficult. Our last priority is selecting the area of the line to start in – dictated by bias, current and crowding. Once we get these priorities correct we can work on details. Obviously in squad training there is some validity in exercises and practise starts, but never think that they will shortcut experience, because they won’t!
A final thought for this blog is that the mechanics of startline skills are often totally at odds with making the boat go faster. To pivot the boat, sail sideways (lose grip with the foils) and stay still, move backwards and turn sharply to create drag, is so at odds with racing skills that there is simply no application for these skills after the gun goes, as they slow you down. Starting has to be treated entirely separately to real racing, and is worth practise and becoming “good” at, as long as you don’t begin to think that winning the start (first boat away) will do you too much good. Manage risk, stay in the game and give yourself options.