The Art of the Sailboat Race Start

The Art Of The Start
By Dave Ellis

The start of a sailboat race has been deemed one of the most tense moments in sport. Is there a way to make that moment in time in our PHRF racing game less complicated, tense, and scary? Let’s break the procedure down to a decent start to our race.

It is important to know that the most important part of the start is what your situation is a minute or two after that “GO” signal. Being right at the line at the start is nice. But there are more important factors.


Suppose you think that there is going to be more wind or less adverse current on the right side of the course, or a wind shift from the right later in the upwind beat. So start on the right side of the starting line. Duh. It would be better to start a few seconds, or be a few boat lengths late at the race committee boat with the ability to tack as soon as you clear the anchor line than to be at the gun but with a boat on your windward quarter so you cannot tack to the favored right side.

Conversely, if you think that going to the left side of the windward leg is better, start near the pin end of the line. It is more essential to be on the starting line at the gun if you want to continue on starboard tack. The very pin end of the line may be crowded. You may not be the only genius who thinks going to the left side is best. Usually, it is best to start at a position a few boat lengths away from that perfect pin spot. Of course, if you see that you have nobody down there with a few seconds to the gun, reach off and head for it.

The goal is to start when the boat is going faster than upwind speed. Yes, if you can close reach to the line and then harden up at the gun, you will actually be going faster at that time than anybody close-hauled and a lot faster than the boats luffing to the line.

Okay, you say. Just how do I do that? On our PHRF starting lines it is rare to have the stacks of boats as at a J/24 event. Most race officers give enough room for all boats, and there are always late starters. Many boats will start at the RC boat end no matter what so they don’t have to worry about being over-early.

So know the habits of your local fleet. After doing RC work for a decade for the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, I noticed that most boats started about the same way every time. Do your homework. Often there are areas of the line, like one-third down from the RC boat, that aren’t filled until the last few seconds by those who got to the RC boat a little early and reached down. If you approach on a close reach a little toward the pin, from there you may find clear Sailing. Actually, not any more if everybody reads this!

Get yourself in a place on the line where you won’t be rolled by a bigger or faster PHRF boat and not be able to tack away. I once was Sailing a Santana 21 and got rolled by the 12-meter Newsboy at a start. We sat adrift for seemingly minutes until the wind came back. Of course, if you are the big boat in the fleet, start with the slowest boats, not next to your nearest rival.

Much has been written about finding the “favored” end of a starting line. That is overrated. Seldom does a decent race committee start a race with a highly skewed line. The fastest way to check, though, is to sail to just outside of the pin and shoot head to wind. Make sure the genny is loose and make that masthead fly point right at the stem. Then have a crew member tell you whether the bow is headed more toward the pin or toward the RC boat. The end of the line that the bow is angled more toward is the end closer to the windward mark. Chances are there won’t be much difference. Also, that very well may not be the “favored end” for your plans.

Incidentally, it does not matter if the windward mark is off to one side a bit and not directly upwind. As long as you have to make at least one tack to get there, this should not influence where you start on the line. A crew member counting down the seconds is helpful. If your skipper is habitually late, cheat on him. Tell him or her when the one-minute flag and gun occurs and then hesitate for a few seconds before starting your countdown every few seconds. By the “GO” of your spoken countdown you will have perhaps five to 10 seconds before the real start, and your timid skipper will be closer to the line.


Uh, it works the other way around for aggressive guys who are habitually early and have to stop at the line.

One way to take the pucker factor out of a start is to practice hitting the line before the starting sequence. Have a one-minute countdown and see how long it takes to get there. How far away are you at 20 seconds? Ten seconds? Then try it at the pin end.

An easy way to tell where the starting line is when you are not at an end is to sail to the right of the stern of the RC boat and sit there. While luffing on starboard tack, take a hand-bearing compass reading from a crew’s position to the pin. From anywhere on the line the crew can tell you when you are getting close to that number. In big fleets, we often do the same at the pin end, in case you can’t see the pin for the numerous boats. You often can see the flag on the RC boat in those conditions.

Have you noticed that there is a quick sorting-out of boats soon after the start, and then everything settles down? Experienced skippers and crew have the sails set correctly and the steering settled at the start. They concentrate more on their Sailing for that minute after the start than at any other time on the racecourse. If you get a great start at the gun going really fast, chances are you will do well. But if you don’t, remember, it is only the start. Find a lane of clear air and go from there. That’s the game.