Whenever coaches talk about starting, the conversation typically covers picking the favored side of the starting line, setting up to get to the favored side of the course, starting with a hole to leeward, and accelerating before the horn. While all of this information is really important to understand initially, sailors reach a certain point in their development where they need more technical information in order to take their starts to the next level. In many instances youth sailors from Optis through the upper levels of high school do not learn how to properly execute a start. The reason for this ranges from not understanding certain concepts, to disparities in competition and bullying, masking poor starting technique. Eventually this is corrected, sometimes at the highest levels of youth sailing, and certainly at the top Collegiate Regattas, where the races are too short, and the sailing level is too high to for sailors to make an error on the starting line and still succeed. Let’s take a closer look at the techniques used by the best dinghy sailors in the world.
Forgetting for a second the most basic mistakes someone can make on a starting line such as starting on the wrong side or inches from a leeward boat, one of the most common starting mistakes made by sailors is in their acceleration. Many sailors are taught at a young age to put their bows inches from the starting line, and to accelerate at five seconds to go. As the final seconds of the starting sequence tick away, sailors using this technique swing their boats to a reach in order to accelerate, and then turn the boat approximately 45 degrees to windward at the sound of the final horn.
While this technique is easy for sailors to understand, it ultimately does not teach the appropriate lesson for racers who want to excel in the sport. Sailors like to use this technique because there is a distinct and clear timeline for accelerating, and they know that they are always near the starting line. However, by accelerating horizontally down the line at full speed for 5 seconds, you are guaranteed to eat up most, if not all, of the leeward hole you have hopefully created prior to the start. Additionally, sailing in a horizontal position down the line completely exposes the leeward side of your boat, exposing you to leeward boats who can legally force you over the line as they accelerate beneath you.
To make matters worse, if you were fortunate enough to take away a hole from the boat immediately to windward of you, that boat now has a hole to accelerate. So, even if you get off of the line free, clear, and at full speed, there is now a boat to windward of you that can pin you and keep you from getting to the right side of the course. This is important to avoid if you get into trouble early and need a way out, or want to cross in an early wind shift.
The second issue with this method is the amount and extent of rudder movement that happens as you accelerate. With the boat making a large turn at the final horn, it will lose a great deal of speed, and will also slide considerably to leeward, costing you both leverage and speed.
Fortunately, all of these habits are easy to correct. If you ever watch someone who is really good on the starting line, you will notice that they accelerate from below the line and sail through it already trimmed in on a close hauled course, rather than accelerating horizontally down the line on a reach and turning hard to windward at the horn. The advantages to this method are that you eat up next to none of your leeward hole, your hole is easier to defend against other boats, and that you will not lose any speed at the sound of the horn. The issues sailors typically run into in the execution of this method are a combination of not having the ability to accelerate in such a narrow lane, and not knowing where the line is.
Knowing where the line is at any given time is as simple as getting a line sight. This is a really simple thing to do that will separate you from your competition. Simply line your boat up with the flag that the Race Committee is using to call the line. Look down to the pin end of the line, and line the pin end up with a point on land. This land mark is your line sight. Remember, because you take your line sight from the center of the boat, you are actually slightly over the line when your boat is lined up with your line sight. Even though there is a little bit of room for error here, you will have a much better idea of where the line is, and will start counting your distance away from the line at the horn in terms of feet and inches instead of boat lengths.
Fixing your ability to accelerate is a slightly more advanced concept, but with a little bit of practice, it is not difficult to understand and execute. If you are luffing your boat completely on the line and try to accelerate to a close hauled course in five seconds, not only will you fail to reach full speed, but you will also slide sideways significantly before crossing the line. By completely stopping with luffed sails and trimming in suddenly, it will take a few moments to generate flow over the sails, and your apparent wind will move aft, pushing you sideways. To correct this, the best dinghy starters do not actually bring their boats to a complete stop, starting a slow forward movement fifteen to sixty seconds prior to the horn. Depending on the boat that they sail, these sailors utilize certain techniques that enable them to generate some flow over their sails while moving forward almost imperceptibly until the final few seconds of the countdown. Keeping even a small amount of flow over the sails keeps your apparent wind more forward, and dramatically cuts down the time it takes to generate complete flow over the sails. Thus, you will merely have to jam the tiller once or twice till you are at or slightly below close hauled, and can accelerate at full speed through the line without sliding sideways or eating up your hole.
Generating flow over the sails while moving slowly takes practice, but is typically a function of trimming in the sail(s) to a certain extent while keeping the boat very near head to wind. The sails will typically bubble instead of fully luffing, and the leech will not luff at all. Here’s a quick guide to the technique for a few of the most popular dinghy classes:
420 – The main should always stay trimmed in on the starting line so that the leech has flow over it while pointed near close hauled. It is critical that the crew trims the jib just enough so that by either pulling it in one more inch, or by bearing off a degree or two will get the jib to pop full. Thus, the jib is bubbling instead of luffing and flow is already moving across both sails when you start to bear down to close hauled.
FJ – This is almost identical to the 420. With a smaller rudder and centerboard, it is even more important to execute properly in the FJ because the boat is much more susceptible to sliding. You may need to start your acceleration a little earlier to get to full speed.
Optimist – Your main should just bubble enough to keep your boat moving forward slightly. The leech should stop flapping and have some flow over it prior to acceleration.
Byte CII – The technique is very similar to that of an optimist. The sail plan is much flatter, so you can get the boat much closer to head to wind while generating flow over the sail and moving forward. This boat accelerates and reaches full speed with very little effort.
See you on the water,