Speed & Smarts: Be ‘In The Hunt’ At The First Mark

May 1, 2024

Your goal at the start:

The measure of a good start is not whether you’re ahead at the beginning of the first leg, but how well you’re doing at the end of it (i.e. at the windward mark). Obviously, you don’t have to win the start in order to win the race (and you don’t have to win the race in order to win the series). In fact, the boat that ‘wins’ the start probably took a fairly significant risk to do so, and that’s not usually what you want to do when it’s early in a race or series.

Therefore, when you’re planning a start, keep the big picture in mind. Look for a good start, not necessarily a great one. Your goal is to round the first mark in the top part of the fleet, so you are still ‘in the hunt’ with the leaders. If you can do that without taking any big risks, then your start accomplished its goal.

Strategy first, then tactics

At the start, strategy (almost) always comes before tactics. First you make a strategic plan for where on the line you want to start; then you use tactical boat-on-boat moves to implement your game plan amidst the fleet.

This makes sense because strategy is a broad concept that considers the entire course area, while tactics are usually more narrowly focused on nearby boats. It’s always a good idea to begin with the big-picture perspective and then go smaller and smaller.

Piece together a starting strategy

Choosing a place to start is like working on a puzzle. There are a lot of pieces to consider, and it’s not always clear how they fit together. The solution depends on a number of factors including your strategy for the first beat, the orientation of the starting line, the positions of other boats in your fleet and the amount of risk you’re willing to take. A good starter carefully weighs the relative importance of every factor for each unique race, and then creates a coherent strategy that will take him or her from the start to the first mark.

The best starting strategy often requires a willingness to compromise. It’s very tempting to plan a start in the perfect place to follow your first-leg strategy, but a lot of other boats usually have a similar idea. So in order to start with speed and clean air you may have to move away from the favored end, at least slightly. This trade-off is often a valuable piece of the starting puzzle.

Ingredients of a first-beat strategy

When you’re out in the course area getting ready for a race, the first thing you should think about is not the start of the race. Your first priority should be developing a strategy for the first beat. In other words, how will you navigate the upwind leg to get to the windward mark as quickly as possible? Will you play the left, right, middle or some combination of those?

The answer depends on your assessment of the information you collect about the wind direction, wind speed, current and layout of the course. Do these factors favor the left or right? Which one(s) will have the biggest impact? Once you’ve sorted out a strategy for the first beat, you’re ready to start thinking about how that plan will affect your starting strategy.

Next time: Strategy details: Five things to consider in first beat strategy

SinC Dave Dellenbaugh 400

Dave Dellenbaugh is the publisher, editor and author of Speed & Smarts, the racing newsletter. He was the tactician and starting helmsman on America3 during her successful defense of the America’s Cup in 1992 and sailed in three other America’s Cup campaigns from 1986 to 2007. David is also two-time winner of the Canada’s Cup, a Lightning world champion, two-time Congressional Cup winner, seven-time Thistle national champion, three-time Prince of Wales U.S. match racing champion and past winner of the U.S. Team Racing Championship for the Hinman Trophy. He is currently a member of the US Sailing Racing Rules Committee (and was its chairman from 2005-2008).

You can subscribe to the Speed & Smarts newsletter HERE

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