With the trend on the international racing scene for shorter races in Formula Windsurfing (FW), it is now more important than ever to get the best start possible. There are a few startline basics tutorials out there that I have seen, including one from Kevin Pritchard (now offline, but a version with just the text is in that link) and from the LBWS site, however none of them go into detail and as a result, there’s still a lot of people who waste great racing potential by not getting off the line in clean air. So let’s learn how to do it right.To get started, a few important points must be noted about starts. In a fleet of 100 boats, roughly 8-10 sailors will get a great start, another 20 will get an OK start and the rest of the fleet gets punished. That being said, unless you sail on startlines with 3-4 boat lengths per boards in the fleet, there’s usually not enough “clean air” for everyone to get a great start. Knowing the theory of how good starts are set up is important, so to first analyse this lets look at all the possible places to start on a startline.
- Boat-end starboard start
- 1/4 way, middle and 3/4 down the line starboard start
- Pin-end starboard start
- Pin-end port start
- Boat-end port start
That last one might shock some people, but in actual fact its a very important start tactic to have in your toolbox as Devon Boulon proved, taking the first race of the 2005 Formula Worlds in Australia with this type of start. Now that you know there are different places to start on a line, lets look at why you would want to start in these places:
- Starboard; boat-end: courses with the top-mark to the right side of the course, and when the line is favoured at the boat-end.
- Starboard; pin-end: courses with the top-mark to the centre of the course or the left side, when the line is favoured at the pin end (usually, this means more sailors will try starting on port) or if there is light winds and you want to use the full length of the line to get clear from other sailors.
- Starboard; 1/4; middle; 3/4: when the top-mark is to the centre of the course and in larger fleets this can be a more effective place to start as you can cover sailors on all sides of the course as well as use the “transit-sag” to your advantage.
- Port; pin-end: courses with the top mark to the right side of the course, in larger fleets to get clear air, when the line is favoured at the pin end, if the wind shifts to the left in the pre-start.
- Port; boat-end: courses with the top mark markedly to the right side of the course, in light winds when the line is pin-end favoured you can get clear air and one less tack by starting at the boat (this is the most difficult start to do effectively).
Now that we have a few different start options in your mind, lets look at some other important factors to think about before starting. One of the most important factors is knowing the speed/angle of your opponents. The secret to a clean start is to not have better sailors in close proximity to you who can take your clean air and/or force you to tack early. If you sail in a regular fleet you should have a good idea of who the better sailors are and know their strongpoints. You might beat them around the course, but if someone can point higher than you off the startline, its important not to start directly behind them on the line. If you are sailing in an unknown international fleet, do some line-ups with some sailors before the pre-starts to get an idea of who the WORST sailors are – they are your targets on the startline.
The next factor is transits. Before the start, sit at the boat-end and line yourself up with the pin-end mark, looking through the flagpole on the boat. Imagine a piece of string between each end of the line and then extend this mental-string all the way to a clearly visible landmark on the horizon (not a moving cloud!). This is your transit line and will help you judge where you are on the line when you are starting. Now that you have that landmark, drift upwind/downwind a few metres and see where that landmark is in relation to your mental piece of string to get an idea of how far you are away from the line, this is important if you need to sail underneath (or over) someone on the line and want to get back to the startline level as you sail down it. Sometimes you will sail in the ocean on a cloudless day and there is nothing to line you up with on the horizon. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to wing-it in that case…
The transit is VERY important because in large fleets there is always a “transit-sag” which is that the sailors in the middle of the line will drop 3-4m below the level of the line because they think they are over. This is what makes a middle of the line, starboard start quite famous as you can sail over the top of these sailors by 3-4m, taking their clean air and giving you a gap to accelerate into.
Make sure you are at the boat when the first time signal goes so you can sync your startwatch and prepare your starting tactic. Whether you sail under the ISAF 5-4-1 system or another combination of starttimes you will never get a good start if you don’t have a perfectly sync’d watch. I always like to have a pre-defined starting position in my mind but its important to watch out for changes in the wind and be in a position where you can change your start tactic quickly. If you are sailing on a course with other divisions who have already started, watch the leaders go around the top mark and see what side of the course appears to be favoured (that’s what end of the line you should start on). Look at visual indicators such as flags on boats, flags on the beach or rising smoke, cloud movements to see if the wind has changed direction during the pre-start. A 20 degree shift in breeze to the left noticed early could mean you have enough time to blast to the pin-end, tack onto port, clear the fleet and with one less tack go around the top mark in a clear first position!
Now, the start itself comes down to practice. The above information can serve as a guide and basic theory, but the start is really a test of mental ability and not being afraid of sailing in close proximity to other sailors.
Worried about getting OCS (on the ‘course-side’ of the line, before the start)?? A good international event will have race-directors who know how to apply the ISAF starting procedures. One of the ‘ideas’ that is used with pinging people for OCS is the mentality that the race-directors won’t get everyone for OCS in each race, but sooner or later, sometime in the event they will get that person who was OCS in the first race that they missed. To make sense of that, an example is on the international racing circuit, with +100 boards on the startline they will usually do general recalls if there is a large number of sailors OCS. They’ll be able to pick 4-5 sailors, who will be disqualified instantly (if its run under Black Flag) but there may have been a lot more that they missed, so they re-run the start (still under Black Flag) and again if there are a lot of people over, they will general recall again and ping more people for OCS. I have been to events where we have had up to 7-8 general recalls in a row – and about 25 sailors in total have been disqualified!
Formula Windsurfing boards travel at roughly 8m/second down a startline in medium winds so as you can imagine, at that speed it is incredibly difficult for people on the startboat to pick you as being OCS if you are over a few tenths of a second before the start. For that reason it’s good to make sure you start heading to windward at the 1-second to go mark on your watch (making sure its sync’d perfectly!). Despite what you might think, Formula Windsurfing boards aren’t very responsive to go from a broad reach to a tight upwind angle as you do when you are running the startline on starboard. It might take you as long as 3 seconds to get up to a good upwind angle out of the start and as long as 8 seconds to reach full speed. Don’t waste those precious few seconds as getting off the line right on 0 instead of +1 could be the difference between getting your nose in front of the guy behind you and giving him dirty air instead of him doing it to you!
There’s a few ideas to get you started on your starts. They are without a doubt, the most important aspect of your racing and a shiny new fin won’t help you beat the other sailors if you are simply starting terribly. There’s more to starts than just the points I’ve made (especially on the psychological and emotional side) but hopefully this will help get you started.
Let’s discuss some more ideas and make this article even more useful! See below to post a comment.