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Starting Strategy

Starting Strategy – how to sail an excellent start

1. What is an excellent start?

The start is the most crucial part of a sailboat race. Although a race cannot be won at the start it definitively can be lost. At the start everybody is close together. There is no leading boat and there is no last boat.

How can you actually define a great start?

Being able to follow your strategy and being the first boat on the favored side of the course. Normally 5 minutes after the start you will see if your start was great or not.

There is a high risk to start on the favored end of the line if the favored end is the port end and your first beat strategy hits for the right side. You hardly will be able to cross the whole fleet to be the first boat on the right side.

So think through both your first beat strategy and the favored side of the starting line.

A great start needs good preparation, a plan, a backup plan and the required coolness to be able to convert your plan into action. This all sums up in the starting strategy.

2. How to prepare for an excellent start

Always sail out early to have time to check the racing area.

Go through this preperation checklist:

  • Observe the wind/weather, sail the beat and write down your compass bearings for each tack
  • Check the line bias
  • Check the wave conditions and current
  • Decide on how much risk you want to take (depending on results in previous races)
  • Re-check the wind at the preperation signal and at 3 respective 1 minute before the start (this also depends on how shifty the wind is)
  • Never sail too far away from the starting vessel (especially in light air) the closer you get to the starting time

You might want to check even more points. As long as you have enough time this is ok. I’m sure you could always do more.

Try to find a fixed routine before the start. Define your starting strategy. This will help you to calm down in a crowded starting area with a tensed atmosphere.

3. Making a plan

Establish a plan / starting strategy. You should know where you want to go. Sometimes you are unsure about your strategy and which way to go up the first beat. Go through the Information you collected while preparing for the start and take a decision. The decision might be wrong but it has a strong psychological influence if you are unsure what to do and you try to wait until the last minute. You need to be determined to contert into a successful start. Worst case is that you concentrate too much on what the others are doing and finally find out that they have already planned their start much better and are determinded to convert it into action. Then you will definitively lose against them.

But what should you do if you find out that your decision was wrong? Well remember you have a plan and a backup plan! One way is to work with scenarios. For example you assume that the wind might shift to the right just after the start as there is a big rain cloud coming down from windward. But you are not sure if the cloud will hit the racing area.

Scenario 1 is to prepare the start for this wind shift.

  • you start right next to the committee boat to tack as soon as possible

Scenario 2: the rain cloud drifts to one side and does not effect the racing area.

  • you don’t have to tack straight after the start
  • it is important to have some room to leeward to stay on starboard for a while and work your way up the middle

4. Turning the plan into action

After you have done all your checks and established a plan it is important to convert this plan into action. Starting areas are always packed and especially at major championships the atmosphere is quite tensed.

You need to calm down and concentrate on the plan you have made.

Some are able to change this tension into concentration others need to do some mental training to be able to concentrate in these circumstances. Breathing exercises can be helpful to gather yourself. This is really up to you. You have to find your own way how to deal with your feelings.


5. What are the most crucial parts on starting?

  1. Failing to follow the pre-start checklist above
  2. Miss the momentum
  3. Stop being very focused just after the start (you really need to concentrate on speed in the first couple of minutes after the start)
  4. And then there is always the chance some weird circumstances just stuff up your total plan (somebody capsizing on you, unexpected wind changes etc.)
  5. therefore it is very important to keep calm to recover from a poor start
  6. in one of the final races being on the opposite side than the closest opposition (know the regatta score on who you have to beat and by how much)
  7. Failing to know the rules. So check out the Racing Rules of Sailing!


There is always a risk that things go wrong at the start. Being prepared helps a lot to keep calm and quickly recover.

6. How to train a great start

It is easy to describe how to sail an excellent start. The problem is often to put it into practice.

I have thought a lot about starting practice and think that it is all down to the following:

  1. A good plan
  2. Timing
  3. Estimate distances
  4. Concentration and focus

As soon as you are able to control all of these four and you stick to the structure described above you will become an extraordinary starter!

Bear in mind even the best mess up starts on a regular basis (therefore you need to learn how to recover from a poor start and maybe sometimes use your discard…).

1st Exercise: Line Bias

Line bias: There are three options to check the sides to see which side is the favoured one. You have to do these before every start and often you need to check more than once as the wind might go back and forth.

There are three options how to check the line bias:

Opion 1: Luff head to wind and check which mark is further to windmark. This is the better side to start neglecting all other things.

Option 2: Reach down both sides and see which course is tighter.

Option 3: You can also find a partner with similar upwind speed. Each of you starts on one side of the start line at the same time.

Go out on a shifty day with two drifting marks and keep checking on them until you have a good feeling to find the preferred starting spot.

2nd Exercise: Time & Distance

Train how to hit the line at pace and on time. You need to know how much space you need to leeward to accelerate properly; train on acceleration on general; usually you need a different trim to setting up the boat for maximum speed (looser vang, more cunningham). Practice on slow boat speed: Most do well when the boat is sailing fast, but being able to manouvre around in slow speed needs practice

  • Find a fixed mark and try to lie next to it for as long as possible.
  • Manouvre around it for about 2-3 minutes and try to keep the distance to the mark within 2 boat length.
  • Practice acceleration by stopping the boat first and then accelerating again. Check your watch to see how long it takes (the time varies depending on wind strength and wave conditions!)
  • Finally lie behind a setup starting line, put on a countdown and try to hit the line at full speed when the countdown is down to zero.

It will take some time practising until you are able to do the last point on a regular basis. I often only do 10 minutes of starting practice at the beginning or the end of my training sessions. This already really helps and you avoid doing boring starting sessions for hours.

3rd Exercise: Concentration & Focus

Put yourself under pressure in training – and don’t forget: even the best stuff up their starts on a regular basis. That is normal and therefore you need to have a strategy for recovery (or a spare discard). Also routines give you confidence when you are out starting at major competitions.

  • Routine: It really helps to have fixed routiness. Work out routines for every starting pattern. This gives you confidence and makes sure you don’t forget important parts. You can even put checklists on the side of your boat if that helps.
    There’s a routine for the pin end, middle, and the boat end.
  • Keep it simple: Keep everything as simple as possible during race time.
  • Meditation: Meditation practise helps keeping the mind free and being able to focus on the important parts. The best part: You don’t even have to go on the water, you can practise wherever you want.


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