“Go get a good start on this next race so that we can talk about the rest of the race.” This was the main starting advice that I got from coaches as a junior sailor. The philosophy was that practice and failure would eventually teach me to do it right… or else I would quit. 

It’s easy to get stuck in a fixed mindset - “Some people just have that starting magic, while others might as well quit now.” But that is far from reality!

The truth is that starting can be broken down and demystified like any other skill in sailing. If you’re serious about turning your starting skills into a weapon on the race course, unpacking the maneuvers along with the tactical moves is critical. 

In this debrief we’ll focus on how to build the fundamentals, and what to do with them once you have them. 

Let’s dive in.

First Principles of Starting

When most people think about how to improve their starting game, their minds go straight to a dramatic acceleration move just before “go”. They want to practice the maneuver 10,000 times to be able to execute in any scenario, and escape the blackhole of the dreaded “second row” start. But the reality is that in so many scenarios, it is impossible to execute a good acceleration move, so to really understand how to move the needle on your starting game, we have to go a bit broader and really understand the factors that go into good execution on the line.

The term “first principles” is a buzz word in technology and R&D right now, that refers to breaking complex problems or systems into their most fundamental components - often times the physics behind the phenomena. If you’re keen to read more about the physics of acceleration moves and maneuvers in general, click here to check out my take on boat handling and apparent wind first principles.

Help keep the coach boat organized: invest in a  dry bag  and  water bottle holder !

Help keep the coach boat organized: invest in a dry bag and water bottle holder!

The goal of any start is to escape from the line on the most favorable part of the course. This means having good speed in a clear lane for the first few minutes off of the line, which in turn requires a good acceleration move. 

A good acceleration move requires good boat handling, but no matter how good your team is, if you have a competitor glued to your lee bow, pinning you up on the line before the start, executing that good acceleration is going to be nearly impossible. 

So to have a good acceleration move, we need a hole on the line. Creating a hole requires a whole new set of skills - namely, down-speed boat control.

Down speed boat control can be broken into several smaller skills: the “Slow Creep”, the double tack, the slide, flow transitions, and down-speed time-on-distance judgement just to name a few. For our purposes, we’ll consider these skills our “first principles of starting”.

Let’s dissect a few of those skills and discuss how to put them to use.

The Double Tack

Double tacking is one of the fundamental tools on the starting line because it gives you the ability to tack up to take the hole of the boat to windward, or in some cases to escape from a boat who is tight to leeward.

The two big challenges in the double tack, are staying in sync between skipper and crew, and keeping the boat at speed after the first tack so that you can roll into the second one right away. 

One of the best drills to practice this is the “tacks in a minute” drill. Set a watch for 60 seconds, and see how many tacks you can do in that time frame. You’ll learn how to be aggressive with your weight to really throw the boat around, and how to keep speed on between tacks.

One thing to note: this move is much better as an offensive move than a defensive one. As soon as you double tack away from a leeward boat to open your hole back up, it invites them to double tack with you, and stay close. Later we’ll talk about the “slide”, which is generally a much better defensive move because it opens your hole without presenting quite as big of an opportunity for your opponent. 

The Slow Creep

Sit on the starting line luffing with a boat tight to leeward, and it becomes obvious in a hurry that your boat isn’t sitting stationary - you’re actually making slight leeway all the time. If the boat to leeward of you is able to make less leeway, it will be a matter of time before you’re forced to bail out and reset your position.

To minimize your side sliding, the first skill to work on is the slow creep. Essentially the idea is that when the centerboard and rudder are moving through the water slightly, they are much more effective at generating lift and preventing the boat from making leeway. Too much flow though, and you’ll find yourself on the line too soon.

The goal here is to keep the boat moving as slowly as possible while still maintaining steerage (i.e. you can put the bow down without needing to scull). 

A few things that will help are:

  1. Finding the “sweet spot” with the mainsheet, where the bow wants to stay high, but not so high that the speed dips and foils stall.

  2. Using the jib sheet to balance the setup and avoid having to fight too much with the helm. A scull down on the tiller every so often means you’re pushing the edge, which is good, but if you’re constantly sculling to keep the bow down and keep the boat moving, try slightly more jib sheet or slightly less main.

  3. Slight “scalloping” in the steering - in other words, get good at letting the bow float up into the wind for as long as you dare, and then putting it back down when you need a slight speed build to keep from stalling.

A good way to work on these three aspects is to set a countdown timer for three minutes, set up next to a buoy, and see how few double tacks you can manage in that time limit, while staying within three boat lengths of the mark.  

Flow Transitions

If you’re getting good at the slow creep, you’ll find yourself making less leeway on the line, but you’ll also run into a problem: you’re eating up boat lengths to the line, and you need more runway to keep the boat moving. 

Equally as effective at holding your spot on the line as the slow creep forwards, is the slow creep backwards! If you can find a good rhythm moving forwards for a boat length or two, and then reversing back off the line for a boat length or two, you’ll be able to set up on the line at five minutes and keep the boat creeping one direction or the other until go.

Where most people lose control or lose leeway when trying this technique, is in the transition from forwards to backwards or backwards to forwards. The answer is to work on your flow transitions.

A great way to practice this skill is the “T Drill”.

One thing to remember when you’re using this technique on the line: if you backwind your sails to initiate reverse flow, you lose all rights until you start going forwards again, so the faster you can make your transitions, the better!

The Slide

The double tack that we talked about earlier can be a great tool to cover a lot of ground to windward, but it can also take a lot of time to execute and can expose you to a lot of right-of-way risk, especially in close quarters. One last tool that will give you a big tactical weapon on the line, is the “slide” to windward.

In the slide to windward, you’ll put your bow just barely through head to wind, back your sails to leeward (the port side of the boat if you’re sitting on starboard tack), and disengage your rudder by pointing your tiller in the direction that you want the boat to slide. This maneuver can be done far more quickly than the double tack, and can be used to close up the distance to a windward boat.

One thing to keep in mind while learning this skill is that when you’re first learning, it can help to scull to windward (a different technique, which I usually refer to as “crabbing” as opposed to “sliding”), but this is illegal on the race course! Don’t be afraid to scull during practice to get the feel for how sliding works, but the key to making the technique legal is getting good at finding the balance point, where you’re backing your sails just enough to keep the bow in the sweet spot - just through head to wind.

In addition, be sure to practice a quick exit onto starboard by backing the main even more and hitting the port rail hard with weight. Even though you might not be on port tack here, you don’t have any rights when sliding up the line, so you’ll need to be good at that exit to end up right next to your competitors.

More Skills, More Weapons

These skills - the double tack, slide, slow creep and flow transitions - are super important tools when it comes to executing a good start, but they are by no means the whole picture! Your challenge every day that you’re on the water is to refine your understanding of how the game works and what skills will give you an edge.

See if you can apply this same thought process to your daily practice: Identify a challenging part of the game, then break that challenge into first principles. Create drills or games that isolate the first principle skills, and practice them. 

Finally, put it all back together to see the progress you’ve made on the racing skill. That’s what we’ll talk about next.

Boat On Boat Battles

In the starting section of the McBride Racing Tactical Playbook I dig a bit more into the fundamentals of the tactical game on the starting line, but the gist is this: in a boat on boat battle, the leeward boat wants to get in sync with the windward boat, while the windward boat wants to get out of sync. As the leeward boat, your mission is to go forwards when the windward boat goes forwards. When they slide, you slide. When they go backwards, you go backwards.

Leeward boat wants to stay in sync with windward boat.

Leeward boat wants to stay in sync with windward boat.

Windward boat wants to stay out of sync with leeward boat.

Windward boat wants to stay out of sync with leeward boat.

The dance that evolves is a boat control battle. If the leeward boat makes a mistake, it gives the windward boat an escape. If the windward boat makes a mistake, they’ll be one step closer to being pinned at the start.

The Roulette Start 

If the whole fleet is evenly spaced out on the starting line with one boat length between each boat, and you are somewhere in the middle of the line, what are your odds of escaping from the line in a plan A start? 

This is a thought experiment that can lead to some pretty important tactical realizations if you spend a lot of time thinking about it!

At any given time, no matter where you are on the line, the most important battle for you to be able to win is the battle with the boat immediately to windward, and the boat immediately to leeward of you. On a race course full of random chop, shifting puffs, and sometimes unpredictable competitors, whether you escape the pack immediately surrounding you often comes down to factors that are out of your control.

So what CAN you control? The most important thing that you have control over, is where you try to position yourself relative to your competitors.

So often when the fleet is evenly spread as described above, teams are content to try their luck in the chop machine, accelerating at the same time as the boats around them, and waiting to see who hits that first piece of bad chop to fade out the back, or who gets the first puff to jet out ahead. In this situation, you might have a one in three chance of winning your little group and thus establishing a foothold to execute your plan A. 

So how can you improve those odds?

One of the best ways to put your boat control to work for you and improve your odds on the starting line, is to always be attacking the windward boat in your group of three. If you can pin the boat to windward and control when they accelerate, you’ll take one of the three boats out of the equation, and now you’re just playing against one other boat.

Mindset Of A Champion

If I could sum up the tactical starting line mindset with one word, it would be: attack! 

Top teams on the line aren’t content to start bow-even with the boats around them. They’re constantly looking for an advantage over the two boats next to them which will allow them to pinch off the windward boat, or roll the leeward boat.

In the pursuit of a “clean” start, the number one rule of thumb, is ALWAYS BE ATTACKING!

Starting Line Strategy

We’ve covered the basics of starting line tactics, but once you’re able to win the battle with the boats around you, the next question is WHERE on the line should you start? The best sailors have the ability and the confidence to start anywhere on the line, but they also have the wisdom to know when to use their skills.
I could write a whole book on starting strategy, but for now, I’d like to leave you with a few factors to consider when approaching the line, and a process for refining your own system.

Risk Versus Consequence 

In the film, Free Solo, Alex Honald discusses the distinction between “risk” and “consequence” as they relate to his climbing.

Because he trained on the route he was going to climb so many times, and knew how to approach each section, he felt that the chance of failure, or the “risk” was low. In contrast, in the event that he did fall… the consequence of certain death was as high as it gets!

We can apply this same idea on the starting line.

What is the chance that you escape from a certain situation given the fleet density, skew of the line, etc.? In Alex’s terms, that’s the risk. 

But on the other hand, what is the cost if you don’t escape? What place will you be in? Will you have to sit in bad air? Will you be able to go to the side that you like? That’s the consequence.

Keeping those two factors separate is very important.

Here’s another thought experiment to consider for a minute: what is the difference in risk and consequence between a fifteen degree boat favored line versus a fifteen degree pin favored line?

Significantly boat favored line - How will the purple boat look a minute after the start?

Significantly boat favored line - How will the purple boat look a minute after the start?

Significantly pin favored line - How will the purple boat look a minute after the start?

Significantly pin favored line - How will the purple boat look a minute after the start?

In both cases, the fleet is likely to pile up at the favored end making starting difficult. In both cases, the layline is going to play a big role, making it hard to judge where you need to be. In both cases, your rate of approach to the line will likely be different than you are used to, because with the pin favor you’ll be approaching very flat to the line, while with the boat favor, you’ll be approaching closer to perpendicular than you’re used to. 

As such, the risk in both situations is probably fairly high.

But the consequences for a second row start in each are very different.

On the pin favored line, a second row start, or missing the layline to the mark probably means ducking a significant portion of the fleet. Hopefully a hole opens up to pop through, but there’s a good chance that you’re ducking several boats, and that other boats with plan B starts are bailing out as well, which can make escape lanes more limited.

In contrast, the boat favored plan B is fairly forgiving. If you were fighting it out at the boat end already, there aren’t many boats keeping you from tacking out right. Clear lanes on port open up quickly, and because you were already on the favored end, you’re likely beating most of the fleet.

So how do you learn to evaluate the starting line (and other parts of the race course as well!) this way?

Student of the Game

Talent can take you a long way, but at the end of the day, if you want to be the best, you need to become a student of the game. Actively asking, “How can I improve faster,” will provide you with the basis for long term improvement, while others around you plateau.

Some simple steps that you can take the next time you go on the water are to bring a notebook, sail with a gps tracker, or sail with an onboard camera.

When you come in from sailing at the end of the day, try debriefing each start in three parts:

  1. What did you see?

  2. What did those observations make you think, and what was your gameplan as a result?

  3. What actually happened

The goal of this process is first to get better at identifying factors that go into a good start, and then to learn how they all interact, and how to weight them in your decision making process. 

Svenja Leonard and Adra Ivancich ripping in the 29er

For example, maybe in step one, you identified that the boat end was favored, pressure on the course was even, and pressure was strong enough that boats were going to be able to plane.

In step two you made a game plan - “We’re going to fight hard for the boat end because it’s favored and the plan B is easy if we don’t get a good start. The goal is to roll the boat to leeward because we can plane, and if we can roll them, we’ll have a big lane to leeward to be able to keep the bow down and keep ripping.”

In step three, you’ll discuss if anything went differently than expected - were there any factors that you missed in step one? Was the favored end of the line the most important factor, or was something else actually more important? Did the risk and consequence play out the way you predicted in step two?

If you can get in the habit of debriefing every race this way, you’ll be amazed how quickly you improve your ability to recognize opportunities and adjust for new factors.

There’s so much more to say on starting, but the ideas discussed here lay out a framework for improving your skills and then starting to experiment with how to put those skills to work. The most productive coaching relationships always involve a two way dialogue, where coaches provide an outside perspective and athletes experiment, test ideas, and come back with their own thoughts on what is working and what needs more attention. 

If you have any questions on how to apply these ideas in your team, or comments on what you’ve observed as you start working on the skills, I’d love to hear how it’s going and what you’re learning.

Don’t hesitate to reach out via social media channels or via e mail below.

Hope to see you on the water soon!

— Coach Willie