Mark Rounding

In which I have a luxury problem after the start

May 11, 2017

(This is a blog post on sailing. Hence it might contain a number of weird terms and concepts. But sailing is really very easy and straight forward. It’s only when you are racing that it gets a bit more complicated with rules and tactics!)

At Midland Sailing Club we race regularly, and sometimes with a mass start (where all boats start at the same time) rather than a staggered start where the slower boats start first, and the faster boats later (because they are faster and are expected to catch up). As I haven’t been racing for very long (just over a year now), I’m usually somewhere towards the end of the field. But I’m slowly improving and working my way forwards.

Yesterday we had our first race in the Flag Officer Series, which is an average lap race, so all boats start at the same time, and the Race Officer measures how fast they go round the course. Each class of boat has a handicap, so that slower boats get a bonus over faster boats (because they are slower). The photo below shows the field just before the start. I am in the boat with the blue sails (an Enterprise). As you can see, the majority of boats are to the right of the start line, whereas I am on the left. The little yellow buoy with the flag is the end of the start line; the other end is the committee boat, which is obscured by the raft of boats in front of it.

Wednesday Evening race (by @ikonic_exposure)

Usually one end of the start line works better than the other, and that seemed to have been the case yesterday, as most of the boats were at that end. However, one disadvantage is that your wind gets messed up when there are lots of boats clumped together, and wind is basically your fuel. I started on the left, which was less advantageous, but I had ‘clean air’, as there were few other boats around me. As a result, I had an excellent start, and was going really fast in front of the fleet.

As the Enterprise is not the fastest of boats, I was not first at the windward mark, but I was in the top group. Now, normally when I reach a mark, there are no other boats there (because they’ll have gone already), but this time there was quite a group. I came in on port tack, so did not have right of way. And consequently I had to make sure not to hit any other boats or get in their way, so I had to sail in a circle and join the end of the queue. I lost a lot of places and was suddenly third from the bottom or so. Not good.

Why did I do that? I hadn’t really been in that situation before. If I had realised that I was at the mark in the top group, I should have gone further to the right hand side and come in to the mark on starboard tack (having right of way). Then all would have been well. But because I am so rarely in that situation, I didn’t plan ahead. Bad tactics. Sad!

So while I didn’t do very well in that race in the end, I am still pleased with the first part, and I think I learned a lot. The main thing is to plan ahead when approaching a mark, to take into account that there might be a lot of other boats that I need to take care of, and to have some idea of what tactics to follow. The other main point is not to worry too much about start line bias. This, however, is the main thing you are told about racing: work out which end of the start line is favoured (ie closer to the wind), and start from there. But that’s what most people do, so the favoured end is thus the busiest, and sailing in a big cluster of boats is slow. I started slightly behind at the unfavoured end, but was able to sail much faster and unimpeded in clean air, so the fact that I started a few boat lengths behind the field did not matter at all. I suspect for most people it will be the same. It’s also less stressful, as you don’t have to worry about colliding with other boats on the start line! This is recommended by the Improper Course Blog where I got the idea from. Or rather, the reassurance not to have to do what everybody else does (and tells you to do!)

I will have a chance to try that out over the next two weekends, where I will be at two Enterprise Open meetings (where we all race in the same class of boat) at Barnt Green and Tamworth. Mass start, though probably fewer boats. And then I will have a proper think about tactics in advance!

PS: We came 14th out of 21 boats, which is still quite a good result. Pretty much everybody who ended up ahead of me is a better sailor, and I even beat some of the more experienced racers in their fast boats. So I’m pleased, especially given the places I lost at the first mark!

(Photo (C) by Daniel Sturley, used with permission)