Starting in Huge Fleets

Published on September 7th, 2017

Most of us don’t get many, if any, chances to start on 100-boat start lines. It doesn’t come up that often, but it’s out there. Both the 2017 Finn Gold Cup and the 2017 J/70 Worlds are in the century club, and as fleets get bigger, Bill Draheim of Gus Sails reports how it requires a different approach to starting.

When I was racing 470s in 80s for the US Sailing team, I saw a number of 100+ boat starting lines in various places around the globe. Even here in the USA, when I was runner-up at the 2015 MC Nationals, we had 93 boats in Pewaukee, WI. When fleets gets that big, starting line tactics change.

The most significant factor is the change in geometry of the race course.

In smaller fleets the length of the line, relative to the length of the upwind leg, is very small. If the left side of the line is favored I will start at or near the leeward pin. If the course is even or right side favored I will start at the boat.

When the course is even with a small starting line, starting at the boat on starboard gets you heading immediately to the middle of the course. Because the line is short, you quickly get to the middle of the course. An additional advantage of starting near the right side of the line is after a poor start it is much easier to clear your air and get rolling!

But with a large fleet, and the significantly longer start line, massive leverage is gained at one end or the other depending on which way the wind shifts. If you’re at the wrong end when a shift comes, you will never catch up because the weather leg is not long enough. Additionally, on lakes with very localized shifts and puffs, there is a good chance you won’t even be able to reach the shift that generates from the other end of the line, again because of the distance.

The goal in prestart on any line size is to position your boat such that the first boat to leeward is as far away from you as possible. This secures your lane off the start so you can focus on going fast.

On big start lines, it is common for there to be a mid-line committee boat that is part of the start line and helps to administer the starts. With the mid-line boat, you can achieve your prestart goal by starting just to windward of the mid-line boat because no sailboat will be to leeward of you. However, this involves the same kind of high risk when trying to win the pin.

At the MC Nationals I started at the mid-line boat six of the seven races, and went for the windward of the mid line boat on the first race. However, my timing was off and had to luff around the anchor line, and then got rolled over by the boat to windward of me. After suffering in this high risk approach, the next few races we started just to leeward of the mid-line boat which worked out great.

However, we recognized how we were consistently getting hurt a little by the boats to our right on the first beat in those races. So we got our nerve up and went to start up toward the right end for the next race, and for the first two minutes of the race we were winning big time. However, the reality of leverage then came into play. We got headed and rounded in the mid 20’s. After that we started back in the middle.

Remind yourself of the change in geometry of a giant starting line and try not to let the “leverage” it creates get the best of you!

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