with Michael McNamara

Pre-start Warm-up
Picture the scene. Its a few seconds after the start. The smoke from the starting gun has barely left the transom of the Committee Boat. Stretching away down the line is a seemingly endless stream of Wayfarers all beating hard in unison.

Yet is it as beautifully simple as that? Look at the detail. Then it's apparent that it's only the front runners who are working hard. Behind them is a second and may be even a third rank of slower, wallowing boats already falling behind.

So, why are these boats behind? O.K., they are in dirty wind and are having to plough through confused wash but that is not enough. To see why, we have to go back a bit. Back, before the start, back even beyond the Warning signal.

These were (probably) the boats sailing aimlessly about not doing their warm-up exercises.
Not the sort of warm-up necessary in athletic sports although there are some who say that sailors should warm up their muscle groups before the race. No, the warm-up we mean here, is getting used to the conditions. So that both the crew and boat are in sync with their environment and can give it their all from the start.  This will involve going through a series of simple exercises.

1. By sailing hard on the wind on each tack for a few minutes, it is pretty usual to note how the boat's heading alters as the wind shifts, etc. However, this routine should also be used to get into the rhythm of the waves and wind. The sailors should be working hard at "feeling" what the boat is telling them, of course. They could even take it in turns to close their eyes to use other senses - but the other should keep a good look out!

2. There should be lots and lots of tacking, feeling how the boat is affected by the waves. Here we are trying to find out what effect they have on the boat and how long it takes to get going again if we stop. Because gybing is (usually) not needed until later in the race, it's not quite so critical but nonetheless a good few should be tried.

3. Acceleration is everything at the start. So, stop the boat and then see how long it takes to get going back up to hull speed. This obviously varies with the conditions. If it is difficult to judge, then use a mark as a fixed point.

4. If we are early at the start, we may need to stop. How can we do this? Practice letting the sails out, backing the sails moving aft. (ed. note: since Mike wrote this, rule 20 has come into effect and should be noted!) Luffing up (and therefore going over the line) is not a good option. Then see how long it takes to get going and what is the best way of doing it. Work at sheeting the sails and at heeling angles, etc.

5. By this time the line should be laid. So, which is the best end to start? Work it out and then go and make a few starts there just to see.

6. Practise your run up to the line seeing how long it takes and the effect of waves, etc., but remember the actual start will have more boats about and so that getting there will be slower.

Whilst doing all these, keep a really good look out all around. It would be a great shame to damage your boat or even worse, to damage someone else's because you were concentrating
too hard on other things.

Going through this routine gives you the confidence to go into the start knowing that you can spring into action instantly because you know what is going to happen.

Those last few seconds
Sweaty hands; racing heart; shortness of breath; weakness in muscles…     Sound familiar? Of course it does. Rather, it will do to every dinghy racing helm. As those last few seconds to the start tick away - taking an eternity - we are assailed by all sorts of emotions. There's hope, of course, anticipation, even fear perhaps.  They're all in there squirming away trying to drive us over the edge into raw panic.

That's the panic that causes us to oversheet; to pinch, to heel over; to stop; to forget our acceleration routines - in short - that causes us to make a bad start.

Yet we shouldn't have to feel like condemned people about to be shot. We should be able to control our destinies. All we need to do is follow the golden rules. They obviously aren't foolproof but they go a long way towards keeping things cool.

1. As those seconds tick away there is nothing that we can do about our position on the line. That was taken care of long ago when we went through our "checking which is the right end to start" routines.

In fact, there are quite a few ways to find out which is the best end. The most simple and therefore the easiest one, is to sail along the line, sheeting the mainsail in as perfectly as possible. Once you've got that organised, tack but be careful not to alter the mainsail setting
as you do so. As you sail away back down the line, check to see if the mainsail is set as
perfectly as it was before. If it is not then one or other end of the line is the paying end.

If the mainsheet has to be eased, the wind is further behind and so the end you are sailing from is the paying end. If the mainsheet has to be pulled in the wind is further in front and so the end you are sailing towards is the paying end.

If the wind is shifting, you will have to check and keep checking. So don't sail outside the end of the line because it may be impossible to get right back to the other end if the wind changes.

2. If it is obvious to you which is the paying end then it will be obvious to everyone else. That leads to the fleet all ganging up together in one place. The result of this congestion is that the wind drops as it goes up and over the top of the mass, wash increases and confuses the wave pattern and, worst of all, boats congregate early and, as they stop, they raft up. If it is a big committee boat you can even run out of wind under it. So, as we know to our cost, it is only one
or two boats maximum that get away. The rest all wallow in their dirty wind.

Much better to be just away from the paying end. To leeward of the bunch, at the windward end for example, with all the luffing rights, etc. that gives you. Hidden from the race officer's eyes, you can nibble up to the line and be ready to bear away, accelerate and go as soon as the gun goes. O.K., so you've lost a few metres by being further down the line, but at least you're safe. Besides, the raft of boats to windward acts as a buffer against those poor unfortunate naive sailors who come down from beyond the committee boat hoping to find space.

If it’s the leeward end that pays, then this playing for safety is even more important. The timing to get it right has to be so perfect that it just isn't worth the risk to start right next to the buoy.

3. Never go outside the windward end of the line. As windward boat you have no rights. Rule 18.1(a) is clear when it states that you are not entitled to water at a starting mark surrounded
by navigable water.

Besides which, as you bear away hoping for a gap, it will already be closed and you're speeding up to a certain 720º or worse.

4. Try to keep speed on. If you have to hover, do so a few seconds away from the line. Then you've got a chance to build up speed before the hordes envelop you and envelop you they surely will if you try to hover exactly on the line. You will already have worked out how long it takes to get going in the conditions, so that is your guide to the safe hovering distance.

5. Practice your acceleration techniques and keep the boat upright, otherwise you will be in the dirty wind of the boat to leeward. Try to bear away as the gun goes to get a bit of speed. You can only really do this if, as you nibbled up to the line, you luffed up minutely from time to time to create a gap between you and the boat to leeward. Don't overdo this otherwise the gap will be spotted and will be filled by a boat coming in from behind, who then has rights over you because you're windward boat! How unfair can you get?

6. As the fleet comes up to the start the wind will drop all the way down the line. So ease kickers; don't oversheet jibs; don't sit too far forward (or aft). Then as the fleet spreads out bring the controls back on to their proper settings.

7. Keep a good watch out all around and get your crew to do the same, reporting in all the time. Crews should be doing the timing too. In big fleets don't expect to hear the gun. There will be
too much other noise and besides it is visual signals that count.

8. Don't try to tack too soon around the front of the committee boat. His anchor warp is
dangling there desperate to entangle you. So, in your pre-start checks have a look at the
anchor cables at both ends.

9. If you've made a really good start, don't blow it in the euphoria of the moment. Relax and get on with the race but a small smile is permitted!

If you've blown the start, don't panic! Be consoled that everyone does from time to time - but you don't have to make a habit of it. Just get on with things - getting into the tacking routine as you hunt for clear air, keeping the boat moving. It is possible to make a come-back. After all, there is the whole race in front of you to do it. All it needs is patience.

In club races, if you have the courage, try starting at the back just to experience the feeling. Then if it happens in big time stuff, you won't get so grumpy.

10. My favourite routine is to sail along the line on port, towards the right end looking for a gap to tack into. If you remember in Golden Rule No. 5, there will be gaps being created all the time. All you have to do is find them!

11. It was Paul Elvstrom who said that "if you're not over the line once in every five races then you're not trying". Well if that's your view too, be over the line in non-important races. But I bet that it will be the other way round!

Finally, if all else fails, keep your cool. There is a whole lot of race left to go. Happy Starting.

Michael McNamara     UKWA News #70/Summer 1996