Great starts are the stuff that dreams are made of. But when the occasional nightmare start sabatoges your plans, there are ways to salvage a positive outcome. One of the most predictable trouble areas for most sailors is the start. It’s easy to get clogged up, risk a foul, or just get rolled off the starting line. And worse, any mistake there gets accentuated because the fleet is so compressed.
I recently taught at a clinic working with a group of young sailors. Our focus for the day was on escaping from bad starts. We spoke about the fact that, if you’re second or third row at the start, you may be in last, but only a boatlength or two out of the lead. There’s still time to recover. However, you have to act fast to get back in the race. The lesson was simple: Clear air is the first goal, and then playing the shifts. Do everything you can to get clear and be fast.
The very next day I watched one of these young sailors get a bad start and do nothing to get out of trouble. Later, I slid up next to him in my coach boat and asked if he had considered tacking away toward clear air. He said he wanted to go to the left, so he had to stay in the bad air to get there. I couldn’t fault him for having a plan, but I’m not sure it was the best one. But, I’ve been in his shoes.
He stayed in bad air, on starboard tack, quickly losing to the fleet. When he finally got the shift he expected, he was far enough behind that he had no chance to get into the top group on the left. Making matters worse, boats that had tacked right early, gotten clear air, and then tacked back to the left were also well ahead of him. What he failed to see was that everyone was gaining on him while he was in bad air, and in a matter of a minute or two, there was no way he would be among the leaders anymore.
What was his post-race analysis? He decided he was slow. But anyone could see that he didn’t understand how to free himself from his bad start.
Rule No. 1 after a weak start is to get on the opposite tack to the fleet. Unless you’re one boat away from clear air on the left and reaching off will get you there, don’t stay on starboard tack. If you get onto port as soon as you can, you’ll find you stop losing to the fleet. Yes, you’re crossing behind other boats, but you’re sailing in fairly clear air, and each time you go behind another boat, you’ll feel a lift that you can use for speed or pointing, your choice.
Sometimes, it seems as if there’s nowhere to go if you bail out. But boats start tacking to port very quickly after the gun, and holes open open up after you’ve been on port for as little as a length or two. The weaker starboard boats are losing ground in bad air and headers, so the space between them and the stronger boats grows quickly, often allowing port-tack boats to cross opponents they didn’t think they could seconds earlier. In fact, if you wait to tack onto port until there’s a nice, juicy hole to cross through, you’ll often find that boats you cross behind to get there will tack on you, shutting down that hole.
Don’t give up if you’re not first off the line. Make your exit choice immediately and get to work limiting the damage of your bad start. The race is just beginning, so look at any less than perfect start as an opportunity to begin gaining on the early leaders. Remember, you only collect points at the finish. Once you break through into clear air, re-examine your strategic plans and decide if you’re on the right tack. Look around, get in a clear lane, and go fast.