5 strategic launch tips for sailors

Sailing different types of boats means you need to adjust your launch strategy. Ben McGrane explains some options to Andy Rice

Getting off the line quickly in clear air isn’t just about getting off to a good start. Sometimes it may be better to wait in the second row near the committee boat and wait for your moment to take off. Or it could even be starting behind the entire fleet on port tack.

So many of us have a favorite approach to start with that we try to work for all occasions, but we need to be more adaptable. On faster planing or foiling boats, a port tack launch can be a winning option, but we’ll be looking at conventional starboard tack launches for this article.

As a multiple champion in a number of dinghy and keelboat classes, Ben McGrane is well placed to share his experience and advice on how to adapt your approach to different occasions and strategic scenarios. Here are Ben’s top five tips for a strategic start:

Preparation before launch

Launching into the open air with a good starting line is only worthwhile if it points you in the right direction for your overall racing strategy. If you start at the pin end of the line because there is five degrees of line dip, but you still can’t tack to take advantage of the more favorable current on the right side of the course, then your launch strategy was wrong. The decision as to what type of start you will make will often come down to the morning of the race, or sometimes even days or weeks in advance if you are planning a venue with a strong reinforcement function.

Be one of the first onto the track on race day so you can get a feel for the conditions and jot down your compass numbers on every turn.

Go to the middle (if fast)

If you have good boat speed, you can afford to line up pretty much anywhere on the starting line. If you’re less sure of your speed, or you’re one of the slower boats in a handicap fleet, you need to think a little more carefully about where you position yourself.

The middle of the line offers opportunities if you have good transit on land and can take advantage of the middle line slack. If it’s a changeable day, then the middle is a good place to start shift work from both sides of the course.

The iconic start line of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Photo: Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

Beware of the end of the pen

Winning the pin is great if you can pull it off, and it’s a great place to assume you want to go hard left. But you put yourself in a situation where you are working with limited options.

For anything other than a “Go Left” beat, it’s a risky strategy. If you’re fast enough to gain some distance to turn and cross the fleet, this is a good option. But for most of us, we need to be more careful about how and when we use the pin-end option.

It also depends a lot on what kind of boat you are sailing and how long the first leg is. In a boat like a 505 that can plan upwind, you might get the jump on the boats around you. With displacement keelboats like the XOD, it is more difficult to stay ahead of your competitors as the differences in boat speed are marginal.

On a short course it will be difficult to get the pin end to work as you will most likely run out of space before the layline. The longer the windward stretch, the more time you have to make the pin-end launch work for you.

Make yourself comfortable on the committee boat

The advantage of starting close to the committee boat is to get in phase with oscillatory shifts. When the wind is constantly shifting 10° or 20°, starting the boat can be forceful to get you onto the raised tack sooner than the boats further along the line waiting for others to tack first.

In a sea wind scenario where you usually want to go to the right, starting near the committee boat is a good option. And then there are current driven places or places like Lake Garda where you want to start off the committee boat and immediately turn to port towards the cliffs. In these extreme scenarios, it pays to be second or even third row from the start because getting on port tack is your priority.

Do you have a backup plan

If your Plan A launch strategy doesn’t work out, what is your Plan B? Some launches are bound to go wrong. Either you can’t quite make the acceleration off the line and are gasping for fresh air, or you start too early and have to go back to the restart. Of course, if you start in the middle, it’s a long way back if you have to re-round the ends. A good recovery from a pin-end launch when you’re early is to jibe around the pin mark and round up to port tack behind all of the starboard fleet.

Whatever your bailout after a bad start, the most important thing is to remember to execute your original strategy and not fall for an alternative.

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