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The Sailing Race

1: Introducing the course

At risk of stating the obvious, the three key elements of any sailing race are the start, the course and the finish. Same as for any other kind of race, right? Almost, but the sea (and even inland waters for that matter) don’t lend themselves to marking out an obvious and continuous racecourse as with a running, motor sports or horse racing track.

Instead, we normally sail one or more laps around a series of marks — typically buoys — which can be arranged in a wide variety of configurations. The simplest of these has only two marks — one at the windward end of the racetrack and one at the downwind end. This creates a ‘sausage’-shaped course with a windward leg followed by a downwind leg.

As we can’t sail directly into the wind, our actual track will be a series of tacks from the start line towards the windward mark. On the downwind leg some boats will head directly to the leeward mark, but others — particularly modern fast planing designs — will usually sail a further series of zigzags to maximise their apparent wind. Although this involves sailing a greater distance, it is more than compensated for by the increase in speed.

The second common course shape is a triangle. Again this typically starts with a windward leg, which is then followed by two broad reaches, with a gybe at the second corner of the course. Sometimes the sausage and triangle courses are combined, doing one and then the other on alternating laps.

Both these courses give excellent racing, particularly when the windward leg is accurately set as a true beat. However, it relies on the efforts and skill of the race officials to set the marks for each day of racing and if the wind shifts during the day, they must be re-laid. To facilitate the race officers’ task, many clubs lay permanent marks, which are then used to find the closest fit to an ideal course, which makes racing much easier to organise.

Of course, when you have a large number of marks that are already laid, it’s possible to devise courses of many different shapes, although for most classes both the challenge and fun factor are maximised when legs are either a true beat or involve using the spinnaker. Part of the challenge of racing any sailing boat is that it’s a very tactical activity — positioning (and continually repositioning) yourself to maximum advantage in relation to other competitors, at the same time as taking advantage of any changes in the wind direction is vital to success.

Most opportunities to gain places (or lose them!) are on the windward legs, hence the popularity of courses that start in this manner. Conversely, two-sail reaching legs are very frequently a procession, with little chance of overtaking those in front. This is why they are generally not a feature of sailing courses, although they may be encountered on some longer distance races, or where there are restrictions on where you can sail: such as in narrow rivers and estuaries.

Another situation in which two-sail reaching may be involved is in offshore races, or those that involve sailing around an island. Such races are often popular for the challenge they represent and the fun of taking part, even though the wind may not cooperate with creating a textbook course for good racing.


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A good start counts for much more time than you'd think

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