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The Sailing Race

2: The start and finish

A good start counts for much more time than the handful of seconds it gives you at the outset of a race. One important reason for this is that those at the front of the fleet sail in a much cleaner and less disturbed wind than those towards the back, hence the front-runners can relatively easily extend their lead.

The starting sequence is signalled using a combination of guns (or hooters), whistles and flags. Five minutes before the start, a gun and class flag indicate the ‘warning signal’. Technically it is the deployment of the flag that signals the exact time. The reason for this is that on long start lines it can take several seconds for the sounds to reach to the far end of the line, however for most purposes this is not a problem and most sailors rely on the sound signals. At four minutes before the start the ‘preparatory signal’ is indicated with a second gun and code flag ‘P’.

After this time outside assistance is prohibited and vessels may not use any power other than the sails — so dinghies can no longer be paddled and yachts cannot use their engines, even if conditions are almost calm.

One minute before the start a further signal is sounded, usually using a whistle. At the start, a further gun or hooter marks the start of the race. If any boats are over the start line (i.e on the course side of the line, or OCS) when the starting signal is made, a second sound signal will be made to indicate that there are competitors that must return to the correct side of the line before continuing to sail the first leg of the course.

Occasionally, if a large proportion of the fleet is OCS, a general recall will be signalled and the starting sequence will begin again from scratch. Ideally the start line will be laid so that it’s exactly perpendicular to the wind direction, which sets the fleet up for the first windward leg. Although in practice this can be difficult to achieve and there is normally a bias towards one end.

The start line can’t be inked onto the water in the way that the start line for a running race is painted on the ground. Instead it’s an imaginary line between a buoy at one end and the mast of a committee boat or onshore flagstaff at the opposite end of the line. Equally, in a sailing race there’s no such thing as a standing start as with a Formula One race, for instance. At the start gun you want to be just behind the line and sailing at full speed, but judging this accurately can be difficult for even the most experienced. Don’t worry about occasionally being over the line at the start, if you’re never over it’s a sign that you’re consistently being too timid.

When starting from a fixed line, with one end on shore, the line may not be perpendicular to the wind, in fact you might start on any point of sail. This is quite common at many clubs, which use fixed marks and a fixed start line for ordinary club racing.

With laid triangle and sausage courses, the finish is often part way up the windward leg, or at the windward mark. A windward finish adds to the challenge, very often keeping the results open until the very last moment. As with the start line, the finish will be between a buoy and the mast of a committee boat, or flagpole ashore.


Previous page:1 Introducing the course

We normally sail one or more laps around a series of markers

Next page:3 The ‘Racing Rules of Sailing’

Avoiding collisions, and who has right-of-way

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