Collaborative Sailboat Racing Starts

You've probably seen it in sailboat racing

How many times have you seen it play out: You’re hanging out on the sailboat racing start line with about 15 seconds to go, when some yahoo comes speeding on in and squishes into half a hole between you and the boat below you. And the skipper’s yelling “up, up, up” the whole time. You respond as quickly as you can, but then she hits you—first up by your shrouds, and then again when her starboard quarter swings into you as she bears off again to get speed to get off the starting line.

What a mess, in so many ways. None of that is good for anybody! Giving each other enough space on the starting line: you have to do it, it’s good for the fleet as a whole, and it’s good for you and your individual results. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

sailboat racing start line
Giving each other enough space on the sailboat racing start line is good for the fleet as a whole, and it’s good for you and your individual results. Photo by Susan Hale

Sailboat racing rules

Many (most?) racing sailors understand that, in general, windward boats have to keep clear of leeward boats. Often on the starting line, a boat will tack in into starboard below a boat that’s already there, or will sail from up the line on the same tack and will establish an overlap to leeward that way. But there are limits to what—and when, and how—windward boats have to do, and it can get confusing.

So, what’s the scoop? Racing Rules of Sailing Rule 11 states, “When boats are on the same tack and overlapped, a windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat.” Okay, so generally speaking, a leeward boat has right of way over a windward boat—the leeward boat gets to decide where to go.

And to make things even harder for the windward boat, before the starting signal goes off, leeward boats may want to do some pretty wacky things, like heading up well above close hauled, even to head to wind (but of course not tacking to port if there’s a boat in the way!). The definition of “proper course” notes that proper course is “a course a boat would sail to finish as soon as possible in the absence of other boats… A boat has no proper course before her starting signal.”

But safety and the realities of maneuvering boats in close proximity demand that there are some limits on just how and when leeward boats can exercise these rights. Thanks to RRS Rule 15, we have some limits: “When a boat acquires right of way, she shall initially give the other boat room to keep clear, unless she acquires right of way because of the other boat’s actions.”

So whether they’re tacking in below a starboard boat, or zooming in from above to gain overlap below, a boat acquiring right of way from another boat (envision this boat hanging out luffing sails loosely on a close-hauled course just under the starting line) has to give that other boat the space to keep out of the way. Clues that you haven’t left enough room for the windward boat? When promptly reacting to your acquiring the right of way, they push the tiller over to head up and out of your way, and their port quarter hits your boat. Or, if you change your mind and decide to head down, and when you push the tiller away, your starboard quarter hits their boat. There are more rules involved in starting line situations, but in general, remember that elbow room is not just a happy thing—it’s required.

It’s good for the sailboat racing fleet

Especially in big fleets, one hiccup along the starting line can cause chaos for the entire fleet. The immediate interaction between two boats—one coming in to leeward, the other responding to weather by heading up—can cause a chain reaction that causes a third of the fleet to end up over the line. If they all end up OCS because of one greedy boat down the line, that’s not right. If the race committee decides to signal a general recall because they couldn’t identify all the boats that were over, that eats up precious racing time and creates frustration for RC and racers alike. Get a few trigger-happy boats involved, and this can happen again, and again, and again. And we want to race, not wait between “practice starts!”

And philosophically, isn’t the point of a physical starting line, and the visual and sound signals that identify to racers when they can cross that starting line, to get the competitors off to a fair start to the race—rather than having the race be decided before the gun even goes off? Race committees generally set starting line lengths to be roughly a boat length for every boat out there (so for example, 25 Lasers at roughly 14 feet each = almost 120 yards); so there is space for everyone, if not necessarily where you want to be.

It’s good for you

Jump back up to the “you have to” section for a moment, and think about all the Racing Rules of Sailing that are involved, how many grey areas there are, and how not-fun protest rooms are. I posit that giving a windward boat an extra few feet is well worth it to avoid any potential protests. It also lets you focus on what you need to be doing—getting ready to be rolling off the line when the gun goes off. Not arguing with the boat above or below you. Not untangling their mainsheet from around your crew. Not worrying about fiberglass damage.

Give it a try. Starting near—but not tangled up with—your friends and fellow competitors makes for a happier experience for everyone. Fleets where everyone is on board with “collaborative starting”—understanding that yes, boats will end up to leeward of them, but will respect the distance between boats and will leave appropriate elbow room—tend to be the fleets where sailors have the most fun.

by Kim Couranz

About the author: SpinSheet Small Boat columnist for more than a dozen years, Kim Couranz has earned several national and world titles in Laser Radials (ILCA 6) and Snipes. She has also raced J/22s, J/24s, and Ynglings on an international level.

This article orginally appeared in the February 2020 issue of SpinSheet.

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