Big Fleet Starts

by Charlie Pendleton

So, as of press time, we’re at 31 32 boats registered for Race Week. That’s about twice the average we see during an MRA Saturday and it’s going to be a BIG factor on the starting line. I promise you that there will be teams that tell stories about how they gave away their chance of winning Race Week on the starting line – I’ve been there. 32 boats means traffic and a starting line that will be a lot longer than most are used to. Some things to consider when starting as we all get ready for the main event this summer:

Orient and Plan:

Once the Race Committee has set the starting line, get oriented to it. While there are several ways to do this, Jim and I like to do the very basic: Sail off the line on starboard near the boat, close hauled. We take a look at the angle and determine if there is any bias in the line – which end looks favored? Get a line site if there are objects on land, behind the pin, that you can use to judge how close you are to the line. This is important on long lines. Check for current and make sure you know how it will impact your approach to the line. Given the wind conditions, determine how much time you’ll need to get the boat up to full speed. Will you need to sheet in and pull the trigger at 25 seconds? 15 seconds? Expect a lot of starting line slop with all the boat traffic and in light air, expect some big dead spots on the line with the blanket of sails circling around. You need to be at speed when the gun goes off to hold your lane. Be sure to talk the starting plan through with your team so you are all on the some page.

Learn the people, learn the fleet:

Know thy neighbor – don’t start to windward of a pincher or to leeward of someone that is going to roll over you. You know who they are! There are boats in this fleet that I try not to start near because I know I’ll get killed off the line if I do. Think about who you are setting up next to and give yourself the best chance to get off the line with a clean lane. Also, learn the fleet’s characteristics/personality. Where will there be traffic? Watch closely prior to the oneminute warning and you can see where it’s going to be ugly – while you still have plenty of time to stay clear of the pile up. In big fleets, this is really important.

Watch the wind:

You see boats going head to wind repetitively before the start. They’re checking to see if the line bias has changed and they’re also seeing if the windward mark is skewed. This season has seen really squirrely breezes. A boat end bias becomes a pin end favored line in the course of seconds. Additionally, pressure can drop or pick up within the last minute. Make sure you’re watching and making adjustments.

Manage the traffic around you:

Carving out your hole and holding it is tough in big fleets. Know how to defend your space. Watch for boats from behind and be aware of port tack approachers. Talk to the other boats if necessary. Here’s an important tip: You don’t need to ‘take out’ the boat to windward of you before the start. It’s something I see from time to time, “small ball” tactics where a boat will slide really close to leeward of another boat on the starting line and pin them there dead in the water, killing that one boat’s start. Sure, it’s easy to do, but it won’t earn you any friends/favors and it’s just not necessary. Yes – you need to slow the boats to windward to make your hole, but you don’t need to take them out of the race before it starts!

Race Committee Mechanics:

Expect “I” Flags and maybe black flags. With 30+ boats on the line, it’s hard to get everyone to start cleanly without some extra enforcement and our race committees are not shy about helping the fleet to behave. Watch for the RC to post these flags. Also, have your radio charged and on so you can hear numbers that may be called over. We’re lucky that Marblehead Race Committees tend to be very communicative. But remember, if you’re over, you’re over and it’s on you (not the RC) to know and clear yourself.

Know when to bail:

I’ve done it. 55 seconds and I’m third row. I’ll gybe out and look for a better lane. Don’t force a start that’s not going to work. Know where you are on the line and how much time you have. If it’s not working and you have time, go to your next best option: A lane and clear air that’s not necessarily where you wanted to start but is WAY better than second or third row.

Bottom line. Starts will be critical. Minimize mistakes. Be smart. Be conservative.

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