Four times Olympic Gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie talks to Matthew Sheahan about the best ways to tackle an unconventional start, which can be difficult to get right
The cut and thrust and elbow-shoving of a typical start is mostly about wrestling your way to the front of the queue. We all know the drill: assess the bias on the line, aim to start as close to the favoured end as possible while also carving out enough space around you to put your bow down and accelerate in the closing seconds. When the strategy falls short and you get covered to windward and/or squeezed from to leeward, it’s time to bail out and look for a lane out on port.
But how does the plan change for a reaching or downwind start?
On the face of it, the close-quarters jostling and the tension are absent, making the process feel more civilised. Yet the reality is that this kind of start is even more critical than a windward one unless you get clear air and a perfect lane.
Reaching starts are not just a feature of club racing, where a fixed starting position ashore makes a windward start rare; many of the world’s top races and regattas regularly use reaching or downwind starts. This can happen at inshore regattas like Cowes Week, or the start of major offshore races, even the America’s Cup World Series, the Volvo Ocean Race and the Extreme 40 circuit.
“In many ways, a reaching start is more difficult to pull off than a conventional windward start,” says Olympic Gold medallist Ben Ainslie, who through his involvement in the America’s Cup, both with the Defenders Oracle and with his own team BAR, has been spending more time than usual working on this style of start.
“If you get buried and trapped in dirty air it can be extremely difficult to break free, as well as being painful as you watch the lead boats stretch out ahead,” he says.
“A bad reaching start can be a disaster. Often you will have far fewer options, while there is also a higher element of luck involved than for a conventional start. Clear air is king, but getting it is rarely easy.”
1. The right end and angle
On a reaching start the best end of the line is not always the closest to the first mark. Rather, the favoured end will be about the best angle for your particular boat.
You need to be familiar with your boat’s performance and have an idea of what angle will be fastest both for your approach to the line and your course down the first leg.
If a kite hoist is involved, or a special sail deployed, you have to know how long it will take to perform the hoist and how the pre-hoist set-up might affect your tactical options. If a spinnaker pole is set ready for the hoist, for example, your manoeuvrability may be restricted.
Also, don’t forget that the stronger the breeze, the further towards the windward end you may want to start in order to take advantage of broader, faster angles.
In lighter breezes, starting to leeward helps to get tighter angles to build the apparent wind speed.
2. Assessing the fleet
Having established where you want to start and how you are going to get there, you must now consider what the rest of the fleet will be trying to do.
If it is a one-design class, a big gaggle is likely as the fleet fights for the one or two prime spots. Are you confident you can win this? If not, where could you start to keep your air clean and stay out of trouble?
Where is the fleet likely to want to head after the start? If there is tide involved, this may not be directly to the next mark.
In a handicap fleet there could be a wider range of tactical choices being considered by the other boats based on their individual performances. Try to assess who will go where and how you can keep away from their tracks.
3. Clean air is king
Gaining clear air is difficult, but it’s always crucial to a good downwind start. When you get rolled to weather there is often no coming back, especially in a high-performance boat. Not only are you held back as you struggle to get clear air, but your opponents will be pulling away quickly. In slower boats the pain can last the whole of the first leg.
The trick is to make sure you anticipate where the fleet will gather and ensure that you have options for breaking free if you need to.
This may mean compromising your position on the line or giving some distance away initially, but you cannot afford to get trapped.
You must create options and a series of plans before the gun goes.
4. Approaching the line
There are two ways of making an approach to the line. One is to do a timed run so you hit the line at speed just as the gun goes. To achieve this you need to be confident in your timing, which means doing as many timed runs as you can before the start.
In a small fleet and on a long line this is perfectly possible, but you have to practise close approaches, where you are keeping the boat speed down, as well as fast approaches from further out. You need to be able to switch between these modes and still get your timing right as you may be forced to change plans at short notice.
The risk is that you won’t find a gap. In big fleets on short lines this is a bigger risk so it may be better to pick your spot, stay close to the line and hover before pulling the trigger. It’s a slower way to start, but it can be safer.
5. When it all goes wrong
If you think you’re going to be late for the line, take a look at the options at the windward end. If you’re likely to be in the second rank of starters, you might as well make sure you give yourself the best option for clear air. The fortunes of the pack can change quickly as wind shadows are cast over the fleet, so give yourself the best chance of sailing around them.
If you’re early, you’re in trouble. There is no real answer to this apart from making sure you keep the distance you are over to a minimum.
Tide can play a big part in your tactics, so make sure you know which direction it will be running and how much there is likely to be. If the tide is against you it will be easier to hold back from the line, but also easier to be late.
Misjudging the tide sweeping you up to the line is a classic and often disastrous mistake. Being over in this situation can finish your race before it’s started as it will be a long way back against the tide.
In this situation, if anything, be late.