If a good start is the key to good race, the last tack into the start and the first 60 seconds out of it are crucial, explains top America’s Cup sailor Terry Hutchinson

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The subtleties of a good start are more complicated than identifying a good spot to leeward and starting next to someone who is going to give space and be happy to be rolled – although they both seem to help.

For me, consistent starting comes from repetition of the process and having a team that is working together without the need for constant communication. Simple buzzwords such as ‘kill high, aggressive turn here’, or ‘smooth tack to upwind’ are just a few things that help to get the point across succinctly.

But a good start is as much about boat positioning before the start as it is about the 60 seconds after the start. For this piece we are going with the concept that a nice hole has been carved out for the slingshot.

Within this scenario I want to focus on a port approach and the 60 seconds after the start.

1. The final tack onto the line

Potentially there is no more important tack in a race than the final tack onto starboard out of the port approach. Proper boat control is paramount, but that control comes from a team effort.

In windier conditions there is a reasonable chance that both sails are half-trimmed, making the manoeuvre more difficult. The more the sails and rudder are working in unison, the less the helmsman will have to oversteer to compensate for poor trim.

This manoeuvre alone will set up the first part of the beat.

2. Control out of the tack

You don’t want to have a sloppy tack onto starboard and then have the boat blow sideways because of poor sail trim or too much rudder. Going into this manoeuvre proper attention to trimming both sails is critical.

As an example, on the Farr 40 there are two grinders on the main, a grinder and tailer on the jib and the rest of the team is full hike into the tack and then full hike out of the tack – this means bowman off the bow and hiking.

On a boat with pedestals it is ‘priority to the handles’ on the mainsail, as that will help the helmsman with the turn. If the jib is over-trimmed or main under-trimmed more helm is required.

The penalty will not be as much going into the tack, but more on the exit once complete on starboard. Out of balance sail trim requires more rudder, which has a domino effect on the build up of speed and compromises the helmsman’s ability to keep tight gauge to windward and maintain the hole to leeward.

3. Momentum and speed build

In the final 60 seconds before the gun the goal is to have momentum on the boats to leeward and windward. Momentum is king for a slingshot start. Inevitably, on a perfectly square starting line with all boats nailing the start perfectly, momentum will win the start.

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Not having to put the bow down as much to build speed keeps a tight gauge to windward and opens up space to leeward, leaving more space to press when necessary to build speed and sail your own mode. If you spend the last 60s of the start trying to equalise the momentum with the boat to leeward there’s a reasonable chance that you will have used up all the space in the hole.

With speed and space, adjusting the momentum with the boat is easy. A slow speed build or big scallop to windward to wipe away speed is the easiest way. The team element here is key. Bowman, trimmers and tacticians need to appreciate that to win the start positioning, momentum over the boats to windward and leeward is vital.

See also 5 tips: the dip and the squeeze – tactics to help you muscle your way between competitors

4. Mode off the line

How many times do you turn to an upwind course and miss close-hauled? Too high or too low? Practise the wind up onto the breeze to get a feel for the perfect upwind angle.

If you have instrumentation, know the true wind angles and compass heading, or simply super-focus on the telltales. Other bits of information that will assist is a ‘final trim’ call from the jib trimmer to the helmsman.

The mode or ‘target boat-speed’ should be determined pre-start. The tactician should be able to give the helmsman three numbers. For example, on the Farr 40 we have normal, high or fast forward. Normal is target speed set by the current wind speed, high mode means sail as close to target as you can while maintaining the lane and fast forward will mean target to 0.15 of a tenth over target.

This information is for the mainsail trimmer as in a ‘normal or slightly fast’ mode the speed will be controlled by mainsail twist as much as anything. In a high mode the jib trimmer may have to give extra on sheet tension for balance.

Standardise your crew calls, eg

  • “Final trim” from trimmers to helmsman
  • “Target boat speed” tactician to helm
  • “Normal speed” = target for true wind speed
  • “High mode” = sail high, but close to target
  • “Fast forward” = target + 0.15 knots

See also 5 tips: bowman signals

5. Hiking for speed

The entire team needs to understand that in any race the game of inches is won and lost in certain situations. We have a couple of calls to hiking. ‘Superman’ is exactly as it sounds: arms out trying to touch your toes.

‘Max hike, max stability for two minutes.’ Prompts like this are critical so that the crew can pace themselves.

‘Medium hike for 20’ means hiking against the lifeline, but not 100 per cent. ‘Hiking to meet the puff’ means everybody on the boat tuned into the offside trimmer giving the breeze call.

It’s pretty easy to Superman and take initiative when you hear ‘puff on in 3-2-1, puff’ – at that moment if the entire crew hike as one, this will drive the boat harder.

Proper hiking is a vital tool and is equally important to the first 60 seconds of the race as sail trim, momentum and proper turn on the slingshot. Don’t be afraid to have a dedicated person to help prompt this aspect of the team.

The proper mode off the line is a combination of doing the little things well. It’s no big secret, but prioritise these and have a team that is tuned in and take pride in their job.

I greatly enjoy hearing that Barking Mad or Quantum Racing is the hardest hiking team on the water. It just means that we want it that much more.

Artemis Racing team portraits

Terry Hutchinson is one of the world’s leading tacticians. From the America’s Cup with Emirates Team New Zealand and most recently Artemis to many years calling the shots in the Farr 40 class and TP52s, Hutchinson has a long list of victories including a J/24 world championship title. He was Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2008