Olympic gold medallist Robert Scheidt’s pre-start skills are legendary (just ask Ben Ainslie!). He shares tips on positioning to win with Andy Rice
Robert Scheidt always used to start out of the middle of the line. That was in the days when he was the stand-out talent in the Laser single-handed dinghy, winning world titles year after year.
Scheidt set the pace for exceptional downwind speed but as the rest of the world closed the gap, the Brazilian admits he should have changed his conservative approach to starting. If you’re aeons faster than your rivals, the start doesn’t matter so much. But for most of us, getting a good lane out of the start is critical for setting us up for the rest of the race. Scheidt shares his five best tips for being fast out of the blocks – and how to recover if you stumble.
Build a routine
I like to be one of the first to get on the water, say one hour before the race so I can check the course, my settings and get dialled into the conditions. Then, about 10 minutes before the orange flag goes up I’ll do a few timed runs towards the committee boat end or the pin end, to check the time and distance for the conditions.
I’ll sail along the line, check the bias with my compass and see which looks like the favoured end. Routines like this are super important. If there’s current, these pre-start checks are even more critical. If you have the opportunity to get a transit, take it. If there are any recalls most of the fleet will hang back because they don’t want to be disqualified. That’s a great opportunity to use your transit, be confident that you know where the line is and move forward for a great start when others are hanging back.
Practise going slow
We all want to be able to sail fast, but it’s also important to be able to sail slow. This is a really useful skill for pre-start manoeuvring. I moved from the Laser into the 49er for a year, and I was amazed how some teams could stay in the same place for four minutes or more.
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If you can develop this ability to stand still, you’ll have a massive advantage on the boats around you as you approach the start. Practise your double tacking and reversing techniques to help you create a gap to leeward, and practise acceleration drills.
Different boats take different amounts of time to get up to full speed. Most people don’t practise their slow-speed skills, so you’ll have a big advantage if you do.
Risk versus reward
Risk management is a big thing at start time. You need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, you have to understand the wind conditions, and you have to understand the course and which side is paying.
There are times you can be more conservative, let’s say if you are really confident that you’re fast in those conditions. If the race is long, you have strong winds, you feel fast, you don’t have to win a side on the start, then you can be a bit more conservative and start more towards the middle, and use your speed to crack the race open.
But if, for instance, you have a light air race in a sea breeze, like we had in the Tokyo Games, you can find the pressure is always coming out from the edges of the course. That’s when you need to be more aggressive at the start because your opportunities to get to the best part of the race course are much more limited.
Have a ‘plan b’
A bad start doesn’t mean the race is over, because the boats are still pretty close. There are still opportunities, and the first important thing is not to panic. A lot of people deviate from their original strategy, because they had a bad start and usually that means they end up making even more mistakes.
Be patient, and wait for your moment to get a clear lane back to the favoured side. When I’m sailing on a big boat I share my Plan B with the whole crew, so if anything goes wrong, everyone is dialled in to what we’re going to do next. I’ve seen a lot of guys having a bad start, but really, really quickly get back into the race like that.
If you’re slower than other boats in the fleet, which happens all the time in handicap racing, you need to rethink your starting strategy. Starting to leeward of boats that are faster than you is not a good idea because you’ll get rolled soon after the start and be in their bad air.
One of the options when you’re slower is to try to win the race committee side or at least be on the windward side of these big boats and be able to tack off and sail free for a few minutes. Those faster guys are going to be gone very quickly and then you’ll have free air again.
Robert Scheidt is one of the most successful Olympic sailors of all time, representing Brazil in seven Games and winning a total of five Olympic medals as well as numerous world titles in the Laser and the Star keelboat. He also sailed as part of the Luna Rossa America’s Cup campaign.
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