An OCS can ruin your series as much as your day, but it can also be hard to avoid. Jonty Sherwill asks World Match Racing champion Ian Williams how to reduce loss – or even gain advantage

Pundits at any local sailing club say you’re not trying hard enough if you don’t stray over the line once in a while. So, never mind honing your starting skills – you also need to think about recovery if you find yourself OCS.

If it’s a restart after a general recall, then it’s vital to keep a sharp eye on the flags at the committee boat. Penalties and tactics will vary depending on what preparatory flag is being flown: ‘P’, I’, ‘Z’, ‘Z’ with ‘I’ or the one that commands most respect, Black.

It’s a risky strategy to rely on being hidden in a bulge at midpoint on the starting line, particularly if the ‘I’ flag is flying. This is because the ‘round-the-ends’ rule will be in force for those boats OCS in the final minute of the sequence and it could be a two-minute sail or more to reach either end of the line, and without rights over the other boats that are starting correctly.

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Notwithstanding a Black flag, when only one sound signal is made at the start, if boats are OCS there will be at least two sound signals and if there are individual recalls the ‘X’ flag will be flying. That’s the moment to asking hard questions: was it us; do we go back; will the ‘X’ come down or do we wait to see the results?

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A lot can go wrong for other boats during a race, so if you do return to clear the line, keeping a cool head and knowing which side of the first beat is favoured could see you back in the hunt sooner than you think.

As those pundits at the club will also tell you, a race is never over till it’s over and you’ve reached the finish line.

1. Signals, speed and set-up

Agree what signals the bowman will use and especially whether he or she is calling distance sailing or distance perpendicular to the start line (see our 5 tips: bowman signals); most boats use perpendicular distance.

In addition, know how long it takes to sail one length closer to the line by timing it on a practice run. I usually time six to ten lengths to improve accuracy; depending on wind strength, current and start line bias, this can vary a lot.

For your final approach, consider conditions when positioning against the fleet. In light airs it is fatal to drop out of the front row as you will have no wind to build up speed. In stronger winds it is the boats that push the line too early that are in most danger because it is much harder to reach along the line at the last moment.

2. Risk and GPS

Discuss with the bowman before the start how hard you want to push the line. If you are a fast boat in the fleet and there is no clearly favoured side on the beat, you can afford to hold back a little and keep the risk down. If not and you must go left, it may be worth pushing things a little harder.

GPS data is now very accurate, so provided you have accurately pinged the line (and it has not moved), you should be able to trust it to tell you how far from the line you are (particularly useful on very long start lines such as at Cowes Week).

But be wary of ‘time to the line’ or ‘time to burn’ information – unless you have your polars and calibration very well set up this information can be misleading.

3. Baling out

Sometimes, seconds before the start, you will know you’re in a bad position and are not going to get a good start however hard you fight for your gap. If you call it early enough, you can often make room to tack or duck back through the fleet and be away on port only a few lengths behind the leaders.

But if you continue to fight, start second row or find yourself OCS and are then blocked from tacking, you are already looking at a big deficit, with no good options for clear air.

If you are OCS, remember you retain your rights until you are heading back, so (subject to RRS 16) you may be entitled to luff the boat to windward in order to make space to return. You won’t make many friends doing this, mind you!

4. Marginal calls

If you think you are OCS, the sooner you decide to go back the better. If the race committee is calling OCS boats on the VHF, ensure the radio is to hand and that somebody is listening straight after the start.

If OCS boats are not being announced, then somebody on board will need to make the call – ensure you have a clear process for this before you start, so a decision can be made quickly.

The final call is probably best made by the skipper or tactician, based on the most reliable information – that is likely to come from the bowman on a larger yacht. On dayboats and sportsboats, the helmsman will usually make the call based on the chat in the final 20 seconds of the start sequence.

5. The aftermath

Although being disqualified is frustrating, sailing is a team game, so learn from it and bounce back – you may be able to discard that result anyway.

But be attentive if there is a general recall after a Black-flag start; listen to the VHF and/or look at the noticeboard on the committee boat for your sail number because if you were OCS under a Black flag (and the race was not postponed or abandoned before the start signal) you are excluded from further restarts.

If you do join in, your OCS will be counted in your overall series score. It is possible to request redress for being OCS, but unless you are confident there is clear video evidence or you have credible witnesses from other boats it will be a waste of social time for you and the jury.

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Ian Williams is current and four-times ISAF match racing world champion and the first European to hold multiple match racing world titles; a nine-times winner on the World Match Racing Tour, he has 27 podium finishes. Ian is also well-known as a tactician on the pro big-boat circuit.