Starting Line Head Games
Starting Line Head Games
The favored end of the starting line may be favorable most of the time, but when it’s shifty, ignore the opposite end at your own peril. "Strategy" from our October 2010 issue.
We prepared to start the final race of the two-day Severn Sailing Association Soling Summer Series at about 2 p.m. on a warm July afernoon. Our lead was precarious. If we failed to beat Peter Gleitz in this race, we would fall into a tie, which would be broken in his favor. This was the third of three short, windward-leeward races, using the same unaltered line in an amalgamated sea breeze—a mixture of the local sea breeze and the ocean sea breeze coming overland and onto the bay from off the Eastern Shore.
At about 10:30 a.m., we sailed out from the club in a freshening 5-knot, local sea breeze from between 125 and 145 degrees that had dissipated the morning calm. By the time we arrived at the line, the ocean sea breeze had begun to fill from 155 to 165 degrees, and the surface wind began to shift erratically between extremes of 125 and 170 degrees. It lightened as it backed toward the local sea breeze, and it freshened as it veered toward the ocean sea breeze.
We won the first race by tacking to starboard at the beginning of the second beat in a wind of 165 degrees with the expectation that it would back. It did—to about 140 degrees!
We tacked and crossed the fleet to our right with ease and won the race. In the second race (perhaps overly impressed with our management of the first) we went left initially in what seemed to be a lift (a wind of 160 degrees), and then, as everyone else tacked to port, tacked above them. However, on the long, crossing tack, the wind gradually veered beyond anything we had seen, and two boats that had taken port tack from the line came out of the right corner to catch us at the mark. Because we had been unable to catch them, we were now but 1 point ahead of Peter, who had finished second.
Before the start of the final race, the wind had been in a prolonged back (at around 150 degrees) for four to five minutes, and the pin end of the line had become heavily favored. I asked myself and the crew whether I should start on port on the lifed tack or make my usual pin end start and then tack. I presumed that with a good start at the pin, I would have the nearest boats in my bad air and would soon thereafter be able to tack and cross the fleet. The gain I would make by starting ahead would put me in control of Peter from the outset.
I made the start at the pin alright, but because another boat had tried to drive through to leeward, I had needed to go down below the layline with speed, come up in a sharp luff and, in the last 8 seconds, bear away, hold below the buoy, and start without a foot to spare. So I was slow and low at first and had to sail about 100 yards in the header before the boat on my hip tacked. But the back was holding, and we looked great, at least for a minute or two. Then, as the wind gradually veered, I could see that Peter, who had started up the line and had tacked to port immediately, was working out on my leebow. He tacked on the layline and crossed us by three boatlengths.
If we gained on the run, it was but a boat length, so when we rounded the leeward mark, we were in his bad air and felt forced to tack away—into another back. I thought we’d just go far enough to get out of his bad air, but then the veer returned and we lifed, up and up to a compass heading of 95 degrees (a wind of 180 degrees)—higher on starboard than we’d ever been before.
We couldn’t tack to port in this, so we continued, our only hope being the possibility that the back would return before we reached the port layline. It did, and we tacked. For a moment, I thought we’d have him. But no, the wind gradually veered to its median position, and, near the mark, he crossed two boatlengths ahead. And there went the Summer Series. Now, if I’d hit those shifts in a different sequence—if I’d used a different jib and had been faster, if I’d been faster downwind—if, if, if. And the biggest if was: if the beats had only been longer. On short, half-mile legs, there’s typically time for but one shift of an oscillating series, and that one shift becomes a persistent shift. If (at the average speed of a racing sailboat, five knots) it takes about eight to nine minutes to sail a half-mile beat, and if oscillating shifts occur about once every five to eight minutes, it’s unlikely that more than one shift will occur during a beat. If the shift extant at the start persists for two or more minutes after the start, then the first shift of the beat is almost certain to be the only shift.