Having the boat on the starting line at full speed is difficult to achieve. One of the ways to consistently execute a good start is having the bowman communicate time to the line in an effective and efficient manner. I’ll give you a few steps that we use on the teams I sail with that will make it easier for you to increase your accuracy and build confidence with each start.
The first step is to get to know the boat you are sailing on. What I mean by this is that it’s good to know how the boat accelerates, how long it takes for the boat to accelerate, and at what angles it does so in the various conditions and sea state. Before a regatta we will do speed-build drills to help figure this out. **We start by luffing near a buoy, channel marker, or coach boat. We then bear away to accelerate. At the same time, I’ll start my watch and then stop it once we are closehauled at full speed. **Take a look back and see approximately how far away from the fixed object you are, and how long it took you to go that distance. This will give you a good estimate of how long it takes your boat to accelerate in the given conditions for that day.
Next, make sure you’re communicating time and distance to the line in a way where the crew in the back, i.e., trimmers, tactician, and especially the helmsman, can understand what you’re saying. I use hand signals: two fingers equals two boatlengths, one finger equals one boatlength, closed fist equals on the line, or I just say how many seconds it is to the line. Helmsmen and tacticians like this information relayed in different ways. It varies from person to person. So, if it’s our first time sailing together, I always make a point of asking them how they’d like this info to be communicated so we’re all on the same page when it gets down to start time.
Many teams go out and practice crew maneuvers and work on boatspeed. Practicing start drills are just as important. It’s good to go out and do several timed runs at the line. For both match racing and fleet racing, the teams I sail with have pre-race routines. In addition to getting line sights, laylines, and checking the favored end of the start line, we will also do multiple timed runs at the line. We will sail downwind away from the line on port, then head up and tack or bear away and gybe. We then trim up to closehauled toward the line and ask ourselves, “How long will it take to get to the line from here?” I start my watch and time how long it takes. During this time, I also count down aloud to see how long I think it will take. When the bow crosses the line, I stop my watch and check the actual time it took us to get there versus the time I thought it would take. After a few runs, the number in your head and the time on your watch should match or be very close.
Once we have all this information, we will do a practice two-minute start drill. Set your watch for a two-minute countdown. This simulates your normal starting procedure, just in a condensed countdown. Using your timing information from the previous runs and your knowledge of how long it takes the boat to accelerate and at what angles, the goal is to have the boat sailing at full speed, closehauled and as close to the line as possible when the countdown gets to zero. This drill is great for everyone on the boat. It helps the bow to get comfortable with the time and distance to the line and also the hand signals. The trimmers get practice having the boat accelerate as quickly and efficiently as possible with their different trim settings. And the helmsman gets a feel for the bowman’s hand signals, time and distance, and the proper speed build and turn-up angles for the given conditions.
The more information you have, the more accurate your communication to the line should be. When the regatta starts, this could mean the difference between getting off the line in the first row and giving your team a chance to have a good first beat, or having a third row start and playing catch up the rest of the race.