Practice and Prepare
Having an agreed plan of action will ensure you and your crew know what the big picture looks like and be able to respond when unexpected things occur. Although race starts very rarely go exactly as planned, by having a clear strategy you can avoid confusion and potential chaos in the heat of the moment.
Try to practice your starting sequence a few times before the countdown begins to give the helm and trimmers a good idea of what to expect and to ensure all of the crew know what their role is during the start.
When I think back to bad starts, I usually wasn’t completely clear in the information I had gathered before the start and what it meant, so make sure you’ve got your head around it all. It’s useful to have a laminated checklist of all the bits of info you need to gather before the countdown begins and create a routine that you can follow before every single race. This might include sailing upwind to get your heading numbers, sailing on the start line to see if there is a line bias, taking a transit and, if you have the relevant regatta software onboard, pinging the ends of the line. Having a routine like this is great preparation and ensures you don’t forget anything that might throw you off course later. It can also create a feeling of calm and confidence in what can often be a stressful situation.
Work As a Team
Sailing starts are a great test of good teamwork. A well coordinated crew will work together efficiently to get the boat in the best position and off the line in clear air and at speed. Everyone aboard should have a role to play and making sure everyone understands their role will help you to coordinate a smooth starting sequence.
Starting from the front, the bowman should be confident at calling the boat into the line. Establish a set of hand signals that they and the rest of the crew, in particular the helm, understand and make sure they are clear and concise with their signals during the starting sequence. The trimmers should decide between themselves who is trimming or cutting in the tacks and understand what the best settings are for the first beat. Make sure you have one person calling out the countdown time, giving clear updates at regular intervals for everyone to hear. It’s also wise to have another person with the time as a backup in case one timer goes wrong! The tactician should look at the bigger picture and call the shots in terms of boat position and manoeuvres. The helm should be ready to listen to all of the information provided by the crew, position the boat according to the tactician’s instructions and keep the boat rolling at all times.
The boat also needs a common language. Everyone needs to know what different words and phrases mean. It sounds obvious, but when under stress and pressure, it’s amazing what a half second delay can do to your start if there is confusion over what someone said. Create a language for your crew and stick to it!
And the most important thing of all – TRUST. Trust the process you have in place, commit when the correct person onboard calls for the boat to pull the trigger. Even if you are wrong, by sticking to your process, you will have the clearest and purest picture of what went wrong. Order and discipline reign supreme. Repeat over and over and tweak over and over until it works.
See our article on ‘The Fundamentals of Good Crew Work‘ for more ideas on this topic.