Tips From The Top. Getting Off To A Good Start

In a new series of posts on the Scorpion Site, we have asked our top helms and crews to share a few pearls of wisdom on different aspects of sailing & racing Scorpions.

First up we have three times National Champion Tom Jeffcoate with a few tips on getting off the start line………….

At the right end, going fast, on the B of Bang… that’s what most of us will have been told at some point when discussing how to start. 2 thoughts spring immediately to mind – how do we do that and do we actually want to? That second one might sound a strange question to ask and I’ll come to it in a minute.


Tom Jeffcoate (left) Three Times Scorpion Nationals Champion, two of which with Andy Davis (right) in 2008 & 2011

First of all though there are lots of books written by far better sailors and more eloquent writers than me and I’d suggest you read their advice on how to choose line bias, angles of approach, boat on boat tactics, rules etc if you have the chance. However, as John has asked for some material for the website and starting was one of the suggested topics here is a quick rundown of how I usually go about starting. This is what I have found works for me most of the time, you may prefer other options but that is entirely up to you…

Before the 5 minute gun – on the sea we will have a rough plan for the first beat, inland it’s more pressure dependent so we will be simply trying to keep an eye on which side of the course has the most pressure at any given time. We will also get a transit, 2 if possible. I don’t care how long the line is I always get one if I can. In an ideal world I’ll have a good one from the pin and the crew will have a good one from the committee boat end. I also try and check it is distinctive by sailing away from the line and then trying to pick it out on the shore from a completely different angle too. Sailing up and down the line I’ll usually have an idea of line bias but if need be I’ll check it by putting the boat head to wind and checking which end of the line we are pointing closer to.

5 minute gun goes – start sailing to the committee boat so we can be there for the 4 minute to make sure the time is spot on.

4 minute gun – start sailing down the line towards the pin checking the race course for breeze and the line bias. Make a call on where we want to be starting.

1 min 30 to go – regardless of where we are starting on the line this is roughly the time I will gybe on to port. The location of this gybe compared to the line will depend on which end we are going for and wind speed but in general for a starboard bias line it will be fairly central and for a port bias line it will be a couple of boat lengths outside the pin end. Make sure we are still happy with choice of start point, plans do change last minute depending on what is happening on the race track, it may not be a wholesale change but if there is a sudden shift it is still possible to limit any potential losses or maximise gains.

1 min to go – approaching on port we will be picking our gap to tack into. This gets decided from as far back as possible and is generally a running commentary between us looking for boats with a decent gap to leeward of them a suitable distance from the end of the line we are aiming for. It also includes who the considerations of who the other boats are. We tend to gauge a person’s style of sailing (slow and high / fast and low) to make sure they aren’t likely to cause an issue i.e. don’t start immediately above a known pincher. We’ll also try and make sure there are a few boats between us and any of the faster boats for those conditions. Any boats inbetween will be likely to drop into dirty air early on and then give us a gap we can use to hold our lane. This isn’t always possible but if we do come to start near you we’re generally banking on being able to hold you off for a while until gaps

open up and we can choose our way up the beat. Prove us wrong and we’ll quickly start selecting others to start next to! And if you do find yourself next to someone fast see if you can get someone you are confident of holding off between you and them, or at least generate as big a gap as possible between the 2 of you. With a gap selected we’ll try and tack as close below the boat to windward as we can.

Last minute – I’m looking forward, using my transit to gauge distance to the line and trying to keep the gap to leeward. Tom is looking behind, calling time, using his transit to call the line and watching out for boats coming down the line at pace who may be trying to take our gap. It’s worth noting that our kicker will be fairly eased at this point, the jib will be loose but with a tiny bit of power in to maintain steering. Also we’ll try and take note of any recent shifts, if the wind has backed and it’s now more port biased than before we’ll probably be looking for an early tack, vice versa and we’ll be holding on to starboard for longer.

Trigger – I usually try and accelerate about 5 – 8 seconds to go (but earlier if it’s very light), I’ll also get my head as far out of the boat so I can see my transit and make sure the bow isn’t likely to go over without me realising it.

Bang – priorities first, sails in, weight out if needed. Then pull kicker on and see what needs to be done. If we want to tack early then it’s usually kicker on more and into height mode to try and squeeze the boats above us, if someone is looking like they may come over the top or the wind has shifted to starboard then its bow down and get as much pace on as possible.

This is a simplified summary of how we start and there are obviously lots of variables but we will usually follow a similar process regardless of location or event. I don’t tend to gamble too much and I don’t change it for black flags but it can make sense in certain situations to do so – e.g. be conservative at the beginning of a champs but not when it’s the last race and only a bullet will do – that’s your call though!

And now back to that first controversial question, do we actually want to? Of course the simple answer is yes but as I’ve alluded to above there are times for being conservative and times for gung ho. When you consider only 1 boat can get the perfect start (if any) that means there are 60 others at the nationals who don’t. As the risk involved in aiming for the perfect start but just missing it can be very high compared to getting a decent start and sacrificing a couple of boat lengths to a handful of boats I usually prefer to focus on parts 2 and 3 and the right end bit depends on the level of bias. Very biased, get close to the favoured end, even if you mess it up you will probably come out ahead of half the fleet who are at the wrong end. Less biased, focus on having a nice gap and good speed and the clear air and options this generates will let you make up any distance lost at the start.

Finally, this is all my opinion and based on what we currently do. Feel free to try bits or not as you want and if nothing else you all now have a better idea of what I’m trying to do and how to disrupt it if you want to… thinking about it, maybe writing this wasn’t such a good idea after all! 😉

John Purdie

John is a relative late comer to sailing and even later getting into sailing dinghies. Despite having a lifelong fascination with most things boat, his first sailing experience didn’t come until 1999 at the age of 17 when he spent two weeks aboard the 135′ 340 ton, STA Sir Winston Churchill, as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award Scheme. Over the last 12 years John has logged more than 15,000 mainly blue water miles with various tall ships and as a volunteer with the Tall Ships Youth Trust (the modern day Sail Training Association) 72′ Challenger Fleet, crossing the Atlantic both ways and competing in the 2011 Rolex Fastnet. After floating around in other classes for a few years, John found the Scorpion in 2011 and has never looked back, competing (as crew) in the last two Nationals and regularly on the National Circuit. John is based just outside Chester, Cheshire.

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