Starting for Lasers

by Jon Emmett

Starting is undoubtedly an extremely important part of the race: this is why we practice it so much. There are many articles written about the techniques involved in starting, so in this one we will examine starting from a rules perspective. This is extremely relevant to Laser racing where everyone is lined up in close proximity with a long time before the start and an infringement/penalty can be very hard to recover from.

Analyzing the Start

I would advise when training to always sail strictly by the rules, so it becomes a natural habit when racing. A little “bumper boats” may not annoy anyone during a practice race, but could easily result in a protest room at the World Championships or even, at the Olympics. Also, regardless of right or wrong we should always try to avoid contact wherever possible, not only because damage or injury (rule 14) can result in disqualification (even if you were “in the right”), but because if you get tangled up, both boats can lose a great deal while the rest of the fleet sail away.

Boat Damage

Pre-start, the starting line can be very busy, so let’s try to work through this in a logical order:

Assuming everyone is all lined up neatly just behind the line then it is simply rule 11: When boats are on the same tack and overlapped, a windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat. So, we see in the picture above that all the boats are clearly overlapped, meaning each boat must keep clear of the boat to leeward of it.

Boats Lined Up Just Behind the Line

In the final minute of the start you need absolute focus, as that all-important space to leeward is the 1st part of the key to unlock a good start.

Boats that come in from behind and to leeward are initially coming from a give-way situation, rule 12: When boats are on the same tack and not overlapped, a boat clear astern shall keep clear of a boat clear ahead. So, the rights change when an overlap is established. Having said this, the new give-way boat must be given room according to rule 15 (Acquiring Right of Way): When a boat acquires right of way, she shall initially give the other boat room to keep clear, unless she acquires the right of way because of the other boat’s actions.

Remember the Laser will pivot around the middle (daggerboard), so if a boat come in too close to leeward then it is impossible to keep clear as a bear away will result in the boats’ bows hitting, and a head up will result in their sterns hitting.

Coming In Too Close From Behind

Of course, prevention is better than cure, so to keep your gap to start, you need to be able to head the boat both up and down without progressing it over the line and all within the rules.

So generally, your boat will sit at an angle just below close-hauled. If a boat comes in underneath, to increase the gap you would shoot up to windward, by centralizing the bodyweight and going head-to-wind. You are then permitted to use the rudder to return to close-hauled, provided your boat clearly changes direction towards a close-hauled course; repeated forceful movements of the helm are permitted until the boat is on a close-hauled course. This action is permitted even if the boat gains speed. She may scull to turn to a close-hauled course on either tack.

The Line Up

The key is that you are not allowed to offset an action, so you could do a smooth head up and a then forceful bear away back to close-hauled. What you cannot do, for example, is “scull up” and “scull down,” or backwind the sail and “scull to offset the steering” (since in the absence of the sculling the boat would have turned).

The Go!

Now, it is time to look at the start in detail and the 2nd part of the key, the trigger pull or acceleration. Once again, we need to be careful of the rules; we may not infringe on a competitor (rule 11 is probably the most common example), and must be especially aware of rule 42. Propulsion at the start is a clear area where jury will be carefully watching, for it is one of the areas where competitors could potentially gain the most advantage.

We will address rule 42 step-by-step, but the key thing to remember is the basic rule that states: Except when permitted in rule 42.3 (exceptions) or 45 (which is about anchoring and doesn’t apply to Lasers!), a boat shall compete by using only the wind and water to increase, maintain, or decrease her speed. Her crew may adjust the trim of sails and hull, and perform other acts of seamanship, but shall not otherwise move their bodies to propel the boat. 

  1. The boat will accelerate far better from just below close-hauled, so think of rule 11—you want to bear away, but you must keep clear of the boat below you.
  2. To head up leeward, heel (to help turning) depending upon the wind speed.
  3. As the boat moves onto the close-hauled course it is rolled flat and the sail is sheeted in one smooth, powerful movement.

Again, looking at the rules we need to be careful:

42.3 A boat heeling to leeward to facilitate steering is permitted, but heeling the boat must be consistent with the boat’s turn. In other words, once back on the close-hauled course, you cannot heel to leeward again for a second “boat flatten”.

The lighter the winds and the flatter the water, generally the later the trigger pull and the greater the roll (boats line up closer to the line), whereas in strong winds and choppy waters it takes longer to get up to full speed, so the acceleration starts later (and boats line up further from the line). This is a time and distance exercise, so why not get out to the race course early and practice your starts by the committee boat/pin end/leeward gate. This way, you not only get used to the wind and waves, but you learn about the current too.

Jon Emmett runs a “Coach Yourself to Win” group on Facebook where he shares important regatta information to help fellow sailors, coaches and team leaders. You can also buy his 1st book: Be Your Own Sailing Coach from Amazon and other online stores, for lots more advice on starting.