June 04, 2013

Sailing in the Middle of the Fleet - Do Your Circles

By Doug and Pam
Lots of them... before the start.

I see lots of sailors doing something really strange. They sail up to the starting line, go head-to-wind, and then take a look along their boom at where the wind is coming from. Sure, it's accurate to see how the wind is shifting in relation to the weather mark. But I've never understood this because (1) any head-to-wind reading is useless unless you're in the middle of the course and (2) you cannot use this type of wind reading when you most need it - when racing!

I much prefer a compass reading and looking at the angles of the boats around me. But that takes years of practice.

So, what's a really simple way to get a feeling for the wind direction before the start if you don't have a compass? It's something that I thought pretty much everyone did until Pam told me that I'm the only one. Here's how it works.

Pam:  Maybe everyone does it, but Doug is the only one who ever explained what he was doing so he's the only one I see doing it.  It is Doug's basic starting routine ... and now mine.  

When I first met Doug we were at a regatta and he was on a Laser and I was on a Sunfish. He saw me struggling before the start and sailed past me going the opposite direction and said the wind had just changed and to follow him. I tried to turn around and promptly when into irons. He looked back and thought I had ignored his generous tip and decided that was a wasted effort. I eventually sculled my way around and followed him to the other end of the line and all the way around the course as far as I could and it was my best race of the day with a 2nd or 3rd.  

I had never been able to detect a wind change while in a starting sequence and wondered how he did that. He, of course, can feel it, but his starting routine also constantly tests the wind and even someone like me can use it to detect a wind shift before the race. 

Begin by coming up beside the committee boat and pull your sail in to close hauled as though you are racing.  As you cross the start line, look down the line at the pin and imagine another boat starting with you on the same tack at the far end of the line. Would this boat be ahead of you, equal to you, or behind you? This tells you which end of the line is favored. Now tack, sail around the committee boat, and kill some time. Then repeat again every 2 minutes and keep asking if the other boat would now be ahead, the same or behind? Any change means a change in the wind direction. For example, if the boat was ahead and now would be even, then the breeze has gone right.

Repeat this until the final 2 minutes and you'll have a good idea of (1) what the breeze is doing, (2) which end of the line is favored, (3) where you want to start, and (4) a line-site of where the line is if you're not beside the committee boat. If you're aggressive, then you'll head to the favored end of the line. If you're more conservative then you'll probably head for the other end or the middle of the line.

Pam:  It is also a great way to get warmed up and get a feel for things and practice a few starts before the real deal.

Of course, if you foul someone, you need to do the other type of circles.


  1. Sounds like a very good idea - I will try it this weekend.

  2. My problem is that I never know whether a boat in a position like that on the same tack would be behind or ahead of me (unless it's very extreme like I can see him through my window.) What's the trick to judging that?

    1. I'll take some pictures this w/e while sailing that will show an easy way to do this.

  3. Any reasons why one couldn't do this at the pin where it might not be as crowded, rather than at the RC boat?

  4. From the pin, you cannot check the line sight. And you cannot judge the line unless you're on port, which means you're not getting a feeling for how the race will start.


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