Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Getting good starts

The sailors aren’t the only ones who want to nail the beginning of a race

One of the most visible activities of the race committee is running the starts of the races. It’s more complicated than it looks, and it’s also something that absolutely must be done right. The fleet is depending on the committee, first, to set a good starting line and a straight course, and then to run the starting countdown precisely.

For most races, the ideal course is straight upwind-downwind. Such a course requires tacking and gybing, and thus it is more of a test of the racers’ sailing skills. Triangular courses that involve reaching legs are still sometimes used, but in general, reaching doesn’t involve much in the way of tactical maneuvers, and the reaching legs tend to turn into boat parades.

The trick in setting the course, then, is getting it aligned with the wind. Using movable inflatable buoys is the most precise way to do this, but it also requires additional committee people and boats to move the buoys around. Clubs with fewer resources may have a set of fixed buoys in a circle at 45-degree intervals, so a course can be set that is at least more or less upwind-downwind. Or a club might have to make do with existing channel markers, with the result that, for some wind directions, a good course isn’t even really possible.

If the committee is successful in setting a true course and line, the result is a course on which neither tack will be favored, and a line on which neither end will be favored. This prevents the whole fleet from bunching up at one end of the line and reduces problems with boats fouling each other or ending up over the line early.

Of course, in real life, nothing is ever ideal, especially if you’re someplace where the wind often shifts, sometimes by a huge arc. If the wind is oscillating, such that it will be coming back, the course should be set to the center of the oscillations so that on average, it will be straight. If the wind shift is persistent and is greater than 20 degrees or so for an upwind leg, or 10 degrees for a downwind leg, the committee should realign the course. Even if this means delaying the race, it’s better to have a fair race.

The starting sequence of the race is signaled with flags. Sound signals are also used, but the flag signals are the ones that count. A misfiring starting gun or a malfunctioning horn is not reason to call off the starting sequence; racers should be looking to flags for the final authority.

The committee on the signal boat should keep the Answering Pennant (AP) ready to hand. Things can and do go wrong during a starting sequence, and it’s better to signal postponement with AP, make everything right, and run the starting sequence over again. If somebody goofs with the starting flags, the committee can fly AP (with two sound signals) and restart the sequence. If there’s a sudden big wind shift, the committee should fly AP and reset the line and the windward mark. If there’s a big mob of boats that’s going to be over the line early, especially if the committee is running one or more of the flags that adds extra penalties to being on the course side, the committee can prevent disaster by flying AP and running another start.

The standard starting sequence is five minutes. Five minutes before the start is the warning; the class flag is flown, with one sound. Four minutes before the start is the preparatory signal; the preparatory flag is flown, with one sound. The standard preparatory flag is P; it should not be a plain blue flag, which has other meanings. When flag P is used, boats on the course side of the line (OCS) simply need to dip back completely behind the line to start. Instead of P, the committee may fly other flags indicating additional rules. When I is flown, boats that are OCS at the start must go around the end of the line and cross from the back. When Z is flown, boats that are in the triangle formed by the first mark and the ends of the starting line during the last minute before the start are assessed a 20% scoring penalty. I and Z may be flown together. The last type of preparatory flag is the black flag; when it is flown, boats in the triangle during the last minute before the start are disqualified.

One minute before the start, the preparatory flag is lowered, with a long sound signal. This alerts the boats that flag Z or black flag restrictions are in effect.

At the start, the class flag is lowered, with one sound signal, and the timer starts timing the race – this is an especially important task for mixed fleets, where handicaps will be applied to boats’ finishing times to produce the corrected results. If any boats are OCS at the start, flag X is raised, with one sound signal; it remains up until all boats have returned to the pre-start side of the line (or gone around the end of the line if flag I was flown at the preparatory signal), or until four minutes after the start, whichever comes first. The committee does not need to hail the OCS boats; it is expected that the crews of OCS boats know who they are and will take the appropriate action. Some committees will hail the OCS boats, but that is merely a courtesy and can cause trouble if racers come to expect that courtesy – a boat that was OCS but doesn’t return to the line before sailing the course may protest that she didn’t hear the hail.

If there are boats OCS that the race committee can’t identify, it isn’t fair to run the race with some boats having an unfair advantage over others. Then it’s time to issue a general recall. The First Substitute flag is flown, with two sounds. All boats return to the starting area. The First Substitute flag is lowered, with one sound, and one minute later, the warning signal is made for the new start.

In an aggressive fleet that often has many OCS boats, the committee may use I, Z, and/or the black flags to increase the penalties for being OCS, thus making boats more careful about the starting line. The black flag is a penalty of last resort, but in some especially aggressive fleets, the committee uses it from the beginning. In other fleets, the committee may rarely even have to resort to the lesser restrictions.

Now the race is underway, and the committee can take a breath, but not too long of one. It’s time to mind the course.



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