Number 2 in Dave Dellenbaugh's Top Ten Tactical Tips: Line Sight.
I told you that none of these were going to be earth-shattering revelations from the sailing gods that we weekend sailboat racing warriors had never heard before. Yup, tip #2 is "get a line sight of the starting line and use it". But hang about, there were one or two new (to me) ideas and observations in Dave's coverage of this advice that you too might find of interest.
However, first let me digress to explain what this is all about for any readers not used to yacht racing. I talked in the last tip about how sailing is different from most racing sports in that, in a sailing race, the competitors don't all race the same course or even the same distance. Another fundamental difference between sailboat racing and running, swimming, car racing, horse racing, or any other racing game I can think of, is that in sailing you can't see the start line. It's imaginary. Invisible.
The start line for a race is usually the straight line between a flag on a moored race committee boat and a buoy (known as the "pin") in the water some distance away. That distance might be 100 yards for a small fleet of boats or as much as half a mile in a large fleet. And it's up to the skipper of each boat racing to be behind that line at the start, but, of course, nobody wants to be too far behind it. Ideally you hit the line at full speed (having remembered tip #1 of course) just as the starting signal of the race goes off.
Now you might think that doesn't sound so hard, but actually it's surprisingly difficult to know when your boat is exactly on that imaginary line between the race committee boat and the pin. One way, probably the best way, to solve the problem is to sail outside the race committee boat end of the line and sight through the flag on the RC boat and the pin to some object on the shore. Then if you are in the middle of the line and sail forwards until the pin and that object are lined up you will know you are on the line, or if they are not lined up you can tell whether you are over or behind the start line. That's a line sight.
This is standard advice you will find in any book on racing. That it makes Dellenbaugh's Top Ten just reinforces how important it is.
Dave demonstrated line sights in the seminar by simulating a start line in the meeting room. He had one volunteer sighting down the line as a race committee would and then asked a second volunteer to judge when he was on the line. First time, of course, he judged it wrongly. So Dave then had volunteer #2 take a sight of the line from outside one end and try again. The volunteer got sneaky and instead of using an object outside the pin for his second stab at finding the line he used his line sight to find an object within the line (a chair in the simulation) that was on the line. This led to a discussion about how you could occasionally do this in a real race if, for example, there were crab or lobster pots on or close to the starting line.
I actually liked this way of teaching line sights and filed it away for future use if I ever work or volunteer as a sailing instructor again. When I did the US Sailing instructor and coach courses they emphasized strongly the use of land drills to teach sailing skills as opposed to merely talking about a skill or drawing pictures on a whiteboard to illustrate it. It's all tied up with the theories about how different students have different preferred methods of learning: verbal, visual or kinetic. Some of the land drills suggested on the coaching course struck me as a bit hokey -- having kids walk around with broomsticks representing boats to demonstrate the buoy room rule, for example. But six seasons of teaching sailing taught me the value of using land-based physical simulations so I was pleased to find another one to file away in my mental catalog of drills.
As I said, this advice about taking line sights is not exactly new. But there was one aspect of Dave's coverage of this that was novel to me. First another digression for my non-racing readers. Normally if you are over the line at the start the race committee will make an audible signal and fly a certain flag to let you know that at least one boat was over the line. Sounds like a good idea, right? However, as I explained before, it's tough to know where the line is so sometimes you're not sure whether you were the boat that was over early or not. Do you go back and restart? If you do you will be near the back of the fleet by the time you restart. Or do you sail the race and hope for the best? Because if you were on the course side (OCS) of the line at the start, and don't restart, you will effectively receive the same score as if you finished last.
If there are too many boats over the line early to identify, then the committee will signal a general recall -- a bit like a false start in a running race. Everyone comes back and they do the start again. If this is happening too much, or the RC think it is likely to happen, they have a number of weapons in their arsenal. They can decided to signal that boats over early have to go around an end of the start line before they restart, give boats early a scoring penalty as well as having to restart, or disqualify OCS boats from that race entirely, the last option being known as the "black flag" rule.
Usually one of these more stringent starting rules will cause the fleet to hang back from the line more and allow a clean start. Dellenbaugh, however, had a different take on the matter. His advice was that in these circumstances it is even more important to take a line sight and to use it get a nice jump on the rest of the fleet. He observed that the scoring impact of being over early at a black flag start (disqualification) is essentially no worse than being OCS at a regular start (be scored OCS, or restart and finish near the back of the fleet) so you might as well go for it at a start under the black flag rule instead of hanging back.
He talked about mid-line sag - the phenomenon where boats in the middle of the line tend to hang back more because they don't know exactly where the line is. A line sight can clearly help you to start ahead of the boats that are sagging. Dave's advice was not to reveal your superior knowledge too early. Instead, hang level with the boats that are sagging and only go up to where you know the line really is 20 or 30 seconds before the start.
So that's it. Get a line sight and use it. It's in all the books. Sailing instructors teach it. It's one of Dave Dellenbaugh's Top Ten Tips. So we racing sailors in the know do it all the time? Right? Well, not exactly.
After the seminar I talked to one of the top sailors in our Laser fleet and to my son who has a lot of college sailing experience. They both agreed with me that we don't use line sights all that often in the kind of racing we do. Why is that?
Well, sometimes it just ain't possible. The pin lines up against an open horizon or a featureless shore line. (Sometimes you can get a sight the other way down the line but that's much harder to use as the helmsman of a boat starting a race on starboard tack is facing the pin.)
Then often it's hard to see the pin because of all the other boats in the fleet crowding around it. Sure, some of them may be OCS but they are still blocking our view. So what many of us do in small boat racing in large fleets is line up next to our opponents. We don't want our bow to be behind theirs and ideally we want it to be slightly in front. So we all edge up to the line, side by side, in the last few seconds before the start, all aiming for a slight edge. If we're all over the line, what the hell, the RC will have to signal a general recall. And if we're all half a boat length back, hey, I'm still bow out on that boat to leeward and can grind him down. Not ideal, but it works OK most of the time.
Having said that, we all wish for the day when there's a big mid-line sag, and we have a line sight and can get that big jump out of the line in the last few seconds before the start. I pulled it off once on Sunday. Not the start in this picture. But you see that tall chimney in the picture? At one start it was lined up exactly with the pin, I used it to position myself on the line at the start, pulled off an awesome start and scored my best result of the day. I love it when a plan comes together.
So what did I learn from Mr Dellenbaugh's exposition on line sights. Remember those two volunteers for the land drill? I learned that when you attend a sailing seminar that is sponsored by Sperry Topsider you should always, always, always volunteer. Those two helpers were awarded coupons to claim a free pair each of Sperry Topsiders.
Damn - and I need a new pair of boat shoes too. Maybe next time.
The next tip is also about starting.