We club-racers sometimes experience a delight you do not encounter on the Olympic Circuit – ah, the challenges and delights of a downwind start and the first mark chaos that invariably follows.
The goal for the start and first leg is simply to get yourself into pole position for the first mark rounding. Get yourself on the inside and you are laughing. But if you have to give water (oops – ‘room’) to the whole fleet, you could be on the outside of a very large cartwheel and lose an eon.
How do you make that break and get clear ahead? A fast start usually helps. That means hitting the line at full speed as the gun goes – this may give you those two or three lengths needed to avoid being swallowed by the bunch behind. Your next priority is clear wind, whatever it takes – get low in the gusts, heat it up in the lulls, look for the gaps in the bunch that the wind will accelerate through, have a gentle word with the neighbours to persuade them to race the fleet and not just you (so you can break together), then apply the five essentials perfectly with whatever breeze you have.
Sometimes, though, even these are not enough and you will find yourself in the bunch. Do not despair; you can still apply the same principles, but overlaid with the objective of positioning your boat for the mark-rounding chaos to come – if you start planning early you will likely be in a minority, sometimes a minority of one. You need to work yourself to the side of the fleet that puts you on the inside track. If you are boxed in by a large gaggle of boats and you will struggle to get clear ahead of them in time, slow down a bit now so you can manoeuvre, perhaps even gybe off to get out of there. Continuing almost guarantees that your destiny will be out of your hands – and Murphy’s Law dictates that the boat inside you will make a lousy rounding and perhaps doom your whole race. Sacrifice a length or two now to eliminate that risk.
Strangely, if you are at the back, this actually gives you a few aces to play. You can see the fleet, the gaps and the bunches to avoid. You get the gusts first and can use your wind shadow as a weapon. You have freedom to choose your own course rather than the others dictating to you. Just remember the rules forbid you blasting from behind into non-existent gaps.
To reiterate, positioning for the mark-rounding chaos is the priority. In turn, this depends on whether the inside berth comes with being to leeward or windward of the rest of the fleet. Either way it is almost inevitable that, in the fight for clear wind, the bulk of the fleet will have luffed each other well above the rhumb line and will be coming in sailing deep and slow. If you can come in high and fast, there is often a good chance that even with limited rights you can be clean away and gone while they are still hailing to deny you the room you did not need.
If, however, you are still stuck in the melee, it is drastic wriggle time. There is no benefit in sailing blithely to your doom. Instead, drop the kite early, centre the main, flap the jib and do everything you can to find yourself some space. It is inevitable that in the chaos, someone will make a lousy rounding, which is your opportunity to swoop. Notionally, yes, slowing actually loses you distance. But post-rounding you will have bought yourself freedom to tack or perhaps a controlling lane to sail in. The alternative was being trapped in dirty wind with little prospect of escape any time soon.
Finally, a word about asymmetrics. Plan properly and your need to sail the angles gives you an edge, particularly in a mixed fleet. Coming in fast on starboard for a port-hand rounding (or even vice-versa) theoretically gives you all the rights you need. In practice, that may not be the case – the (virtually stationary) fleet will probably not expect you and may simply not be able to get out of the way and provide your ‘room’. So you need to anticipate this and start hailing early and clearly or you may find yourself shut out and disappointed.