Keys to Success at Downwind Starts
by David Dellenbaugh

There arenít too many races that start downwind anymore, but when they do, itís good to know a few strategic and tactical moves.
Picking the Ďfavoredí end *
At an upwind start, the favored end is the one thatís farther upwind, or on the higher ladder rung. At a downwind start (one where you canít fetch the first mark), the favored end is the one thatís more downwind, or on the lower ladder rung.
To determine which end is more downwind, you can use the same techniques you use for finding the favored end at an upwind start. In fact, one easy method is to pretend that you are starting to windward. If you figure out which end would be favored for an upwind start, the other end will be favored for going downwind!
* The real Ďfavoredí end is the one where you will have a better start, taking into account many factors. But often we use this term to describe the end that is farther to windward or, at a downwind start, to leeward.

Most downwind starts are a lot like upwind starts. You want to be on the line, near the favored end, with speed and clear air. However, itís harder to get a good start downwind because if youíre in the front row you often get bad air from the boats that are not. And sometimes itís hard to remember how barging works when you approach a starting mark on a reach or run.
Starting on a reach
When you start the race on a reach, picking the favored end is usually a little more complicated. Sometimes you can just choose the end thatís closer to the first mark, but this does not consider the fact that starting at opposite ends will give you different sailing angles (and speeds).

If the wind is light or the first reach is broad, itís often better to start at the leeward end so you have a higher and faster angle of sail. But if itís windy and the first reach is tight, it may be better to start at the windward end, especially if you are overpowered or if youíre having a hard time holding a spinnaker.

Another important factor is clear air. One good thing about starting at the windward end is that you can usually avoid wind shadows. That may not be so easy to do if you start closer to the leeward end, unless your apparent wind is forward of the boats lined up to windward. If your masthead fly is pointing at or just behind those boats, the leeward end may not be a great place to start.

One obvious difference is that most downwind starts involve spinnakers. This places an added premium on preparation and crew work. Here are ideas about getting a better start when the first leg is a reach or run:
Photo by JH Peterson

ē If you have a choice of head-sails, start racing with your biggest one. This might not be the perfect sail for going upwind in the existing conditions, but you donít have to go upwind ó youíre just looking for the best speed while reaching to the starting line.

ē Since you wonít be racing upwind, set your jib leads outboard and forward so they are as effective as possible for reaching. Ease the backstay, outhaul and cunningham to their offwind settings.

ē Before the start, make sure you sail the angle of the first leg with a spinnaker. Spend enough time to get in the groove for the existing conditions before you start the race. Use this time to get a feel for the boat, figure out your target speed, and pre-set your topping lift height and vang tension.

ē During the starting sequence, try the following approach: Go to the place where you want to start, then sail a port-tack beam reach for about a minute. Tack and sail on a starboard tack beam reach for another minute or so until you get back to your starting place. Then tack again and repeat this. Adjust your timing so you end up on the starting line at the gun.
Ingredients for a good downwind start
The goals and tactics of starting downwind are not a lot different than starting upwind, except the mayhem is usually compounded with spinnakers.

Front row - You want to cross the line as soon as possible after the starting signal. However, itís harder to restart if you are OCS, so you might want to be slightly conservative here. one strategy is to hold your spinnaker hoist until you are absolutely sure you will not be early.
Good speed - There is never a start when you donít want to be going fast as you come off the line. You can get extra speed at a downwind start by approaching on a beam reach and then bearing off just before the gun so your VMG is higher than normal when you cross the line. Ideally you would have your spinnaker flying while you do this. Clear air is also key for speed.
Near Ďfavoredí end - Survey the starting line, figure out which end is better, and try to start somewhere near there. For example, if one end of the line is substantially farther downwind, you should probably start there.

Able to sail the right direction - When picking a place to start, another factor is your strategy for the first leg. Which side of the run do you like? Make sure you are able to sail that way soon after the start.

Lane of clear air - The tough thing about upwind starts is that if youíre in the third row off the line you also have bad air. But if youíre in the back row at a downwind start, at least youíre sure to have clear air! Your goal, however, is to be in the front row with a good lane of clear air.

Inside position - On a short run, another tactical factor at the start might be setting up so you will be inside at the leeward mark. If you will round the mark to port, the boats on the left side (looking downwind) may have an advantage.

By following this pattern you can practice your final approach a few times, maintain good speed throughout the pre-start, and avoid getting too far away from the spot where you want to start.
Setting up for a downwind start
Once youíve decided where you want to start (X), figure out how you can get there with speed and a lane of clear air. Many sailors approach a downwind starting line on a course thatís roughly perpendicular to it (Approach A). My recommendation is to approach the line on a tighter angle, from a direction that is more nearly parallel to it than perpendicular. I like this Approach B for several reasons:
1) You will have better speed when you cross the starting line. A beam reach is your fastest point of sail, so approaching the line on roughly this angle will give you your best VMG when you bear off to cross the line.
2) You are more likely to have the right of way. By approaching the line on a hotter angle, you will be on the leeward side of most boats (including everyone using Approach A) and therefore they will have to keep clear of you.
3) It will be easier to time your start so you cross the line just after the gun. If you take Approach A, you have the least possible flexibility in adjusting your timing. By making your approach roughly parallel to the starting line (and a few boatlengths from it), you can luff your sails (or boat) to slow down and simply bear off when itís time to start.

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