Getting Started in Sailboat Racing, 2nd Edition

Getting Started in Sailboat Racing, 2nd Edition

by Adam Cort, Richard Stearns

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Everything you need to race your way up through the fleet

If you sail--even a little--you’ve probably thought about trying your hand at racing. Now you can stop thinking and do it. Getting Started in Sailboat Racing makes this endlessly fascinating lifetime sport accessible to anyone who wants to give it a try, whether you own a sailboat, are


Everything you need to race your way up through the fleet

If you sail--even a little--you’ve probably thought about trying your hand at racing. Now you can stop thinking and do it. Getting Started in Sailboat Racing makes this endlessly fascinating lifetime sport accessible to anyone who wants to give it a try, whether you own a sailboat, are hoping to crew, or spectating from a nearby perch.

This complete course in racing fundamentals breaks the racing experience down into bite-size pieces, making the process easier to understand and reflecting the leg-by-leg nature of a typical race. With scores of helpful illustrations, this user-friendly manual takes you around the buoys, explaining new rule changes and tactics that apply to each part of the race.

You'll learn how to:

  • Execute quick, competitive starts
  • Maximize speed and efficiency on the windward leg
  • Maneuver for position around the windward mark
  • Take full advantage of downwind and reaching legs
  • Handle the spinnaker (even when asymmetrical), and beat the crowd at the jibe and leeward marks
  • Eke out every last bit of speed as you sprint to the finish

There are few things in this world more satisfying than racing a sailboat. Get in on the action and find out what you've been missing. All you need is a competitive spirit and a little help from Getting Started in Sailboat Racing.

"Cort and Stearns deftly break down racing, from start to finish, into basic elements, making the sport more accessible by giving the novice a strong understanding of the fundamentals . . . this book should be required reading for anyone wanting to get out on the course. The book goes into enough detail on tactics and sail trim to make the average sailor not only comfortable on the racecourse, but competitive, as well." -- SAILING

"With Cort and Stearns' enthusiasm for the topic and straightforward advice, it's hard not to read this book without picturing yourself rounding the buoys just ahead of the rest of the fleet." -- Soundings

Editorial Reviews

“Just the tutorial you are looking for.....Cort and Stearns deftly break down racing, from start to finish, into the basic elements, making the sport more accessible by giving the novice a strong understanding of the fundamentals from which to build. This book should be required reading for anyone wanting to get out on the course. ...the book [will make] the average sailor not only comfortable on the racecourse but competitive as well.” --Tm Gregiore

Sailing World
"An excellent resource."

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Getting Started in Sailboat Racing


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Adam Cort and Richard Stearns
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-180827-9




To those not familiar with the sport, sailboat racing can seem like a study in controlled chaos, with very little in the way of control. One moment you'll see clumps of boats sailing off in opposite directions, spreading themselves so thin it's hard to tell if they are even part of the same group. Next they'll all hoist their spinnakers at the same time and sail along in a neat and tidy line. The start, in particular, can seem like a kind of waterborne madness. Aboard the committee boat, where the race committee administers the race, horns blare and flags go rushing up and down halyards, while the fleet of competitors circles about in what appears to be impossibly tight quarters, like hyperactive terriers sniffing the wind. A small powerboat with a couple of bright-orange inflatable buoys charges off to windward. Then all of a sudden a flag comes down, there's yet another blast of the horn, or maybe a gun, and some of the boats that had been milling about, apparently aimlessly, begin charging off in the same direction. Amazing! How did they know it was their turn? How do they keep from bumping into each other? And how do they even know where they're going?

Fortunately, as is the case with most racing sports—whether it be a NASCAR oval or a high school track—the courses in sailboat racing are generally very simple, and the rules not much worse. What follows is a brief narrative of a hypothetical sailboat race, along with an explanation of the different kinds of courses used in sailboat racing. The one big difference between sailing and many other racing sports is that there are no lanes or other obvious dividers to keep the boats from crashing into each other. The rules, though, make short work of this problem, with help from the fact that boats can be easily differentiated from one another by their angle of sail. Another difference is that the course for a sailboat race can be tough to spot, since it is delineated by just a handful of buoys, or "marks," spread over what can sometimes be miles of open water. To address this problem, the sport has evolved a system of flags, horns, guns, and other signals that clearly communicate where you're supposed to go. It's all very "Age of Nelson stuff," one more reason why sailboat racing is so cool.


Whether it's a national championship regatta with just one type of boat competing or a casual Wednesday night jaunt around the buoys with an assortment of boats taking part in a number of different groups, or classes (also referred to as sections), every sailboat race has a certain kind of energy to it—especially for someone venturing out onto the racecourse for the first time. In fact, the excitement begins as soon as you reach the dock. There's an electricity in the air as dozens of sailors in sunglasses and racing caps hurry back and forth carrying brightly colored sail bags, spinnaker poles, and other pieces of hardware.

Casting off your lines you either motor or sail out to the committee boat, which waits at anchor like some kind of Pied Piper or a shepherd out tending his flock. Then you check in by sailing close alongside and calling out your sail number. The number of boats quickly multiplies, and they all begin sailing back and forth, while the crew on the committee boat gauges the wind direction, decides how to orient the racecourse, and drops an inflatable orange buoy into the water maybe 50 or 100 yards away to create a starting line. (This distance can fluctuate dramatically depending on the size of the fleet, but will ideally be about 1.5 times the number of boats times the boats' individual lengths overall.) Minutes later the aforementioned flags and horns make their appearance. One of the crew aboard your boat notes that the committee is calling for a "windward-leeward" course consisting of four stages, or legs, going directly up- and downwind, and then the first section of the fleet goes charging off to windward, hell-bent for leather. After that comes another set of flags and another section takes off. Then it's your turn. Throwing in a few quick tacks and jibes, you bunch up along the line with the other boats in your class, in what you are sure is going to be a terrible pileup. Then, at the sound of a horn, you all charge off to windward in the same direction as the other boats before you, some of which already appear to be little more than dots on the horizon.

At this point, things settle down for a bit. The boats in your class slowly separate as they tack back and forth in an effort to sail as quickly as possible to where the first mark, or windward mark, has been dropped in the water a mile or two directly to windward, indicating the turning point at the end of the first leg of the race. On occasion you find yourself either crossing tracks with or sailing parallel to another boat. Other times it feels like you've got the course to yourself. Eventually, someone sights the mark—still little more than an orange speck on the horizon—and before you know it things are starting to get complicated again as you prepare to hoist the spinnaker for the next leg. Your widely separated competitors begin to converge, many of them lining up close-hauled on starboard tack and quickly advancing toward the buoy. Others angle in on port tack and tack over onto starboard at the last minute. Then it's like the start all over again. What seems like the entire fleet jostles for position, as the different crews hoist their spinnakers as quickly as possible and maneuver their boats as efficiently as they can, both through the crowd and around the buoy.

After that there's another period of relative calm as the fleet makes its way back downwind, once again spreading out as the boats jibe back and forth to make the most of the wind. Then it's time to look out for the leeward mark (the buoy delineating the turning point at the end of the downwind leg), decide on the fastest way to get there, and bunch up again with the rest of the boats for the next mark rounding—an exercise that is further complicated by your having to both hoist the jib and take down the spinnaker, an exercise fraught with hazard. Hopefully, by this time, the boats in both your class and the entire fleet are spread out enough that it won't be too terribly crowded at the mark, and you can make a nice clean rounding. If not, well, a little chaos at the leeward mark is all part of the fun.

Once you've got the rounding behind you, it's time for another long beat to the windward mark, followed by another rounding and spinnaker hoist for another trip downwind. This time, however, instead of heading for a single leeward mark, you set a course for the committee boat, which once again has a second buoy in the water—about 30 yards away this time—to designate the finish line. As you draw near you notice that two of your competitors are nearby, and things onboard your own vessel are as tense as ever as the crew tries to eke out every last bit of speed. Then finally, after what seems an eternity, you are sailing past the committee boat, and a member of the race committee calls out your boat's sail number and honks a horn. Congratulations! You've just completed your first sailboat race! Time to relax and have a cold one. If, like many novice racers, you are a little confused about what exactly you have just done, don't fret. That's what the rest of this chapter is for.


Today, nearly all inshore sailboat races take place on one of three basic types of courses: the triangle course, the windward-leeward-triangle course, and the simple windward-leeward course. Note that many racecourses will vary slightly from these basic types, depending on the conditions and types of marks that are used. For example, when using a windward-leeward-triangle course, some race committees will have the boats finish on the downwind leg, or run, if the winds are light and the committee doesn't want the race to last too long. On some courses the race can end at a mark in the center of the course. Contrary to its appearance, the windward-leeward course is the most tactically and strategically difficult, because beats and runs offer the best opportunities to pass other boats (and to be passed if you're not careful). In fact, the simple triangle course has been largely relegated to Wednesday night "beer can" races and other casual venues. Still, all three types offer plenty of challenge.

Whatever the course, the starting line will generally be delineated by an orange flag flown aboard the race committee boat, which is anchored at the starboard end of the line, usually with a small buoy placed alongside to keep boats clear. Another buoy—often referred to as the "pin"—determines the other end. In setting the starting line, the race committee will try to make the line as perpendicular to the wind as possible. In reality, though, the line will almost always be cocked a little one way or the other, so that one end is slightly closer to the windward mark than the other, making it the better—or favored—end (for more information about favored end, see chapter 2, Starting). Some race committees will even skew their lines ever so slightly, favoring the pin end, so there won't be too much crowding at the committee boat. The buoys marking the rest of the course can be drop-in inflatable buoys, permanent race buoys, or standard navigational buoys; i.e., bell buoys, cans, nuns, etc. Drop-in buoys, like those referred to at the start of the chapter, are hauled around the course and anchored at the appropriate points by small powerboats called crash boats. Usually just a few minutes before the start, you will see one of these little guys roaring off directly to windward to drop in the first mark before the gun. Sometimes, if there is a dramatic windshift in the middle of the race, they will move the buoys to avoid a situation in which boats are just beam-reaching back and forth with little possibility for tactical interest or passing. Don't worry. They'll let you know when they move buoys by blowing a horn and waving a letter C signal flag colored with a number of red, white, and blue stripes.

In the case of permanent buoys, the yacht clubs or sailing associations that place them will usually arrange them in a square or star pattern around a central starting buoy. That way, no matter what the wind direction, the race committee will be able to arrange the requisite runs and beats.

Sometimes race committees will create a gate at the leeward mark to accommodate large, crowded fleets. Basically, a gate consists of a pair of leeward marks instead of just one. You can then choose to round whichever one you want, as long as you first pass between the two. This, of course, completely eliminates crowding at the leeward mark ... uh, well ... at least in theory. Very few beginners will find themselves facing a situation requiring a gate at the leeward mark (see chapter 6, Leeward Mark Roundings and Finishing, for more information about rounding gates).


The primary flags to be concerned about on the racecourse are those that provide a countdown to the start and those that designate the kind of course the fleet will be sailing. There are a myriad of other flags and sequences of flags, but we will only discuss a few of the more important ones here. Many marine stores carry handy waterproof cheat sheets with all the established signals. Also, the sailing instructions that are provided as a part of every regatta will include a list of the most important signal flags, such as class flags. Class flags may be solid-colored standard signal flags or have letters or symbols against a solid background. For those sailors taking part in a season-long series, the yacht club or organizing body will also publish a list of signals and flags—especially if they differ from the norm.

While we are on the subject, the sailing instructions are an important part of sailboat racing, and every crewmember—not just the skipper—should take some time to study them before the beginning of a race. One person—preferably not the skipper—should also be designated as the one in charge of interpreting signals. Again, the instructions will provide a key for determining what flags will be used to designate different courses and classes. They will also provide the order in which the different classes will start and the time at which each class should, in theory at least, be heading off the line. Don't be one of those crews that finds itself debating whether it finishes on the fourth or fifth leg, or whether its section is next in the starting sequence. You've got enough to worry about without being confused over the basic parameters of the game.

As for the starting sequence, which consists of a series of flags and horns or gunshots, the committee boat will raise and lower flags in the following order:

The sailing instructions for a regatta or racing series include information about starting times, the kinds of race-courses you will sail, various signal flags the race committee will use, and more. Everyone on board your boat should be familiar with the sailing instructions, not just the skipper! (Courtesy Sperry Top-Sider Charleston Race Week)

Five minutes before the start: The race committee raises a class, or warning, flag designating which class is about to start. At the same time, it sounds a horn to announce that the starting sequence has begun.

Four minutes before the start: The race committee sounds another horn and hoists a preparatory flag, usually a blue flag or the P flag (a white flag with a thick blue border). These give the timekeepers on the boats in the starting section the opportunity to make sure they have the right time.

One minute before the start: The race committee lowers the preparatory flag and sounds another horn.

Start: The race committee lowers the class flag and signals the start with a gun or horn.

Note that, in contrast to starting sequences in the past, the start for one class may not be the beginning of the next section's sequence. Instead, it may simply serve as a warning for the next section to be on alert. Watch for the class flag. If it goes up at the same moment the class ahead starts, fine. Otherwise, you will have to be patient and keep an eye on the committee boat. When it is ready, the race committee will start the sequence at the five-minute point by sounding a horn and hoisting the appropriate class flag.

On occasion the race committee will use a flag other than the blue preparatory flag to signal the four- and one-minute points to communicate that special penalties are being applied at the start. For example, it might use the I flag (a yellow flag with a black circle in the middle) to signal that any boat crossing the starting line within a minute of the start must sail around either the pin or the committee boat to return to the proper side. It might also use the dreaded black flag to indicate that any boat on the wrong side of the line within a minute of the start is automatically disqualified from the entire race. The black flag is usually only employed to control especially large and unruly fleets, say a bunch of Melges 24 skippers all hungry for a regional championship. Make sure you check the flags early on to avoid any unpleasant surprises after the finish.

Bear in mind that, although many race committees will radio or hail the fleet via megaphone to draw attention to any unusual flags or the fact that a competitor has crossed the starting line early, it is not required to do so. Hailing by the race committee is only a courtesy. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each individual sailor to watch for any unusual flags that might be flying or changes in the starting sequence.

One time, for example, there were five different classes starting in a National Offshore One-Design (NOOD) regatta off Chicago Harbor. The Tartan Ten fleet, with 48 boats, was starting third in the sequence. In the first four races of the regatta, the class flag went up at the same moment as the start of the class before the Tens. But in the fifth race, the race committee decided not to raise the class flag immediately, because the breeze had picked up and it wanted to give the other sections a bit more of a head start. (The Tartan Ten is especially fast in heavy air.) Unfortunately, because it was windy, there was a lot of noise and confusion, and over half the Tartan Ten fleet started five minutes after the previous section's start anyway, only to slow down, peel away, and sail back to the starting area as they realized their mistake. By the time many of these boats got back, there was less than one minute to go to the start and the I flag, which had been raised to keep the unruly fleet in check, had already been taken down. As a result many of them, unaware of the new conditions, just dipped across the line and went charging off toward the windward mark, violating the rules. At the end of the race these boats didn't receive a finish signal, because they hadn't properly started. They had all been over the line early—a hard way to learn a lesson in a major regatta.

Note that, before the actual sequence begins, the race committee will post a set of large numbers designating the compass heading of the first beat (which then determines the position of the entire course, since all other marks are relative to the starting line and windward mark) and a letter designating the course type. For example, a race committee might display a letter "W"—to signify a windward-leeward course with four legs—with the number 270 immediately below, indicating that the heading on the first leg is due west. Even if you can't see the mark (which is often the case unless you are racing dinghies close inshore) you will still know exactly where to go. Because the course is a windward-leeward, the headings on the second and fourth legs are simply the reciprocal of the first and third, i.e., 90 degrees, or due east. If the course includes a triangle, the sailing instructions will designate the angles that must be sailed relative to the windward leg. If you are sailing around a series of fixed marks, all the compass headings will be included in the sailing instructions. Again, it's all fairly straightforward. This is sailing after all, not rocket science.


Beyond the basic starting sequence, race committees also use flags to communicate other kinds of information, the meanings of which are pretty straightforward. The flags are almost always accompanied by one or more horns or guns to make sure no one misses them. The following are a few of the more common flags you will encounter.

Excerpted from Getting Started in Sailboat Racing by ADAM CORT. Copyright © 2013 by Adam Cort and Richard Stearns. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam Cort is a former editor and regular contributor to Sailing magazine. He is a lifelong sailor, has cruised extensively, and has sailed and raced dinghies, maxis, and most boats in between.

Richard Stearns is an America’s Cup veteran and career sailor, sailmaker, boatbuilder and boat salesman. He has participated in 39 Chicago to Mackinac races winning 5 times, competed in 5 Olympic campaigns, won multiple North American championships and competed in Worlds and hemispheric championships around the world. Stearns has compiled an impressive record of international victories including three wins in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit (SORC). Rich has won championships in boats form the 11 foot Penguin dinghy to 70-foot yachts.

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