Race Start Sequence Primer!

26 Jul 2015 7:58 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Regatta season is here, and J-Town has a bunch of awesome enthusiastic new racers! That being the case, thought we'd offer up a little info for those new to the racing, applicable regardless of whether you're in an albacore, a cat, or a laser...

Sailboat races usually run on one of three course types: Windward-Leeward Flag W, Triangle Flag T, or Olympic Flag O

Race course layouts.The race committee (RC) decides on the course-type once they assess the wind conditions from the committee boat on the water. They set a start line perpendicular (hopefully) to the wind, and usually the anchored committee boat serves as one end of the line. Once on location at the start line, the RC raises some flags.

An orange rectangular flag usually indicates the RC boat is in position at the start line. The RC will also usually indicate the course on a chalkboard from their boat, so sail close and take note. For instance, 3-M-1 x 7 would likely indicate that the course should round permanent mark #3, then a floating mark (usually a inflated orange tetrahedron or similar non-permanent bouy), then round permanent mark #1, for a total of 2 laps (6 legs) plus an upwind final 7th leg. Obviously good to know where the permanent marks are located on the Outer Harbour.


The race start sequence is 5 minutes long, and is indicated using both flags and sound signals. At any time before or during the sequence, the RC might raise a postponement pennant Postponement flag indicating a delay (the wind might have shifted such that the course must be adjusted, or might have died entirely, or perhaps there's an obstruction on the course, etc.). If this happens during the 5 minute sequence, the sequence is abandoned and restarted later. The RC may also raise certain other flags (addressed below) that indicate the penalty if a boat goes over the start line during the 1 minute before the race has started.

Usually shortly before the sequence begins, the RC will make some random sound signals to indicate they'll start the sequence imminently.

At the start of the sequence, 5 minutes before the actual race start, the RC raises a "class flag" (indicating the type of boat that the sequence applies to; e.g. the albacores often use Flag 6, albacore class flag) and makes a loud sound signal, often from an air cannon or air horn. Start your watch countdown! Boats start milling around the start area assessing the most advantageous end of the start line and the best locations to sail into up the course.

At 4 minutes before the start, the RC raises the "preparatory" (P) flag Flag P, of the and makes another sound signal. If you missed the 5 minute signal, this is your chance to reset your timer.

At 1 minute to the start, the RC lowers the prep flag and makes a sound signal. If racers haven't already staked out a location, most boats are now trying to find a good spot near the line so they're clear of other boats. Keeping your boat on an angle to the wind and easing your sails lets you stay pretty still but allows you to power up and make small adjustments if needed. Stay out of irons!

At the start of the race, the RC makes another sound signal and lowers the class flag. Ideally, boats have powered up and cross the line with good speed just after the start signal.

Assuming no boats were over early, the race goes ahead and boats tack up the course toward the windward mark. 

Start Recall Penalties

However, if a few boats were over early, the RC raises an "individual recall" flag Flag X, individual recall and might (or might not) shout out the boat sail numbers. Earlier we mentioned the "penalty flags" indicating the penalty to a boat over the start line in the 1 minute before the start. If the penalty flag is "black", those boats over early would be automatically disqualified and would be required to abandon the race. If the penalty flag was "I" for instance, the over-early boats need to round an end of the start line and then continue their race. If a majority of boats were over early, the RC may call a "general recall" General recall flag and restart the start sequence from the beginning. 

Important Stuff

The main things about race starts are boat control and being aware of the sequence time. If your boat control isn't rock solid or you get nervous in close proximity to other boats (and it can get real tight), best to seek out an open space well away from the main pack or stay back a couple boat lengths so as not to cause havoc. Starting well takes practice, so keep at it.

*Sometimes the sequence gets a little fuzzy... occasionally the RC substitutes a different flag or they get the signal timing a little wrong, but generally speaking, if you follow the info above the sequence should start making sense and with a little experience you'll pick up on any variations.

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