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Race countdown: How to time the starting sequence perfectly

Yachting World

  • September 23, 2019

Crossing the start line at the right time and maximum speed can be the key to winning a race. Mike Broughton explains how it’s done


Yachts approach the start line of the 2017 Fastnet Race. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi / Rolex

Starting a yacht at the right end of the line at target speed is very much a team game. On boats longer than 40ft, vital input comes from the bow person, trimmers, helmsman, tactician and navigator.

The role of the navigator has evolved in recent years to assist the tactician and helmsman by utilising navigation software to help the timed run into the start. Before the start of any competitive race fleet we now see over 90% of the fleet ‘pinging the ends’ of the line – GPS positioning helps us work out where the start line is and how far away we are at any moment.

We can now do the same with a modern sports watch with a GPS interface. However, to start a boat like a TP52 , there is a little more to it than just GPS positioning then using course and speed over the ground; but even this information can be very useful – particularly with long start lines.

I’ve been using software to help start races since I first discovered Deckman in 1989. It was developed to aid America’s Cup starting, but in those days many crew were pretty sceptical about its merits.

To work out our sailing time to the start line, the software needs to know our boat’s polars (how fast we will sail compared to true wind speed and true wind angle). One factor we need to refine is that normally we are not able to sail at 100% polar speed in the run into the start line as we have other yachts in close proximity and more ‘dirty air’ to deal with.


Simplified version of the B&G data for the two minutes pre-start on Y3K , showing time, distance to the line and boat speed as a percentage of polars

The solution is to use separate start polars and here I tend to reduce the normal optimum upwind boat speed target by about 12-15%. I also reduce the downwind polar speeds as we don’t usually have a spinnaker when downwind sailing pre-start.

For working out our time to the line, we also need to know the tidal stream or current. Some software will try to factor it in for you, but with a lot of manoeuvring it can easily give erroneous readings and it can be best to dial it into the software manually just for the start. A good habit is always to check the current on the start boat and pin end as you ‘ping’ their positions.

If the calibration of our sailing instruments is awry it can generate big errors in the software predicted ‘time to the line’, which is exacerbated if you need to tack or gybe prior to your final run-in. Instruments often take up to 45 seconds to settle down after a manoeuvre.

Quicker systems with high-speed GPS all help, but most software has a ‘t’ feature that allows the navigator to ‘hold’ or freeze the wind while turning. A useful tip here can be to just call boat lengths to the line while turning.

For good reasons, we sometimes slow the yacht down, then ‘pull the trigger’ or increase speed in the approach. Few racing software packages can handle yacht acceleration, and the afterguard need to be aware of that.

Once we have pinged both ends of the start line, we can instantly see the line bias, but that is only true for that moment. My tip here is to give the ‘square line’ bearing and compare that with the mean true wind direction over the last five minutes. It is always worth double-checking the line bearing with a hand-bearing compass as you get the line transits (a shoreline object that you can line up with the pin or buoy end).

Helping to work out where the layline to each end of the line is a useful feature of starting software. With a couple of practices you can often then identify another transit to help you quickly find that layline in the heat of the battle.

Using a countdown in boat lengths to the layline helps the tactician a great deal, particularly in placing your yacht relative to another already approaching the start line. When sailing in current you preferably need to know the ‘tidally adjusted layline’ transit.

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It is usually a matter of the tactician’s preference whether to call ‘sailing time to the line’ or ‘time to burn’ and whether you are factoring in the time for a tack or gybe if required. My view is to switch to ‘time to burn’ from 2 minutes 30 seconds to go, though you need to specify ‘time to burn’ to the start line and your preferred start end.

Larger and heavier yachts really don’t want to be manoeuvring in the last 45 seconds prior to the start. So helping find the correct turn in is vital. One of the best yachts at starting I have raced on is the J Class yacht Velsheda , which weighs in at 143 tonnes.

The team never likes to have to alter course in the last minute as they start building speed. On a 140ft boat they use headsets for communication and the bowman has a key input in the last 30 seconds when it comes to calling the time to burn.

With practice, the crew can learn to have good confidence in the navigator’s calls using software, but it’s vital also to cross-check those calls with reality. This is particularly important in light and shifty conditions. Here you have to remember the software can’t see that shift that is 50m away from the boat. In light winds it is a useful to focus more on boat lengths to the start line (also when in the middle of a tack).

About the expert

Mike Broughton is a pro race navigator who has won many titles including World and European championships. He is a qualified MCA Master to captain superyachts and previously had a successful career in the Fleet Air Arm flying Sea King and Lynx helicopters.

David Dsilo2

Dave Dellenbaugh Sailing

David Dellenbaugh is a champion helmsman, tactician, author, coach, rules expert and seminar leader who has spent his career helping sailors sail faster and smarter.Here are the learning resources that he has created to help you improve your racing skills.

  • The SMART Course

Starting Strategy and Tactics

The start of a sailboat race is certainly an exciting, and critical, moment.  With the entire fleet forced to sail through a very small area, the potential for gain or loss is huge.  While you don't have to win the start to win the race, it certainly helps to be in the front row.  And doing this consistently requires a good deal of tactical skill, boathandling expertise, sense of timing and strategic planning.

How Strategy Affects Starting

The goal of starting is to put yourself in a position so you can implement your strategy and get to the windward mark as quickly as possible.  Getting a good start is not an end in itself.  It will do you no good to "win" the start if this means you have to sail toward the wrong side of the course.
      The "big" picture  In general, your position on the starting line should reflect where you want to go on the first beat.  If you want to play the left side, start near the pin end. If you want to go right, start at the committee boat.  If you want to go up the middle (or keep your options open), start in the middle of the line.
      When your strategic plan favors one side quite strongly, then this will be the overriding factor in your starting plan.  At the 1984 Olympics in Long Beach, for example, it was usually quite favored to go all the way to the right side of the course.  For this reason, the race committee favored the pin end of the line (if the line was even, everyone would start at the committee boat).  Even with the pin end favored, the best strategy was often starting at the right end and tacking immediately.
      The "small" picture  To implement your strategy, it's important not only where you start on the line, but where you start in relation to the boats around you.  Consider the situation where you are starting in an oscillating breeze.  Here your primary strategic consideration is to get in phase as soon as possible.
      If you are in a header when the gun goes off, you will want to tack as soon as possible.  This means you must be far enough ahead of the boats on your weather hip so you can cross them cleanly.  The worst thing would be starting in a position where you were pinned on starboard and had to sail through the header.
      If you are in a lift when the gun sounds, you will want to keep sailing on starboard.  This means you better have a nice hole to leeward so you won't get pinched off.  When you're on a lift, you want to avoid bad air, and you certainly don't want to tack.

Finding the "Favored" End

When we talk about the "favored" end of the starting line, we usually mean the end that is closer to the wind. In other words, it's the end that is on the most upwind ladder rung.  As we've just seen, the favored end is not always the best place to start. It is usually crowded, and it may not be close to the favored side of the windward leg. So you should rely primarily on your strategic plan to help determine your starting position.
      However, if  everything else is equal, the best place to start is near the end of the line that's more upwind (on the higher ladder rung).  Here are five ways to identify the favored end and by how much it is favored.

Method 1:  The most commonly used method is shooting head to wind in the middle of the line.  When your sails are luffing on centerline, the favored end is the one that's closer to the direction your bow is pointing.

The advantage of this technique is that it's quick and can be used to check the wind direction continually during the starting sequence.  The disadvantages are that it's not always too accurate, especially if a) the line is long; b) there are boats creating a lot of bad air; or c) you have a hard time judging perspective.

TIP:   To avoid fouling other boats, always go head to wind from starboard tack.  As long as you do not go past head to wind, you remain on starboard and keep the right of way.

Method 2:  The most accurate way to find the favored end is by using your compass.   Go head to wind and get a compass bearing.  Then go outside one end of the line (the pin end is usually better) and line up the two ends of the line.  With your bow pointing right down the line, read your compass. Now use simple geometry to figure out which end is favored and by how much.

For example, pretend that the wind direction is 125.  You find that the line bears 200 (or 020 if you are looking from the committee boat toward the pin).  For the line to be "square," the wind direction would have to be 110 (90 degrees to the line).  Since the wind is actually 125, this means the starboard end is favored by 15 degrees. To figure out what this means in terms of boatlengths, estimate the length of the line and use the windshift geometry discussed in the Basics chapter.

TIP:  If you have trouble getting an accurate wind reading by going head to wind, use the following to find the wind direction:  Sail closehauled on each tack and note your compass headings.  The wind will be half way between these numbers.

Method 3:  Some racing sailors prefer another simple technique.  Sail from the committee boat toward the pin, and trim your sails so they are right on the verge of luffing.  When you get to the pin, tack or jibe around it, keeping your sheets trimmed (cleated) exactly as before. 
      Now look at the front of your sails. If they are luffing, you know the wind is coming more from ahead, so the committee boat end is favored.  If you can ease your sheets further without the sails luffing, then the pin end is favored. (By the way, this method gives you a perfect chance to time the length of the line.)

Method 4:  Here is an accurate technique to use if you have a friend and a bit of time before the start.  Have one boat start on port tack at the leeward end while the other starts on starboard at the windward end.  Both sail fast upwind until they meet.  If the starboard tacker crosses ahead by two boatlengths, then the windward end is favored by two boatlengths.  This works especially well for long lines when neither end is obviously favored.  Beware, however, of windshifts between the time of your test and the start.

Method 5:  Another easy guide is to watch the boats that are sailing closehauled off the line (and the fleets that start ahead of you). The key here is their angle on each tack. Figure out which boats sail more perpendicular to the line, and start at the end that's to windward of them.
      Remember that a shifting wind will change the favored end of the line, so you must be careful of tests that are carried out too long before the start.  Here is where a little preparation can save the day.  If you have been monitoring the shifts, you will be able to compare your wind bearing at the time you determined the favored end to the wind direction just before the start.
      Pretend, for example, that you found the windward end to be 15 degrees favored when the wind direction was 125.  A minute before the start, you check the wind again and find that it has shifted left to 105.  Now the leeward end of thie line is actually favored by five degrees.  To improve accuracy on a shifty day, take many wind checks, and try to postpone your decision about the favored end until the last possible moment.
      When the wind is shifting persistently, it's important to plan your start so you can head immediately toward the favored side.  In an oscillating breeze, your position on the line is less critical.  You may actually want to start away from the upwind end so you will be closer to the next shift.

Three Places to Start 

Think of a line in terms of its thirds, not its ends.  When we talk about starting at  the windward end of the line, for example, we are usually considering the windward third of the line.  In most cases, you don't have to be right at the favored end in order to reap the advantages of starting there; starting down the line a little will lower your risks.

Windward end:  This end is also called the starboard end (and is usually the committee boat end too).  This is definitely the place to be when your strategy calls for going right.  There are several other reasons for starting here:

      1) It's easy to judge where the line is.

      2) If you have a bad start, it's easy to bail out and get clear air on the other tack.

      3) You'll have no problem seeing the signals and hearing the gun.  In fact, you can often hear the race committee's countdown.

      4) If you're over early, you can easily hear your recall number.  And if the one-minute rule is in effect, it's easy to round the committee boat.

      1) The boat end is usually crowded, ecen when it's not particularly favored.

      2) You risk the chance of being caught barging, especially if there is any current pushing you to windward.

It is usually difficult to get the start right at the committee boat.  Everyone fights for this, and your chances of pulling it off perfectly are slim.  That's why it is better to start down the line a little. 
      Begin your approach slightly to leeward of the layline to the windward end. You have to be on starboard tack relatively early, because port tack approachers often find an impenetrable traffic jam.  Try to luff in position and maintain a hole between you and the boat to leeward.  Then accelerate so you hit the line at the gun going full speed.

Late at the windward end:  If you really want to go right, the best approach may be a slightly delayed start at the committee boat.  To do this, hang out in a barging position and look for a hole at the stern of the boat.  You may have to start behind one or two boats, but at least you will have the chance to tack right away.

Middle of the line:  Starting in the middle often seems less glamorous than starting at either end, but this position offers a much better chance to get off the line fast and clean.


      1) This is usually the least crowded part of the line.

      2) It's the best place when the wind is oscillating or when you're not sure which side of the course is favored.

      3) You can take advantage of the mid-line sag.


      1) It's hard to judge where the line is.

      2) Since one of the ends is favored almost all the time, you will lose some distance to the boats at that end.

      3) In a big fleet, the wind may be lighter and the chop bigger in the middle.

      4) You're in deep trouble if you're over early when the one-minute rule is in effect.

When starting in the middle, you can often get a big jump on the boats around you.  If it looks like there will be a mid-line sag, hold back and luff with the others.  Then, when you have just enough time to make it to the line at the gun, trim in and go full speed ahead.  Of course, you want to be close to the boat on your windward side with a big hole to leeward.

The main disadvantage of starting in the middle is that it's hard to judge the line.  This increases the likelihood of a mid-line sag (where everyone is late) or a mid-line bulge (where many boats are caught over early).  If you choose this approach, it's critical to have a line "sight" or "range."  After the race committee sets the starting line, go outside the committee boat end and sight through the flag on the boat and the leeward end.  Your goal is to line these ends up with an object on shore.  Then, as you approach the line to start,  use this range to help position yourself right on the line. 

Leeward end:  This end is also called the "port" or "pin" end.  A start here can be difficult to pull off, but it offers big rewards when your strategy says go left.  You can either drive off to leeward and leave the fleet in the dust when you get the next shift, or you can pinch like crazy and start a chain reaction that stops everyone in their tracks. 

      1) It's easy to judge where the line is.

      2) If you're right at the pin, you won't have any boats to worry about on your lee bow.

      3) It's easy to round the leeward end if you are over early when the one-minute rule is in effect.

      1) This end is usually crowded, especially if it's favored.

      2) If you get a bad start, it will be very difficult to find clear air.

      3) You may get pinned on starboard for longer than you want

A port-tack approach is usually the only way to get a good leeward-end start, especially in a big fleet.  Try to be the last boat approaching the line on port, and tack on the lee bow of the first starboard tacker.  It's best if you tack close enough so the other boat cannot sail over or under you.  This way, if you are early, you can luff the other boat and hold him back until you accelerate to the pin end.

Don't forget the possibility of a port-tack start.  This won't work very often, but if the leeward end is favored by quite a bit (especially if the current is making it hard to cross the line), you may be able to cross the fleet on port.

Starting Tactics

Once you've devised a strategy for where you want to start, you have to use the tactics necessary to get you there at the gun.  Here are some tools you may want to use.

The Vanderbilt start:  This is a simple out-and-return pattern used primarily by larger displacement boats that take a long time to accelerate.  In recent years, the master of the Vanderbilt start has been Dennis Conner.  In both the 1983 and 1987 America's Cup series, Conner used his excellent sense of timing to negate the better maneuverability of his competition.  Here is how the Vanderbilt start works:

      1) Pick the place you want to start.

      2) When you are ready to make your final approach, go past this spot on a port tack beam reach.

      3) Note the time remaining until the start.        

      4) Divide this time in half and add an allowance for time to tack or jibe.

      5) Proceed on a broad beam reach until the designated time; then turn around and go for the start. (In small boats, the Vanderbilt principle can be helpful, though the routine will be less structured.)

Dip start:  This approach works well when the fleet is late for the start.  Hang out to windward of the starting line until you have less than a minute to go.  Then reach down (dip) below the line and head up to start.  You will have excellent speed and a minimal risk of being late.  Of course, this won't work well when the whole fleet is crowding up to the line.

Starting Ideas I

  • Appoint someone on your boat as the "official" timekeeper and ask him or her to call the time loudly at regular intervals.  Set your time by the race committee's visual signals, not by sound signals.
  • Your sailtrimmers should always trim the sails for full speed ahead, unless they hear "Luff sails" from the skipper or tactician.
  • If your boat is big enough to have a tactician and a helmsperson, let the helmsperson make moment-to-moment decisions while the tactician concentrates on the big picture.
  • Remember that the racing rules go into effect at the five-minute preparatory signal (unless otherwise stated in the sailing instructions).  Make sure all members of your crew keep a lookout for other boats.
  • Always stay close to the starting line (never more than half the line's length away), especially in light air.

Starting Ideas II

  • When changing tacks to turn back to the line for your approach, remember that a tack takes longer, but a jibe will move you to leeward and is risky in heavy air.
  • Unless you have a very good reason, always cross the line on starboard tack.
  • On bigger boats, it may help to send a crewmember to the bow as you approach the start.  It will be easier to estimate distance to the line from there.
  • For practice, pretend that the five-minute gun is your start. Go through your whole approach to work on timing, crew communication, etc.
  • If possible, go on a close reach for a few seconds before the start, then luff up to closehauled as the gun goes off.  This will let you cross the line faster than closehauled speed.

Luffing in place:  One of the most valuable skills for starting is the ability to luff in place and keep control of your boat.  This helps in almost every start, especially on a crowded line or when you are early.  To luff in place, the key is maintaining a slight angle to the wind.  Do not go head to wind; this is the quickest way to lose steerage. 
      Once your boat is stopped, use your sails to maneuver.  To open a hole to leeward and squeeze up to a boat on your windward side, trim your main only.  To accelerate at the start, trim the jib first to pull the bow off toward a closehauled course.  Then trim your main.

The port-tack approach:  The port-tack approach has become quite popular during recent years.  The main advantage of this technique is the ability to pick and choose your place on the line, as well as your position relative to nearby boats.  It's also the best way to start on someone's lee bow, which is important when you are at the leeward end.
      The main disadvantage of the port-tack approach is that you can get "locked out."  This is likely to happen in bigger fleets, or when the windward end is favored.  In these situations, it's better to set up on starboard early to reserve a spot in the front row.
      When approaching on port tack, your object is to set up on the windward side of a hole between two boats.  To do this, make your tack onto starboard so you end up right underneath the boat on the windward side of the hole you've chosen.  You want to have your bow just slightly ahead of the windward boat.  This allows you to luff this boat and hold him in place; it also prevents him from bearing off behind your stern into your hole.

TIP:   When you're on port looking for a place to tack, pick a spot that is just to windward of a relatively slow boat.  You certainly don't want to start with the fleet champion on your lee bow.

Defending against a port tacker:  OK, you've carved out a nice hole to leeward and now you're luffing on the line with only a few seconds before the gun sounds.  You're getting psyched for a great start when, all of a sudden, a boat approaches on port, tacks into your hole, stuffs you and leaves you in the dust.  Your worst nightmare just happened.
      Creating a hole to leeward is only half the battle.  Protecting it from the vultures is the other half.  You must always keep a lookout to leeward for port tackers approaching your hole.  If they look seriously interested, bear off and aim right at them.  This forces them either to tack early or bear off below you. As soon as they commit to one of these options, head back up into the wind so you don't sail down into your hole any more than you have to.    

TIP:   In a competitive fleet, don't try to horde too much space.  Make a hole to leeward that's big enough to give you room to accelerate, but small enough so you don't tempt another boat to go in there.

Defending against a starboard tacker:  Sometimes, when you're luffing on starboard tack with a nice hole to leeward, the biggest threat is a boat that comes reaching in from behind.  The defense against these boats is usually tougher than against port tackers, mainly because they're coming from behind and are often obscured by other boats.
      Obviously, your first priority is to keep a lookout behind.  When you see a vulture approaching, quickly turn your boat and head off in front of the other boat before he becomes overlapped to leeward.  Your object is to get him to head up on your windward side; as soon as he does this, luff up hard so you save your hole to leeward.

TIP:   Position your boat so that when the mainsail is luffing, the boom sticks out as far as possible to leeward.  This is a great way to fill up some of your leeward hole and discourage another boat from trying to squeeze in there.

After the Gun

The first few minutes after the starting gun are perhaps the most critical moments of any race.  This is the time when everyone fights for clear air and tries to implement their strategic plan.  It's important to go flat out during this time. For example, straight-leg hike as hard as you can on a one-design.  Every foot gained off the line will help immensely in the long run.

Watermelon seed:  After several minutes, a few boats will squeeze ahead of the pack like watermelon seeds.  Your object is to be one of those boats.  Shift your sail trim into point mode for two reasons: 1) To make sure you do not fall into the bad air of the boat to leeward; and 2) To squeeze up in front of the boats to windward, which is important if you want to tack.

Bail out:  If you aren't lucky enough to be a watermelon seed, you will sooner or later end up in bad air.  Unless your strategy says you have to go left, tack away immediately and duck as many sterns as needed to get clear air.  Cut your losses by getting into clear air before the "seeds" have developed an untouchable lead. 

Downwind Starts   
The general principles of starting downwind are a lot like starting upwind, except  you have the added intrigue of spinnakers, and it's a lot harder to luff on the line.  This type of start is usually used for handicap racing with fixed marks.

Finding the favored end is not too hard.  Simply follow the same steps you used for upwind starts, except you want to identify the end that is most downwind, or on the lower ladder rung.  This is the "favored" end.

Like upwind, the approach to a downwind start should almost always be made on starboard tack.  A reaching approach along the line has three advantages.  First, you will be leeward boat and will have right of way over all others.  Second, you will be closer to the line, so it will be easier to judge how long it will take you to get there.  And third, you will have full reaching speed as you bear off at the gun.

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Hatteras Sailing

Hatteras Sailing

encouraging youth sailing and competitive opportunities

Basic Race Course Starting Knowledge

Jay Phillips

STARTS are challenging and fun! If you are new to the sailboat racing world, it can really seem intimidating. Thats alright, dont let it intimidate you, because once you get it wired you will love the STARTS! In order not to overwhelm, we will begin with some rudimentary basics. More advanced starting topics and techniques will come once these basic skills are mastered.

Your Objective – Always focus on your objective above all things!

For Sailboat racing, the objective is always to be the winner of the race. This is true for fleet and match racing, but maybe slightly different for Team Racing. Right now though we are going to set this aside until later. It all begins with the Starting Line though and to be the winner of most races, you have to get off to a good start! Here are a few bullet points of the most basic issues to concentrate on for beginners.

  • Identify where the Start Line is and which direction you are to go across the line and what mark you are heading toward after the start.
  • Understand the Starting Sequence and time line and how to use your own watch for the start countdown
  • Avoid hitting and fouling other boats, which means understanding the basic right of way rules
  • Controlling your boat’s speed, stopping and starting, sail control, rudder control, crew weight and positioning
  • Do your very best to be at the line at the start signal, moving at top boat speed, in the right direction… yes this might sound easier than it is, but its what you want to strive for. Don’t be hard on yourself if it you are not able to do this every time!

The Racecourse Options

Regattas and sailboat races have several different layouts, based on how the club running the race decides to set it up. The diagram below is a typical set of options that the Race Committee usually might choose from. During the day of racing, they may even change the course layout. This decision is usually based on the weather, number of boats and the speed of the boats based on the current conditions. The race committee options for the regatta are in the racing instructions and this is something you need to keep in a dry bag on your boat with you during the regatta, so you can identify how, where and how many times around the marks you are suppose to sail.

sailboat racing starting sequence

The next diagrams are of the start line and some basic wind information that you need to understand to optimize your start.

sailboat racing starting sequence

Starting Sequence

Racing starts have different start countdowns. Its pretty hard to time things if you dont have some sort of digital watch with countdown timer options. There are nice expensive racing watches…. click here for one example , otherwise most standard inexpensive water resistant watches will work, they are just a little more complicated to get to the timer settings and this takes practice, but thats what I grew up using, so it works. For our club practices we will use the following sequences for training.

  • 1 Minute Preparatory Warning Signal
  • 5 Minute Starting Signal
  • 1 Minute Warning Signal
  • Starting Signal

The 1 minute prep signal allows you to make sure your timer is setup and ready so you can press the start button on your watch exactly when the 5 minute countdown signal is made. If you miss this, then you have a second chance to get in time with the 1 minute warning signal… dont miss your second chance, because its your last chance.

Now once you have the time on your watch, you can start focusing your attention on the boat speed and maneuvers to get you at the line on time.

Most important factors now are……

Sailing the Race Course – Starting for Beginners

C Scows Starting a Race

In this series of articles, we will introduce the key concepts of sailing a race from preparation to the starting sequence, buoy roundings and finishing. The target audience for this information is sailors that may have never competed in a formal race environment or want to better understand what is going on during a race. The target could also include someone who spectates and wants to better comprehend what is happening. Throughout, we will link to more advanced information, but the body of the article will be the basics. We will not go into rules details, but will mention rule areas that pertain to various situations, for further study. If we missed a basic concept, feel free to comment below. There will be links to lots of articles at the end.

We’ll begin with Pre-race Preparation to Starting .

Weather Forecast and Current Conditions

  • Wind shifting through the racing period? Persistent (shifting one direction further and further) or Oscillating shifts (shifts back and forth, but generally around the same average direction). For example, if there is a Persistent Shift moving clockwise , the starboard tacks will get increasingly favored, assuming that the marks are not moved.
  • Will the wind speed be increasing? If so, you may need to adjust your boat and sail controls for the changing conditions.
  • Storms – Is there a storm system moving through that might bring changes to the winds?

Preparation Checklist – Equipment

We suggest a checklist to remind you of things to look over and things to ensure that you have for the race. These might include the following:

  • Fittings – Are they secure and all present? Do you have spares?
  • Control Lines & Blocks – Are your lines (ropes) all in good shape, untangled and running through the blocks (pulleys) in the correct directions for any ratcheting?
  • Spars – Are your lines clear of your shrouds (sidestays) for when you hoist your sail(s)? Have you adjusted your mast “rake” (tilt)? Does your boat require setting “rig tension”? Are your shroud fittings connected securely? Are your shrouds / stays in good condition without any broken strands / wires?
  • Blades – Centerboard / Daggerboard, Rudder: Are these clean and moving smoothly? Do you have the safety line attached to the daggerboard, if appropriate.
  • Sails – Are your sails all on board and connected properly? Make sure that nothing gets in the way of hoisting them and battens are all in place and secure. If you have sail ties, are they properly tied and knots tight? Are the “Outhaul” and “Cunningham (Downhaul)” attached?
  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD) Safety Gear – Do you have approved PFDs for all crew?
  • Racing Timer – Do you have your timer and is it set to the proper timing sequence? Usually 5 or 6 minutes, but will vary somewhat.
  • Water – Do you have water to stay hydrated?
  • Suntan lotion & Sunglasses – Is your skin protected? The water reflects the sun and can make burning more likely. Same issue with sunglasses. I prefer polarized lenses to reduce the glare off the water and the boat surfaces.
  • Hat – While protecting your head, a hat can also reduce distracting sun glare when trying to see the water.
  • Sailing Gloves – Purpose-built sailing gloves (properly-fitted) or gardening gloves can really protect your hands from abrasion and helps to hang on to the sheet lines.
  • Launching – Are your bailers up? If launching with a trailer, is the lighting harness disconnected from the towing vehicle to prevent electrical shorts? Do you know where you will put the boat to finish assembling it while allowing others to launch?
  • Current – Is there water flow / current that may impact your sailing? Which way is it moving and how fast? A tip is to look at any fixed buoys and see how the water is moving around them.
  • Shoals / Weeds – Do you know where shallow areas and weedy areas are?
  • Wind Obstacles – Look for hills, trees, peninsulas, tall buildings, etc that may reduce or bend the wind direction and think about how that will impact your sailing.
  • Local Insights – Have you checked with local sailors for any insights they may have about the venue?

On the Water

Before the sequence.

Be Early – Try to get to the racing area no less than 30 minutes ahead of time so that you can get familiar with what is going on and form a “strategy” for how you want to sail the course.

A Strategy is the path you would sail with no other boats on the race course. Tactics are what you do when you encounter other boats to get back on your strategy. – Dave Dellenbaugh

Survey the Course – Sail both sides of the course and the top mark rounding and the starting line area to learn about the tacking angles and wind pressure (force) across the course. Take note of where the wind seems to originate, if there is any current and are the shifts happening the way that you predicted from the forecast.

Learn From Others – Watch how the other competitors are sailing, who is lifted (sailing straighter to the marks) and who is knocked and who has better wind pressure, where.

Benchmark Against Others – Try to get somewhat near another competitor and see how well your boat is performing versus the other boat. Are you pointing higher or lower while watching your sail telltales to make sure that your sail and point (how close to the wind direction you aim) is correct? Can you match or exceed their speed in similar breeze? Try adjusting controls if you need to to test things out.

Check-In – Check-in with the Race Committee to let them know that you’re sailing, if necessary. Home port fleet races may not require this.

Ready To Start

Anatomy of The Line

Typically, the starting line is between an anchored Race Committee boat with an orange flag on the starboard end and a mark (buoy) on the port end. The line is usually roughly perpendicular to the windward marks.

sailboat racing starting sequence

Getting Ready

So you’ve sailed around the race area and have a preliminary strategy. What should you be thinking about now?

  • Wind angle has shifted right of center (looking up the race course).
  • Wind is centered, but the breeze is stronger on the RC Boat end.
  • Wind angle has shifted left of center.
  • Wind is centered, but the breeze is stronger on the Pin end.
  • The Mob: If a lot of boats want your spot, then it might be best to stay beside the pack, but on the starting line , and not stuck inside pack. You want clear air and ability to accelerate off the line.
  • Line Length – A rule of thumb is that the line length should be 1.5 boat lengths X # of boats competing. If it’s less than that, be ready for it to be a tight start.
  • Wind Angle Change? Watch competitors who are still sailing upwind and down to see what their angles are.
  • Wind Pressure obviously better on one part of the leg? Again, watch competitors to see who is in the breeze.
  • Wind Shifts – Are the shifts Persistent (more and more in one direction) or Oscillating (back and forth, but generally on either side of a similar direction)?
  • Equipment and Crew Ready for action – Is everything untangled and gear is on correctly so that there is no last minute problem?

In The Sequence

This graphic show the timing sequence and flag signals and what they mean. The Preparatory Signal flag(s) are important because they tell you what is permitted during this start and what the penalties will be. Some penalties can be remedied and some disallow you to sail in the race.

Note the Racing Triangle diagram. The Racing Triangle is the area between each end of the line and the windward mark.

Starting Sequence Flags Timing

Ready, Set, Go!

  • Timing to Get Your Spot – Know where you want to start on the line and position yourself to be there ahead of time, at least with enough time to hit the line at full speed at the gun.
  • Make and Defend a “Hole” – For best results, you want space to leeward of your boat on the line so that you can bear off (point down) to accelerate before crossing the line. This is usually hard against good sailors and takes practice.
  • What’s Your 0-60? – Know how long it takes for your boat to accelerate from a stop in different breezes. This will help you to know when to “pull the trigger” on accelerating during the countdown sequence. Drill: Stop next to a buoy (not during a race) and see how long it takes to get to full speed and review your distance from the buoy location.
  • Prepare to be fast and smooth – lines clear, controls set, ready to hike, know who is around you and what they’re doing.
  • Wind Shifts While Starting – See this article .
  • Note the penalties for being over the line early and avoid them or know what your rights are if you mess up.
  • Fouling Someone – Be ready to figure out how to save yourself if you have to take a penalty turn.
  • Bail Out – If you get jammed in a spot, know whether the best option is to just stay in the bad spot or if tacking off will improve your situation. Many times tacking off will result in ducking boat after boat or being forced back, so assess the options quickly.

Further Learning: Starting well takes practice and has a lot of aspects. There are a number of links below that can help you to dig deeper into this topic.

Related Content

SailZing Category: Starting Strategy and Tactics Category

Individual articles:

Starting Strategy and Tactics for Youth: ILYA Seminar

Starting  Strategy and Tactics: Where to Start – SailZing

Starting  Mentality: Learn to Be Aggressive – SailZing

Starting  Line Approach: What Kind of Creature Should You Be …

Wind Shifts While  Starting : Impacts and Tips – SailZing

Starting  Tactics Quiz: Boat Thoughts at 30 Seconds – SailZing

Bad Start? Four Recovery Options

Line Sag: Illusions and Opportunities

Wind Shifts While Starting: Impacts and Tips

Execute the Start with Four Key Skills – SailZing

Vakaros Atlas 2 – First Look

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Sailing Instruments for all boats


In a previous blog post, The Secrets of a great   Sailing Start , we looked at the fundamentals of getting a good start and why it’s important to your overall success on the course.

We identified five elements that go into executing a good   sailing   start: – Be as close to the line as possible – Be sailing as fast as possible as the start gun fires – Be as close to the favoured end of the line as possible – Have good space either side of you, especially to leeward – Make sure your start fits with your bigger course strategy.

If you need to remind yourself of the fundamentals of good starting, go back through that blog post first.


Now we’ll dig into some more advanced starting strategies. One of the most critical is building a Pre-Start Routine. Why? Because the build-up to the start and the start itself can be hectic, and it can be overwhelming. Over time, if you build up a Pre-Start Routine, it will help you cope with all the different things to think about. A bit like an airline pilot running pre-flight checks before take-off.


Before you launch, run down your checklist and make sure you’ve remembered everything that needs to be done before going afloat.


Have you registered that you’re going racing? Eg. is there a tally system or a sign-out system?

Got your watch, buoyancy aid, gloves, drinking water etc? If you don’t have a checklist, make one!


Make sure you’ve given yourself plenty of time before the start sequence gets underway. Check how the boat feels upwind and downwind. Is the rig set up right for the wind and wave conditions? Has the spinnaker been rigged without any twists etc? What compass readings are you getting on port and starboard tack? Make a note of them.


10 minutes before the start.

Make sure you get back to the Starting Area in good time. Are there transits you’ll be able to take from one or both ends of the start line? Sit next to a mark or an anchored boat and watch for any current or tidal effects. If there is current, will it be pushing you over or back from the start line?


Make sure your watch is running the real time accurately. A lot of race officers run their start time to the actual time, in which case you’ll have a very good idea of when the 5 minute gun is about to sound. Watch for the flag going up on the boat, and start your countdown as the flag is hoisted. This is more accurate than listening for the sound of the gun or the hooter, as sound takes longer than light to reach you.

Double-check your transits because once the start sequence is in play, the race committee is not allowed to change the start line. Do some timed runs towards the start line to gauge how long it will take to move forwards.


Watch out for which flag is being used ‘P, I, U, Z or Black’. Check your Racing Rules as to which ones to watch out for. With a P flag, the Blue Peter, you can afford to push the limits of the start line a bit more, knowing that if you start too soon you can still turn back to restart the race. It’s still an expensive mistake, but at least you won’t be disqualified. An ‘I’ flag means you have to sail round one end of the start line to restart before you can make your way up the course. This flag isn’t used much these days, however. The same with the ‘Z’ flag, where you’re able to finish the race even if you start too early, but will have 20% added to your finishing position. Pretty unlikely you’ll see the Z used much in your sailing career. The ‘U’ and the Black flag, however, are much more common, especially in high-level regattas like National and World Championships. If you’re over the line in the final minute before start time, you’re disqualified from the race. It’s a harsh penalty, but it helps the race committee get starts away for really competitive fleets where everyone is pushing for the best start possible.

In the minutes from 4 to 1 before the start, continue to check the bias of the line. Is the wind shifting? Where is most of the fleet stacking up? Continue to keep your options open, particularly on a day when the wind is flicking from side to side, or when clouds are appearing on one side of the course or the other.


Depending on the flag being used, at this stage in the start you need to be in your desired starting position and lined up with enough room to accelerate on to the line. Always keep communication about Time and Distance going. If you’re starting under a U or a Black Flag, remember you can’t afford to risk instant disqualification for crossing the line too soon. But this very fact means a lot of the fleet might be being too ‘line shy’. If you are confident of your transits, use them! Move forwards even if you think the rest of the fleet around you is going to be late. But if you think others are ‘pulling the trigger’ too soon. Don’t go with them unless you believe you can’t be spotted by the line spotters. Better to be late than disqualified.


As the start gun fires, you should have already been accelerating in the previous 2 to 15 seconds, depending on how long it takes to get your boat up to speed and the strength of the wind. This is where your acceleration drills will really help you out as you aim to go from a standing stop up to full speed as quickly as possible.


Even the best laid plans can go wrong, especially when it comes to starting on a busy start line in a big fleet. So what’s your escape plan? If you’re a singlehanded sailor, your own tactician, have a clear plan in your mind about what your ‘bail-out’ option is if Plan A goes wrong. If you’re sailing in a team of two or more, make sure everyone is clear about the Plan B so that there is no time wasted discussing alternative options.


Let’s pick one of the hardest options for a Plan B. Most of the fleet has identified that the race course favours going to the left-hand side because there’s more wind there. It’s also a pin-end biased start line. So the ideal place to start is to win the pin and have clear air out to the left. You go for it, but so do a lot of other boats. You fall out of your clear-air space in the front row with 20 seconds to go. Now is the time to accelerate to leeward of the fleet on starboard tack, gybe around, and duck the boats that are starting on starboard. Keep on ducking until you see a gap between two starboard tackers. Go for the gap and then keep on ducking and weaving through the gaps until you break out into clear air on port tack. Once you’ve got a clear lane back to the favoured left-hand side of the course, tack on to starboard. You might have given up ground to the best starters, but you’re now in clear air, sailing in the right direction. You’re still in the race!


We just talked about a Plan B option where you bail out on to port tack as the least worst option. Sometimes starting on port tack can be your Plan A option. This applies mostly to faster boats capable of planing or foiling upwind. Nearly all catamarans, skiffs and foiling boats can benefit from starting on port tack because by the time any starboard tacker tried to tack on your wind, you’d be through the lee and out the other side of them.

If the right-hand side of the course looks favoured, the port tack start, behind all the starboard tackers, can be a really powerful move. Even on an even race course, starting on port can still work nicely because it gives you a much higher chance of getting into a clear lane quickly where you can sail the boat freely without other boats stuffing you up or taking your wind.

Look out for a lot more ‘go faster’ content coming your way from Sailmon. We’re keen to share more content on various topics that all add up to helping you sail better. Follow us on Facebook , Instagram or subscribe to our newsletter . Whatever you do, don’t miss out on this valuable content! We’re here to make you even better than you are today! ---- Check out this webinar! When the clock slowly runs down to zero and the last starting signal is near. You try to claim that ideal starting position in a race, but that doesn't always work out the way you planned. Sounds familiar? To avoid that situation in the future we invite the World Championship Medallist Hannah Diamond for our third webinar in the Sail Better series. Hannah will share all her knowledge on how to improve your start tactics in sailing races. Of course, she is once again joined by our hosts Kalle Coster and Andy Rice for an educational one-hour session. Check out the preview below or subscribe  here for the full recordings

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sailboat racing starting sequence

  • because of foul weather,
  • because of insufficient wind making it unlikely that any boat will Definition: Finish " data-url="/definitions/76?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:void(0)">finish within the race time limit,
  • because a Definition: Mark " data-url="/definitions/70?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:void(0)">mark is missing or out of position, or
  • for any other reason directly affecting the safety or fairness of the competition,
  • a line the course requires boats to cross; or
  • at a gate, between the gate Definition: Mark " data-url="/definitions/70?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:void(0)">marks .

sailboat racing starting sequence

  • the new compass bearing or
  • a green triangle for a change to starboard or a red rectangle for a change to port.
  • Subsequent legs may be changed without further signalling to maintain the course shape.
  • replace it in its correct position or substitute a new one of similar appearance, or

sailboat racing starting sequence

  • prohibit a boat from competing unless she has broken rule Rule: 30.4 " data-url="/rules/1569?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:;">30.4 ; or
  • cause a boat to be penalized except under rule Rule: 2 " data-url="/rules/1150?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:;">2 , Rule: 30.2 " data-url="/rules/1544?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:;">30.2 , Rule: 30.4 " data-url="/rules/1569?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:;">30.4 or Rule: 69 " data-url="/rules/1626?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:;">69 or under rule Rule: 14 " data-url="/rules/1320?xformat=fleet" href="javascript:;">14 when she has caused injury or serious damage.

sailboat racing starting sequence

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sailboat racing starting sequence

Published on February 20th, 2023 | by Editor

Start sequence sound signals

Published on February 20th, 2023 by Editor -->

sailboat racing starting sequence

by Chip Till, US Sailing Regional Race Officer & Club Judge The second sentence of RRS 26 (starting races) states, “Times shall be taken from the visual signals; the absence of a sound signal shall be disregarded.” To paraphrase, the visual signals (flags) prevail over the sound signals.

While this is the rule, sailors do pay attention to the sound signals. In fact, an ill-timed sound signal made during a starting sequence is indeed a Race Committee error and there is no rule that says it may be disregarded. An ill-timed sound becomes more problematic if it results in boats being misled and results in an OCS.

So, if you’re approaching the line at your starting signal in a competitive 60 boat One-Design fleet, is it more important to look down the line at the flags on the Race Committee signal vessel or listen for the sound signals while you’re also trying to get a good start with maximum speed?

To this point, properly timed starting sequence sound signals are imperative. One of my favorite Race Committee equipment tools as a Race Officer is my iStart which is an “automatic sailboat race starter”. The iStart has a built-in air pump which sends pulses of air to a set of air horns to make the starting sound signals.

sailboat racing starting sequence

The air pump is powered by a large internal battery which is controlled by a sophisticated motherboard with a built-in timer display so that you know where you are at any given time during a starting sequence.

The motherboard also has dozens and dozens of pre-programmed timing modes so whether you are running two minute Radio controlled starts, three minute College starts, five minute Fleet starts, seven minute Match race starts or ten minute Olympic race starts, the iStart has a built it timing mode that you can select.

Given the iStart’s versatility and broad range of timing options, it really helps with timing during any starting sequence. The iStart is especially helpful when running Team Racing events given the magnitude of races that are run daily.

Even with 70 Team Races on a given day, which is 1,540 horns (22 horns per three minute start), the battery has enough power to last the whole day. If you find that your iStart battery performance begins to decline over time, it’s not a problem because you can send your unit in for service or you can replace the battery yourself.

Many of you that are already familiar with the iStart may be aware that in 2021 the company stopped making new units and serving existing units, but worry no more as the company is under new ownership. In early 2023, new units and service to existing units will be available. For additional details, click here .

Reprinted courtesy of US Sailing Race Management Committee, [email protected] .

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Tags: Chip Till , education , Race Committee

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Racing Signals: Sailing Flag Meanings

Racing Signals: Sailing Flag Meanings | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Gabriel Hannon

August 30, 2022

Where other competitions have umpires and referees right next to the players, sailing race committees have to rely on flags to communicate with sailors.

In this article, we are going to explain the meanings of all the flags used at regattas to communicate with sailors. The flags can give information about starting procedures, course information, and on-the-water judging, so a basic understanding is a crucial part of general seamanship.

While nautical flags all have defined meanings in a historical context, they have very specific meanings in the context of racing competition. For instance, in the general nautical world, the Z-flag means that you are in distress and are in need of a tow or relief from a tug boat. At a regatta, the race committee may fly the Z-flag to indicate an additional penalty for any boat that has crossed the line early. Moreover, even though there are certain flags that have well-defined roles, race committees may stipulate additional meanings or introduce new flags via an announcement in the sailing instructions for the event, so we will cover some of these more common changes as well. We will break down the meanings into the various categories of usage.

A secret that I have learned over many years of regattas at every level from proverbial ‘beer-can’ races to national championships is that, as well as both you and the race committee can recite the racing flag rules on land, someone is always going to make a mistake or misunderstand these symbols. That is why I will be going through the official flag meanings and rules from the Racing Rules of Sailing for 2021-2024 to clarify any questions that you might have when the race committee flies a flag that hasn’t been seen since we used Clipper Ships to cross the oceans. Hopefully this article will help break down all the most common signals so that when your friend turns to you and asks ‘is that the flag that tells us it's time to go in,’ you’ll be able to help out!

Table of contents

‍ Flags at the Start

The start of a race is often the most confusing part of a regatta and is where the most flags must be used. We will be going over the rules for the flags at a basic 5-minute start. These can be modified for 3-minute dinghy starts, 5-minute match race starts, 6-minute Olympic starts, or 10-minute big boat starts, but the same logic applies.

A few flags are crucial to set everything up on the starting line prior to the starting sequence.


To begin, the race committee must have an Orange Flag visibly displayed, as this demarks the exact location on the boat from which the line is called. If there is a pin boat, they will often fly an Orange Flag as well, but if it is just a buoy, then the buoy serves as the other end of the line.


Next, the RC will additionally fly the L Flag if they are ready for competitors to check-in at the beginning of the race day. This helps them confirm that everyone is sailing under the correct sail number, which is often a logistical nightmare. They will blow one horn when raising this flag. If this flag is raised at any point later in the day, it is meant to tell competitors to come by the committee boat again.


Finally, the AP Flag is a general purpose postponement flag. The race committee may raise this on land to indicate that the harbor start has been delayed or on the water to indicate that there will be a delay in the starts. While there are other flags that are used for abandonment situations, particularly the N Flag, the AP is commonly used in informal situations. Two sounds accompany the raising of the AP, and it can be said that competitors are ‘under AP’ until it is dropped, along with one sound. If it is dropped on land, competitors may immediately launch. If it is dropped on the water, the next start may begin in as little as one minute.


The final note with the AP Flag is that the race committee may indicate the end of racing for the day by flying ‘AP over A.’ Again, the AP could technically be replaced with the blue and white checkerboarded N Flag, but the two serve very similar purposes at most levels.

Starting Flags


Once the race committee is set up and everyone is ready to go sailing, the next task is to get the right fleets to the starting line for their start. At the warning signal, one loud horn that indicates that the 5-minute countdown to the start has begun, the race committee will raise some type of Class Flag that indicates which type of boat will be starting. Above we have the different class flags for the different competition rigs for the ILCA-Dinghy, formerly known as the Laser, which would be raised to indicate which rig is starting.


This is a convention even if there is only one class on the water. Sometimes this is replaced with raising the Orange Flag itself, or some other flag as laid out in the sailing instructions. Often classes have been assigned a numeral pennant, of which 1-4 are displayed above, in place of the highly specific Class Flags. Still, some flag of this nature goes up at 5-minutes and remains up until go, at which point it is dropped.


At 4-minutes, the RC will sound another horn, known as the preparatory signal, and raise some combination of the above flags.

The P Flag is always required to go up, and it is simply the ‘Prep Flag,’ which signals to the racers that they need to get serious about the race. Once the P Flag is raised, all the right-of-way rules that apply during the start switch on and racers, particularly in team and match racing, are allowed to begin tactically engaging with each other (though in team racing this would happen at minute 2 of the 3-minute start). Moreover, racers can talk with their coaches until the prep signal, and race committees may alter the course up until this moment. Afterwards, all coaching is banned and all course changes on the current leg are not allowed. This belies the fact that a 5-minute starting sequence is actually a 4-minute sequence with a warning signal at 5-minutes, but that is a purely semantic detail.

Depending on how rowdy the competitors are, the race committee may raise any combination of the I, Z, U, or Black Flags. Each of these flags deals with boats that start ‘on-course side’ (OCS), essentially a false start for sailing. If any of these flags is raised, a boat is not allowed to be anywhere within the triangle formed by the starting line and the first mark of the course after the 1-minute signal during the start. These flags essentially help the RC ensure that they can get off a clean start and ensure that they can identify any boats that are OCS at go. When they are flown, the following penalties are added beyond requiring a boat to clear itself by dipping back under the line:

  • I Flag: Conventionally referred to as the ‘one-minute rule,’ this requires that any boat over the line after a minute also has to sail around an end of the line in order to start the race fairly. This punishes a boat for being over by potentially making it a little harder to clear themselves if they are over on a large line.
  • Z Flag: Often flown in combination with the I Flag, this flag adds that any boat that is OCS will get a 20% penalty on top of their score in that race, regardless of whether they clear themselves or not. This further hurts any boat that is ‘pushing the line’ by ensuring that even if they manage to clear themselves and come back, they will still see an impact on their scoreline that is equivalent to immediately being passed by 20% of the fleet.
  • U Flag: Now we’re getting into harsh territory. When the RC is really trying to brush the fleet back off the plate, this flag immediately disqualifies a boat that is over after a minute with no course for redress. If these boats are identified, they tend to be told to stop sailing the race by a notice board at the top mark.
  • Black Flag: The black flag serves a very similar purpose to the U Flag, except it is a step harsher. It disqualifies you after a minute and even prevents you from sailing in a restart of the race or a race abandoned halfway through.

The I Flag is by far the most common flag, and is often effective at keeping boats from being over. The U Flag rule was introduced in 2013 as an option and formally codified in the Racing Rules in 2017 and is massively more popular than the Black Flag, which is considered overly punitive. In particular, when many sailors are over in a Black Flag start, such that the RC cannot determine who was over, they are forced to make unfair decisions that carry over to the restart, so the U is now almost universally used in its place. Additionally, as the U has become more popular, people tend to shy away from the Z flag, which is considered cumbersome for scorers and confusing to sailors.

In general, while these flags are supposed to be raised in conjunction with the P Flag, often the RC will only raise the most punitive of the flags, as any of them can essentially be considered as a prep flag.

As the starting sequence continues, any prep flag(s) raised must be lowered at the 1-minute signal. The class flag is then lowered at go, leading to the next category of flags: Recall Flags

Recall Flags

After the pain of raising and lowering all those start flags, the RC then has three possible jobs. If the start is clean, they shout ‘All Clear!’ and can then relax until they have to start another race or record finishes for the race in progress. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, as they likely will need to ‘recall’ certain competitors for being ‘OCS,’ i.e. false starting. They have two choices here.


If only a few, easily-identifiable boats have started early, the RC will raise the X Flag along with a single sound in what is referred to as an individual recall. This indicates to the boats on the course that there are some competitors who are currently OCS and must clear themselves. If the I Flag had been flown for the start, competitors have to round an end; if not, they can just dip back behind the starting line and restart from there.

While the X is suitable on its own to inform a boat that it has been called over, it is an oft practiced courtesy for the RC to hail an OCS boat’s sail number over a megaphone, a radio, or other transmission device. The X Flag is dropped when all OCS boats have cleared themselves or after 4 minutes from go, whichever comes first.


If more boats than can be easily identified are called over, the RC can blow two horns and fly the First Substitute Flag, indicating a general recall. In this case, the race is fully reset and the committee will initiate another entire starting sequence for that fleet. After a general recall, the RC will often, but not always employ the next level of penalty flag for the restart in an attempt to get the race off cleanly.

Sometimes, as in college sailing or as stipulated by other sailing instructions, any general recall immediately implies the I Flag for the next sequence if it had not been flown previously. As such, the RC does not necessarily have to fly the I if it is unavailable. Still, such stipulations are almost always written out explicitly for a given event and are often accompanied by a verbal announcement as a courtesy.

Still, outside some usages of the AP or N Flags to abandon or delay starts already in sequence, these are all the flags that deal with general housekeeping and the starting sequence.

While Underway

While the starting flags are by far the most complicated of the flag rules, there are still other flags to keep track of while racing. The first among these are...

Course Change Flags

Although course changes are relatively rare, race committees often pull them out when conditions change substantially during races or if there has been a problem with one of the marks.


When wind or time constraints require, the race committee may send an official to any mark of the course that no boat has yet rounded and have it raise the S Flag along with two sounds. This indicates that the fleet shall finish at that mark, cutting off the race earlier than written in the sailing instructions.


In the case of any other change to the course, such as a minor adjustment to the angle or distance of an upcoming leg, a race committee boat will go to the preceding mark and raise the C Flag along with repeated sounds.

This is sometimes accompanied by a Red Square or a Green Triangle to indicate that the mark has been moved to port or starboard respectively. Although during less formal events, you can change the positions of any marks so long as there are no competitors currently sailing on that leg of the course, it is considered poor form if at all possible to inform competitors, particularly in longer races. Sailors make decisions based on the position of the marks, and if this has been changed without them noticing, that can drastically affect the outcomes of strategic decisions, so in large competitions the C Flag is a must.


If, meanwhile, something odd has happened to a mark of the course, any official boat may fly the M Flag with repeated signals. This serves to inform the competitors that they have become a replacement for the missing mark. This is relatively uncommon, but anchors do occasionally snap on marks, so it is always good to have a support boat with the M if possible.


Finally, as mentioned before, if conditions have deteriorated to the point that a race is considered no longer possible, due to lack of wind, fear of foul weather, or some form of interference -- I’ve seen it happen because cruise ships wanted to pass through a dinghy course, and you don’t say no to them -- the race committee may abandon the race using the N Flag. Still, this flag is relatively rare as you will often see the AP in its place for convenience, as they are functionally similar.

Miscellaneous Flags

While we have covered the bulk of the flags necessary for racing at any level, there are a few more flags from across different disciplines and classes that are worth mentioning, if only to let you in on these quirky parts of the racing world! This starts with what one could reasonably call…

The Cheating Flag


Calling the O Flag the cheating flag is certainly a bit of a misnomer. The O Flag does, however, suspend Rule 42 of the Racing Rules of Sailing. Rule 42 is particularly notorious, as it bans pumping, rocking, ooching, sculling, and excessive maneuvering, all of which are methods to make your boat go substantially faster. While Rule 42 is worth an article in and of itself, the larger point is that it is meant to keep anyone from gaining an unfair advantage over their competitors.

Certain competitive classes, however, including the Olympic class 470s and Finns and many of the new foiling fleets, allow competitors to ignore Rule 42 in certain conditions, typically in heavy breezes that are referred to as ‘planing’ conditions. There are differences across the classes, but whenever it is allowed and the RC flies the O Flag, Rule 42 is switched off and competitors can ooch, pump, rock, and tack their boats all around the racecourse. This allows for a much more physical style of sailing and is a rule that many different classes and sectors of sailing are beginning to consider.


If conditions no longer meet the threshold for that class’s rules regarding suspension of Rule 42, an official boat will raise the R Flag at some point during the race. They can only do so at a mark of the course so that it is fair to all the competitors throughout the fleet. This is relatively rare, and is normally done between races, but is still a key part of the O Flag rule.

Judge and Umpire Flags

On the topic of Rule 42, there are certain fouls in sailing that can be actively enforced on the water by judges or umpires, depending on the context.

Rule 42 is enforced by judges with a Yellow Flag, which they will point at an offending boat along with a sound signal and a direct sail number hail. That boat may clear themselves from their first Yellow Flag by taking their two-turn penalty, but, unless otherwise noted in the sailing instructions, any subsequent violation can entail disqualification.

Finally, certain levels of modern match and team racing, with the addition of high-performance racing like SailGP, have full on-the-water umpires who actively follow the racing to make calls on fouls and other plays. While this is not the spot to go through the intricacies of team and match race calls, the basic gist is as follows.

In any interaction, any boat involved in the race may call in the umpires if they believe that their opponent has fouled them. If the opponent clears themselves quickly, essentially admitting fault, the umpires will not get involved. If no boats clear themselves, the umpire has to make a call on whether there has been a foul. If they determine that the maneuvers were clean, they will make one sound and fly a Green Flag, thus exonerating all boats in the interaction. If they determine there was a foul, they will fly a Red Flag with a singular sound and hail the offending boat.

Beyond that, if a boat is found to have broken a rule not related to an interaction, the umpires may come in and fly the Red Flag without being directly invited into the situation. Further, if a boat is found to be in violation of sportsmanship or refuses to take a penalty as assessed by an umpire, the umpire may fly a Black Flag, disqualifying them from the race.

While there are differences at each event and in each discipline, these general guidelines are followed in most umpired races, with specific flags used at various events, generally depending on availability.

With that, we have made it from land, through the start, a few general recalls, all the way to umpire flags! I hope this has helped you get a grasp of the various flags used across sailing. While this has not scratched the specifics of the various alterations made for kiteboards and windsurfers, nor some of the annoyances of protest flags and more, we have gone through the bulk of regularly used race committee and umpire signals.

The ‘Wear Your Life Jacket!’ Flag


Finally, we have a safety flag. At big boat regattas, the race committee may, if it chooses, fly the Y Flag at any point prior to a start to inform competitors that they must wear personal floatation devices, which is not always strictly necessary.

The Most Important Flag

While I wish I could tell you that everyone uses their flags properly and accompanies them with the proper timing and sound signals, that is far from the truth. Everyone’s flag set is slightly incomplete or out of date, and invariably there is going to be a miscommunication somewhere, where the race committee forgets to put the I Flag up but really should have; I’ve certainly done that a time or two. Still, there’s nothing quite like being on the water, so, despite the endless mutual griping between racers and their race committees, hopefully everyone comes back to shore flying the ‘Happy Flag.’

Happy sailing!

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I have been sailing since I was 7 years old. Since then I've been a US sailing certified instructor for over 8 years, raced at every level of one-design and college sailing in fleet, team, and match racing, and love sharing my knowledge of sailing with others!

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SailBot Sport

SailBot Sport

$ 749.99

SailBot Sport is our latest self contained sailboat race starting horn system! The exact same system as our SailBot Classic in a compact, weather-resistant enclosure that houses the electronics, battery and horn system.

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  • Specifications
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Download our manual here

SailBot Sport is a self contained starting horn used in combination with our free Android and iOS app (available from the Android and iOS App Stores). The SailBot Sport starter contains a battery, horn, and Bluetooth electronics in a durable, compact and weather-resistant enclosure. The phone connects to the SailBot Sport by long-range Bluetooth Low Energy and controls the horns.

Key Features of SailBot Sport, an Automated Sailboat Race Starting Horn

  • 135db so it can be heard by everyone on your line (within reason)
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Pre-programmed Start Sequences Included in the mobile app

  • 1 Minute Dinghy
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  • 3 Minute Rule 26
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In addition to the pre-programmed sequences, SailBot is the only sailboat race starting solution that allows users to create and edit their own custom starting sequences! Using an app to control the horn unit allows future upgrades to be easily distributed to all users by way of an app update. We are currently working on groundbreaking features that are only possible with our system.

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