Something new for racing at the club level!
By George Lucas
Our Card Sound Bullseye fleet agreed (not unanimously) to hold a trial series to introduce the concept of “Head-Start Starts”. This is a way to handicap the skippers, not the designed speed of the boat, similar to what has kept golf thriving for so many years.
In local fleets, we all know who the likely winners will be, time after time, especially if given enough time. It is true in every fleet over the years, except at the very highest level of the sport. It can be discouraging, or at least not as much fun, for those who rarely get the chance to lead the fleet. We know that the better racers tend to get the better starts, leaving the weaker skippers sucking bad air up the first leg. The chance to catch up and lead gets quickly out of reach. And the crowded starting line can be intimidating to both new and experienced sailors. Enter the concept of the Head-Start Start.
All skippers start the six-minute sequence together, but those with a record of needing a boost, are designated by the fleet to be allowed to start the race with, say, two minutes to go. They check-in with the race committee indicating their intention to Head-Start. Within the standard six-minute starting sequence, the race committee will give an extra signal of two beeps at two minutes to go for the head-starters start, and that group will have cleared the line for the scratch group start. They start without matching wits and yells with the more aggressive racers, and they get started up the first leg with more clear air. And, for at least a short time, one will be in the lead for the first time, and maybe for a long time. And maybe on their best day, they win the race and beat the perennial hot-shots. If it’s their best day, they deserve to be winner. And a bonus to the scratch fleet is that their starts are not spoiled by a novice who does not know the starting rules or have control of his boat.
How did this theory work in practice? Quite well. We had some new skippers leading at the first mark and a few new race winners, and the head-start did not diminish their pride. We could see some skippers extend their comfort zone while leading for longer.
We raced four Saturdays with three short races each day, and a two minute headstart worked quite well. It was enough to produce several new race winners who also finished other races that day back in the pack, as usual, in spite of the head start. It did not turn the finishes upside-down, but it gave much more boat-for–boat competition in the second half of each race. Maybe it could be made three minutes depending on race length and wind velocity, but two minutes cleared the line, and we agreed that if a head-starter was called over early, they must go around the ends of the line and join the regular start.
As side benefit for the race management, we were able cut down on the time between races (not waiting so long for tail-enders). Also, the starting line did not need to be as long, so the same length line could be left as a good finish-line length.
For those who thought that they would be embarrassed to need, or take, a head-start, we said “forget it.” We reminder them of the experience of years of golf rounds, where there are few, if any, players who don’t move up to the forward tee and take strokes, without compunction or a bit of shame, when playing someone who has a current record of being a better golfer. It added more boat-for-boat competition in the second half of the race, and it brought a moment of pride and new confidence to some skippers that already have improved (without benefit of continuing to need a head-start). It proved to level the field for better club participation.
It was not without some dissenting votes, some quite vocally, of a few usual leaders that felt frustrated by being covered by strangers that were usually in the back of the fleet. Also, there were those conservatives that felt like it was too much like welfare, and this is not what sailboat racing has been in the past. We think the majority appreciated the change, in addition to all being willing to go back at times and for championships in the traditional format.
Key Largo, FL