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Introduction to Racing

Go To: Sailing - Racing

Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2009 6:39 PM

So you've learnt to sail, why should you get involved in racing? Find out all the basics you need to know in our handy introduction to racing dinghies.

You don't have to; if you enjoy cruising in your sail boat, and are not a competitive individual, then racing probably isn't for you. If you want to learn even more, fine tune your abilities to the best that you can, and prove yourself against other people, then you need to break into the world of racing, so read on...

Where To Start?

There are different levels to racing sailing dinghies; from the smallest club racing with a couple of people turning out each week, to typical club racing with anywhere from 10-30 boats a race, larger clubs with 40+ boats racing and perhaps even separate fleets.

Moving up a step, many dinghy classes have active National race circuits, where members of the dinghy class will tour the country, spending weekends at different venues around the country, typically hosted by sailing clubs with strong fleets of that class, and can either be Inland or Coastal events. Larger classes, such as the Laser, or many RS classes have World or International events, usually at reputable and reliable sailing locations such as Lake Garda in Italy. Once you reach this level you're talking serious sailing, and if you are at this level, you'll know more about the options available to you than we do; if you're aspiring to get here, then once you've got this far and want to aim higher, then you may be aiming at the Olympics. This isn't an unreasonable aim; even Ben Ainslee started at the club racing level as a youngster in Optimist dinghies. Back to basics first though!

When you're new to racing, perhaps straight out of a sailing course or with a year or two of sailing experience under your belt, racing can be a very daunting prospect. It's not designed to be very approachable, as the rule book is pretty hefty and not very easy to understand in many cases. We hope to clear some of it up; small club racing is probably the best place to start, particularly if you find a nice friendly club; larger clubs tend to attract more competitive people who can be very serious about their sailing. At the same time though, larger clubs due to their size may run introductory races you can join in with more people at the same ability as you are. The governing body of sailing, the RYA, have created a set of "Introductory Rules" which focus on the key rules, and are a great introduction to racing, and again larger clubs may well run some starter races using these rules.

Over the series of articles we have planned we'll be looking at some of the more important rules in racing, and then over time we hope to build up a larger series looking at all of the rules.

Boats to Choose

So what boats are you allowed to race? Don't think it's just Lasers, as some people would have you believe! Of course it depends on the club; many smaller inland clubs based on lakes and reservoirs will have healthy Laser fleets with good turnouts each week; Enterprises and Mirrors have good numbers also, as they're easy to get into. Larger inland clubs will have larger fleets of more modern boats, such as the RS boats by LDC sailboats, or the newer Lasers such as the 2000. If you're interested in moving into more high performance boats, such as skiffs (including the 29er or the Laser 4000), or catamarans, then only the largest inland clubs (such as Grafham Water or Rutland Water) on large lakes or reservoirs, or coastal clubs tend to even allow these to be sailed, let alone raced; due to their speed, they need larger bodies of water, and larger race courses to be effectively sailed. It's best to find out what's allowed at your local club before making your decision, as they're unlikely to change their rules to allow you to bring a new boat in just to suit you.

So how can you race all of these boats together? Obviously you can't have a race for each type of boat. Instead, a handicap system called the Portsmouth Yardstick (PY value, sometimes known as PN for Portsmouth Number) is used; every common (and many uncommon) boat classes have been assigned a handicap value, ranging from 800 for the faster skiff boats, all the way up to 1300+ for slower Mirrors (the lower the number, the faster the boat), and ridiculous numbers of 400 for foiling moths. These numbers allow many different classes of boat to share a race course; the times taken to sail a course are recorded, and an equation that uses the handicap to adjust for time sailed is used to calculate a corrected time.

Only some catamarans have a PY value, newer cats tend to use the SCHRS (Small Catamaran Handicap Rating System) system instead, which can make running mixed monohull and multihull races difficult. PY values are assigned by the RYA, who by return of club racing results to them each year, make incremental adjustments to PY values for dinghy classes; this is necessary as many boats are new and haven't been racing for many years, or other classes undergo extensive refits and due to new technology require their values amending.

Some Sample PY Numbers
Mirror, Double Handed with Spinnaker1386

Smaller clubs will use this and only this measure; larger clubs tend to have different races for groups of boats; typical combinations are a race for boats with handicaps higher than 1100, and another race for boats lower than 1100.

Clubs also handle their PY changes differently - larger clubs may be more flexible and if they have dedicated people running races, may even implement a personal handicap system; if you win races very often, you'll find your handicap adjusted to make it tougher for you and even things out. The RYA support and encourage altering of PY values for many reasons, including personal handicaps, local conditions, and even the strength of wind on the day, as some boats do better in faster winds than others. Beware however, some smaller clubs can be stuck in their ways and very inflexible on adjusting PY values.

Boat Configuration and Measurement

Not all boats are the same - even one design classes such as the Laser, which by the virtue of "one design" are supposed to be identical, are not. Some classes are more equal than others - one design classes have a very restricted design, and usually limit sailors to only "official" sails (which usually have to be approved by the boat manufacturer, e.g. Laser), although various different control systems can be used within the boats - again with Lasers, you can have the typical "standard" control systems, or the "XD" versions, with multi-purchase kickers, outhauls, downhauls etc, carbon fibre tillers, and so on.

If you consider a "restricted" design class such as the Enterprise, they all have certain criteria they are supposed to measure up to - the sails have to be within certain limits, fittings on the deck have to be within certain areas, and commonly the number and type of blocks in control systems are limited but again there is wiggle room for getting extra performance. As you learn racing, and practice, you'll start realizing which parts of your boat need to be upgraded - consult the class association to see whether you are working within the rules however.

Most clubs require you to stay within these rules - and some will even ask for a measurement certificate for your boat; these are issued by class associations if you join, and require your boat to be examined by an appointed "Measurement Officer" or "Measurer", to determine if everything on your boat is "class-legal". These are almost always a requirement for sailing in open events for a class, although some smaller clubs tend to overlook the finer details in favour of getting more people out on the water - you may not be allowed on the water with a spinnaker on that topper (although you can get a legal jib kit), but putting an extra block in a kicking strap system on an Enterprise may be overlooked - it's all down to the club, so you should ask for details before you start to race - you don't want to be disqualified after you've won your first race because someone got their knickers in a twist over you using a 20:1 mainsheet system (ok so that's a big exaggerated…)

There are even a few dinghies that use a weight equalisation system - take a standard Laser - in lighter winds, give two helms of the same ability, you would expect the person weighing around 12 stones to beat a person weighing 15 stones. Some dinghies, such as the Laser 4000 or 5000 (boat double handed trapeze skiffs) have a weight equalisation system, that requires the total crew weight to be summed up, and special weights added to the boat to take it to a certain weight pre-defined by Laser/the class assocation, so that every helm and crew racing in that boat all weigh the same, and it goes back to being down to sailing skill.

Types of Race

There are three main types of race that are frequently run; fleet races, handicap races, and pursuit races. The latter two both use the same handicap (PY) values, but in different ways.

Fleet races are where only one fleet sails that race - these will happen typically at larger clubs, or at open events, when all of the boats sailing are of the same class. These are probably the easiest to run, and take part in. All of the boats start at the same time, no PY values are required, and they do a set number of laps - e.g. 3, at which point the boats crossing the finish line determine the order of the winners.

Handicap races allow mixed classes of boats to sail, by taking into account the PY value of the boats when calculating the race results after the race is completed. Therefore, the first boat crossing the finish line may not actually win the race - once the handicap is taken into account, depending on the class sailed, they may have been beaten by a slower boat that finished behind them, but one on handicap.

Pursuit races are slightly different - before the race starts, the slowest class is determined by PY value. A set value of time is taken, e.g. 60 minutes, and then using a rather more complicated calculation which we won't publish at this point, the PY values of the other classes intending to sail is used to calculate how long it would take the other classes to sail the same distance the slowest boat could manage in the set time. Those values are then subtracted from the set time, to determine the head start the slower boats would get.

For example, if the set time was 60 minutes, the Mirrors would start at 60 minutes. Enterprises, with a PY value of 1116, would start approximately 7½ minutes after the Mirrors. Lasers, with a PY value of 1078 would start about 12½ minutes after the Mirrors. The race is then run until the end of the set time, and at that point, the positions of each boat on the course is marked, and their order determines the order of winners. Unfortunately, pursuit races can tend to be rather biased on smaller lakes, and you find older "slower" classes such as Mirrors quite heavily biased against newer boats, if small courses with shifty wind legs are used, to the point where regrettably we avoid them, as our Laser 2 with its handicap of 1035 doesn't stand a chance on a small lake.

The Race Itself

Finally, we got here! As this is an introductory article, we are only covering the basics here.

Races typically start at a set time, and you will have pre-warning of this time. It's advisable to jump on the water before the race starts, to familiarize yourself with the direction the wind is coming, any areas of higher or lower pressure on the water, and generally get comfortable in your boat and get "in the zone". Some people even sail the race course before hand, to get a feel for the legs they'll have to sail.

The course itself should follow one of several set patterns; this can vary between clubs, and depends what the race officer determines as a course, with marks (buoys) set out across the lake. A typical course will include the start line being roughly at right angles to the wind, with the first mark directly upwind, turning the first leg into an upwind beat. This first mark, known as the windward mark is passed on a particular side (either port or starboard), then a downwind (usually training run) leg down to the leeward or gybe mark, at which point a gybe is expected, and another training run down to the final mark, and back to the start/finish line, for the finish or another lap.

Diagram 1: Triangular Race Course

Diagram 1: Triangular Race Course

This type of course is known as a triangular course, and variations include a sausage course, or the Olympic triangle-sausage-triangle course. Some clubs however opt to randomly place buoys over the lake, and request competitors sail around them in a particular order. While this may use up more of the lakes' surface, it does not really bode well for training and race tactics.

The start of the race usually involves a number of signals, usually a noise accompanied by a series of flags. We will discuss the flags in a later article - for now, the timing sequence is more important. A common sequences is 5-4-1, which means a noise signal is sounded at 5 minutes, then 4 minutes, then 1 minute, then the next signal at 0 minutes, or race start.

For the start, all of the competitors must be behind the start line at 0 minutes - a line between two points, commonly between two buoys, or a powerboat (known as the committee boat) and a fixed mark (known as the pin), or a powerboat and a buoy. If any boats are over, they can either be disqualified or recalled to recross the start line, depending on how stern the race officer or the rules the club sails by are.

Diagram 2: The Start Line

Diagram 2: The Start Line

At this point, the race commences, and the competitors sail off. There are many tactics we will discuss in upcoming articles, and there are many rules that the RYA states we must adhere to (these have just been amended and released as the RYA Racing Rules 2009-2012 edition). These can be obtained from the RYA website, or shops that sell a good range of sailing books will typically stock a rules book. We will discuss the body of the race in greater detail in later articles.

Finally - the finish. This differs depending whether it is a fleet, handicap or pursuit race, and after the finish, the results are calculated if necessary. It's not uncommon for one competitor to accuse the other of cheating, missing a mark, or missing a penalty turn (required if you break a rule), which depending on the size and rules of the club, will typically result in a protest being heard. If you think protests are bad, then consider the alternative - the Americas Cup frequently results in court cases heard in Courts of Law to determine protests and entries to the race, so a chat in the galley over lunch really isn't that bad.


Depending on how well you did, you'll either be congratulated with a trophy at the next awards ceremony, or wondering just why you came last, and trying to figure out what to do to improve it - and don't take it to heart, everyone comes last at some point. When you first start racing, unless you are a top notch sailor you're unlikely to be at the front of the pack when you start out - it takes practice; many people at your club may have been racing for decades.

Finally, if you come last, just remember - you're the one who makes the people who win look good!

This has been a whistle-stop tour to introduce racing - in later articles we'll be looking at all the areas in more detail. Until then - good luck on your introduction to racing!

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