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          The Basics of Sailboat Racing
#1  Types of Racing:  There are as many different types of racing as there are types of sailing.  You may race around buoys laid out in a particular pattern or around permanent navigation marks or islands.  You can even race around the world.

( Click On Pictures to Enlarge )


#2  One-Design Racing:  When racing smaller sailboats, you typically race against boats of the same design.  This is called one-design racing.  For instance, if you sail a Sunfish, you would race in a fleet of Sunfishes.  The winner of a one-design race is the boat that crosses the finish line first.  
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#3  Handicap Racing:  In races involving larger sailboats, especially with engines and living accommodations, you may race against boats of different sizes, shapes and sail area.  Different handicap systems are used to compensate for these variations and equalize the performance of the boats as much as possible.  In handicap racing, a boat’s finish time is corrected by its handicap, which becomes its corrected time.  The boat with the best corrected time is the winner.  If you cross the finish line first, it doesn’t mean that you’ve won. Your boat’s corrected time could put you in 10th place!


#4  Marks Used for Race Courses:  Many races use special buoys called “marks” which are connected to a small weight or anchor with a length of line. When the marks are placed in position, their anchors on the sea bottom will keep them in place.  These marks can be arranged in a number of different ways.  Two of the most popular racing courses are: the windward-leeward course and the triangle course.  
                         ( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )

#5  Windward-Leeward Course:  The windward-leeward course has two marks: one towards the wind and one directly downwind.  In this course, you must tack upwind to round the first (windward) mark, then sail downwind to round the second (leeward) mark and then sail upwind to cross the finish line. 
                     View Video
                           ( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )

#6  Triangle Course:  In the triangle course, there are three marks.  In this course, you must sail upwind and go around the first (windward) mark, then sail on a reach and jibe around the second (jibe) mark, then sail on another reach to round the third (leeward) mark, and finally tack upwind to cross the finish line.  
View Video  
                           ( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )

#7  The Starting Line:  The starting line is an invisible line between a buoy marking one end of the line and a pole with an orange flag on the Race Committee boat.  Since you can’t see this invisible line, it may be difficult to tell exactly where it is unless you are near an end of the line. The line is usually set perpendicular (square) to the direction of the wind so there is no advantage to starting at a particular end of the line. If there is a significant change in wind direction, the start may be postponed to square the starting line to the new wind direction.        ( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )
                         View Video



#8  The Race Starts Before The Starting Signal:  Unlike a race in most other sports, a sailboat race starts long before the starting signal.  Assigning a slot or starting position on the line for each boat isn’t possible because sailboats can’t remain fixed in one place until the starting signal goes off.  Each boat has to sail back and forth looking for a place on the line.  A countdown to the start is used to allow the boats time to find and maneuver into a starting position on the line.  Each skipper must keep track of the countdown to time his start on the starting line at a good speed on a favorable tack in a good position.    View Video


#9  Premature Crossing of the Starting Line:   If any part of your boat or crew has crossed over the starting line at the starting signal, the Race Committee boat will signal you to return by displaying a code flag for the letter X and sounding one blast of a horn. You’ll need to return to the pre-start side of the starting line before you can properly start the race by sailing across the line again.      
 View Video


#10  The Starting Countdown:  A 5-minute countdown is typically used.  Four distinct times are highlighted in the countdown, which are signaled by the Race Committee boat by the raising or lowering of signal flags with a blast from a horn or gun. 
These are:            View Video

  • 5 minutes          Warning signal:  Class flag (Sunfish) 
                             is raised, with a blast  from a horn,
                             to start  the countdown.


·        4 minutes          Preparatory signal:   Code flag for the letter P is raised with a blast from a horn.. Racing starts with this signal and the Racing Rules of Sailing go into effect.

·        1 minute           One-minute signal:         Preparatory "P" flag is lowered with a long sound (not a short blast) from a horn.

·        Start!                Starting signal:   Class flag is lowered with a blast from a horn.

  View Videos



#11  Starting Countdown - Small Boat Race: 
If you race a small boat in a series of short races, a different countdown system may be used, which is commonly used in high school and college racing.  It is a 3-minute countdown using only sound signals that are sounded at 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1½ minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, 10 seconds and for each of the last 5 seconds.

  Long Horn Blast :  _____
  Short Horn Blast :  __
     3 mins     _____  _____  _____
     2 mins     _____  _____
     1.5 mins  _____  __  __  __
     1 mins     _____
     30 secs    __  __  __
     20 secs    __  __
     10 secs    __
       5 secs    __
       4 secs    __
       3 secs    __
       2 secs    __
       1 secs    __
        Start     _____

#12  The Finish Line:  The finish line is an invisible line between a buoy and a pole with an orange flag on the Race Committee boat.  When any part of your boat crosses this line, you have finished the race and the Race Committee will sound a horn to let you know.

#13  Racing Code Flags:  Additional code flags are used by the Race Committee to signal race information or instructions. Some common ones are: 



  • Postponement: races not started are postponed.



  • Individual Recall: a boat or boats were over the starting line and must return.



  • General Recall: all boats are called back for a new start.



#14  Rules of Sailboat Racing:  Like any sport or game, sailboat racing has some rules.  When you’re new to racing, you only need to know a few to get around the racing course and enjoy the fun of this sport.  The three basic rules of the road for sailing also apply to racing.  These are:

1) A sailboat on a port tack shall keep clear of a sailboat on a starboard tack.
 ( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )

View Videos

2) When both boats are on the same tack (booms are on the same side), the boat that is to windward shall keep clear of the boat to leeward.   ( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )

                                    View Videos


3) When both boats are on the same tack, the boat clear astern shall keep clear of the boat it is overtaking.  It cannot run into the back of the boat it is overtaking.  But unlike the rules of the road, once the boat astern overlaps the overtaken boat, this rule switches off and the windward-leeward rule turns on where the windward boat shall keep clear.   
( Click on Pictures to Enlarge )

                                    View Videos

View Videos



#15  Sportsmanship:   Sportsmanship plays a major role in racing and its rules.  There are no referees on the water to enforce the rules and call penalties.  If you happen to break a racing rule, you are expected to take a penalty or retire without anyone telling you to do it.  Since racing is self-policing, the fairness and fun of this sport depends heavily on the sportsmanship and fair play of each competitor.  If there is a disagreement between competitors on whether a penalty should be taken, a protest can be lodged with the regatta’s protest committee who will decide.

#16  The Racing Rules of Sailing:  There are a few more racing rules that you should know, which are covered in the Basic Racing Rules section.  A copy of The Racing Rules of Sailing can be obtained from US SAILING, the National Governing Body for the sport of sailing by clicking on this link.


Go To:  HTML version of Basic Rules of Sailing Presentation


 To Purchase Online:  The Racing Rules of Sailing   OR

Join US SAILING and receive a free copy of "The Racing Rules of Sailing"

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