This one contains some quotes by people close to the action
The set of skills required to succeed compared to a conventional upwind start are quite different. So much so, that in the early days at the first event in Cascais, some sailors suggested the reaching start was like a lottery. But it quickly became apparent that some teams were consistently better than others at starting. The statistics suggested that much more than pure luck was in play.
By the end of San Diego, no one was talking about the reaching start as being a lottery any more, although there's no doubt that there is a thin line between success and failure. Having your nose out a fraction ahead of your rivals in the fleet racing - or the match racing for that matter - seems just as critical as it is in the traditional form of starting. But if you get your nose out too far, and break the start before the gun fires, then you've got to ease sails and slow down until you've cleared a penalty. From there it's playing catch-up, which is never easy.
In San Diego, Regatta Director Iain Murray explained the rationale behind the reaching start: "Part of the reason why we've gone down this route is that in a lot of racing the conventional upwind start proved to be everything, particularly in the match racing. With the reaching start, you get boats close together at first mark, and this opens up opportunities for the boats behind, as opposed to the boats ahead."
This proved to be the case in several match races in San Diego, with the trailing boat at the first mark accelerating past the leading boat by executing the first gybe flawlessly to grab an inside lane to the next turning gate.
Quite often the lead boat at the first turning mark comes from one extreme or the other of the start line. In the countdown to the start the teams are busy assessing the angle of the wind in relation to the first leg, and this helps them determine whether to go for the windward or downwind end of the line - or to try to pop out from the middle. Energy Team's Pete Greenhalgh talks about some of the thinking going on at this stage: "You have to assess the line bias, and then decide the level of risk you're prepared to take. You could aim to start right next to the mark but the closer you are, the less margin for error you have. So you can decide to pull out all the stops to lead round the first mark, or start closer to the middle of the line and aim for a more conservative 3rd or 4th position at mark one."
One thing is for sure, Greenhalgh does not believe in luck. "I think you can see there is some consistency to some of the teams. The Kiwis (Emirate Team New Zealand) and ORACLE Racing Spithill have proven time and time again that they can start consistently well on a reaching start. Bear in mind we do a lot of training races with these guys in between the competition races, and those guys are never at the back. There is a formula - how the boat is set-up so you can accelerate quickly, establishing whether the wind is going left or right at the time, good trimming to make the boat accelerate, time on distance judgement... lots of things go into getting a good start in the AC45."
It should be noted that both teams mentioned above have perhaps the most experienced and skilled wing trimmers in the fleet in Dirk 'Cheese' de Ridder on ORACLE Racing Spithill and Glenn Ashby (he of the multiple A-Class catamaran world championship titles) on Emirates Team New Zealand. Their skill in getting the most power out of the one-design wing sails to accelerate clear of the fleet is often a decisive factor in the starts. And that's no lottery.
- Andy Rice