Watching Sailboat Races

August 30, 2011
With the return of students to area colleges and yacht club members from summer homes, a great season of sailboat racing on the Charles River and in Boston Harbor is underway.

It can be fun to watch the competitors use every aspect of their sailing skills to try to make their way around the course faster than the rest of the fleet. Just knowing a few of the rules of the races can make what your seeing easier to understand.

The Course

The race course for a sailing competition is set up by the race committee keeping in mind the current wind conditions and their local knowledge of the waters. Organizers set out a series of floating markers that the boats will go around in a prescribed direction. There are accepted shapes for courses– often a variation on a triangle. The start/finish is an invisible line between an anchored committee boat and a marker.

Sportmanship & Safety

US Sailing, the national governing body of sailing, begins its discussion of rules with this statement, “There are three guiding principles that underlie the Racing Rules. All competitors are expected to compete within the framework of sportsmanship, fair sailing and helping those in danger.”

Sportsmanship even extends to immediately taking your penalty when you break a rule. If a boat pulls out of the pattern others are following and sails in a circle, they are performing a prescribed number of turns assigned for the rule they broke.

The Start

The minutes leading up to the start are exciting, hectic, and tactical. Boats circle, testing the wind and current. If you watch the committee boat, you’ll see nautical flags that communicate with the racers. When a flag is changed, an audible signal alerts the fleet.

At five minutes before the start, a signal is given, and the serious maneuvering begins. Each racer wants to cross the staring line first, but crossing it, even a second too soon, means taking a penalty circle. Races can be won or lost at the start.

Position and Giving Way

There are rules that govern which boat has the right-of-way, especially in the turns. These are designed for safety and add to the tactical part of the sport. As boats approach a marker, each wants to be the one to have the right-of-way. That will help them make the tightest, fastest turn without touching the float.

Match Sailing & Handicapping

When all the racing watercraft are the same design or of the same class, they “match race” or compete one-on-one. The first boat across the finish line is declared the winner.

If boats of different sizes and designs complete, each boat is assigned a handicap that makes winning more dependent on the skill of the crew. For handicapped races, the committee boat records the time as each boat crosses the finish line, then adds or subtracts time given to the boat as a handicap to determine the winner.

Where and When to Watch

From Labor Day through October, MIT will have highly skilled racers on the Charles River each Monday evening from 5:30 to Sunset. Community Boating has races throughout the week including a sunday morning series. On the harbor, The Boston Sailing Center and Courageous Sailing both have fall series scheduled. And, both organizations will extend the season with “frostbite” racing through the winter.

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