Whether you are interested in small boat sailing, catamarans, or racing much larger vessels, there are some basic sailing rules and procedures. There are many different types of races ranging from triangular race courses to around the world races. This article will describe the basic race course used. Whether you are learning to race yourself, or just want to be a more informed America's Cup spectator, this article provides some basic information about racing

The Race Course

There are a few variations of the basic sailing race course. These courses are generally created using anchored race marks or buoys. The orientation of these courses depends on the direction of the wind.

The Triangular Course: In this course, there are 3 marks and a start/finish line. The start/finish is oriented perpendicular to the direction of the wind. The first mark is directly windward of the start, followed by a reach or jibe mark, and finally the leeward mark, located downwind of the start/finish. The shape of this course means that the sailor must first beat upwind by tacking, they must then sail on a broad reach, followed by a jibe, another broad reach, and then a final beat back up to the finish line.

triangle race course

Windward/Leeward Course: This course has only two marks, the windward and leeward marks. After crossing the starting line, the boat must tack upwind to the windward mark. Once around this mark, the boat heads downwind on a run, followed by tacking upwind to the finish line.

windward leeward course

Combination courses: In addition to these two basic courses, a race may consist of multiple laps of the same course, or combination courses. For example; the course may be to sail a triangular course followed by a windward/leeward course.

The Starting Line

The Starting line is one of the most exciting parts of the entire race. The starting line is usually from one buoy to the bow of the committee boat and is oriented perpendicular to the wind. The committee boat is the boat that is running the race and is anchored on the starboard side of the start. Prior to the start of the race, a series of sound signals blown by the committee boat indicates the amount of time until the start. When the starting gun sounds, the boats cross the starting line and begin to sail upwind towards the first mark. The strategy with the start is you want your boat to be sailing as fast as possible while crossing the start right at the starting gun. The challenge is that the other sailboats are also attempting to be on the starting line going as fast as possible at the beginning of the race. During this part of the race, the right-of-way rules are very important.

The Starting Countdown

Depending on the size of the race and boats, different sound signals and flags are used to indicate the start of the race. In general a long whistle or horn indicates minutes and a short or rapid whistle or horn indicates seconds. If you hear one long blow and 3 quick blows, there is 1 minute and 30 seconds until the start of the race. For small sailboat races, the signals usually start at 3 or 5 minutes, and for larger boats the signals may start at 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or even longer. All races will sound a 30 second, 20 second, and then count down to the start. It is VERY important to have a watch with you when you are racing so you can time your start.

Basic Sailboat Race Rules

Right of Way Rules: Rules are very important when racing to keep everyone safe and to ensure that no boat receives an unfair advantage over another. Here are list of the most important right-of-way rules when racing:

  • A boat on a starboard tack has the right of way over a boat on a port tack
  • When boats are on the same tack and are overlapping, the leeward boat has the right of way over a windward boat.
  • When boats are on the same tack but are NOT overlapping, the forward boat has the right of way and the boat astern must give way..
  • A tacking boat must stay clear of other boats.

In addition to these right-of way rules, the boat with the right of way must give the other boat a chance to stay clear.

  • Finally, you must avoid contact even if you are the boat with the right-of-way.
  • The right-of-way rules become more complicated when you are nearing a mark. For these times, there are some special rules:
  • Boats that are overlapped and on the inside of a mark must be given room to pass the mark.
  • In order to be 'overlapped' you must be overlapped 2 boat lengths before you reach the mark. Whatever the situation when you are 2 boat lengths from the mark, this situation is 'frozen' for the duration of the mark rounding.
  • You may not tack within 2 boat lengths of a mark if it will obstruct another boat.

Breaking a rule

  • When you break a right-of-way rule, hit a mark, or cross the starting line too early, you are penalized. Depending on the breach and the race, you are required to move away from other boats and execute a 360 (1 turn) or a 720 (two turns). Or in the case of the start you may have to cross the starting line again.

Basic Strategy

Racing strategy is very complex. Included here are just some of the most basic strategies:

  • A properly rigged boat: Checking and tuning your boat is very important during a race, especially when you are racing against other boats of the same model. This means good sails, a clean hull, and properly tuned sails and lines.
  • A good start: The start is a challenge, but one that can set you up ahead of the pack or straggling behind. You can either sail away from the start and attempt to time your sail so you are heading across the start at exactly the right time, or you can sit on the line and luff your sail until the start. Generally a combination of these strategies will get you across in the best position.
  • Use the rules and don't break them. If you think out a plan for your race that uses the right-or-way rules you are more likely to be successful. For example, you don't want to start on a port tack and have to sail against all the other boat on a starboard tack. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that having to do a penalty turn will definitely slow you down.
  • When sailing upwind it is important to keep your boat flat, your sails trimmed, and your tacks smooth.
  • Use the wind: Even though the windward mark should be directly upwind, this is rarely the case, and even when it is, the wind is likely to shift even minutely during the race. Using wind gusts by looking for lifts and avoiding headers will help you during the race.
  • Smooth mark roundings: Practicing smooth, quick mark roundings is very important if you want to be a good racer. These transition times are likely to slow the forward motion of your boat, so perfecting these transitions can only help.