Black Flag – Behind the Scenes By: Pete Levesque
Brought to you by Mauri Pro Sailing www.mauriprosailing.com
Typically, when a race committee displays the black flag, sailors will automatically lower their expectations for the next start knowing that they will have to be conservative in the next sequence. In the following article, I’m going to tell you about what is happening on the race committee boat during a black flag sequence so that you can use it to your advantage and have some of your best starts in black flag sequences.
Let’s start with what is causing the black flag. Normally a race committee will display the black flag only when they are convinced that an “I” flag start is not working well enough to keep the fleet behind the line. That means there are too many boats over the line at go for the race committee to keep track of and write them all down. So to keep the number of offending boats down, the race committee raises the penalty for being over. There is no penalty for being over during an “I” flag start that results in a general recall. However, there is a huge penalty for being over during a black flag start whether it results in a general recall or not. Sometimes race committees will run black flag starts and recall them until they have eliminated all aggressive or stupid boats from the start and the rest of the fleet can start civilly.
It is important to know what is happening on the race committee boat during a penalty flag (I, Z or Black) start. At major regattas, race committee boats will be well staffed. There will typically be a PRO who is responsible for overseeing all others onboard. They are the CEO of the race committee and don’t typically have a detail job. There is often a scribe, sometimes two. The job of the scribe is to write down boats that are called over, boats that file protests, boats that have been called clear and boats that have finished. Next you have a person whose job it is to sight the line. They will call the order in which boats finish, and call which boats are over the line under 1 minute. This person will typically talk into a recording device that is used to cross check finish order and boats over early or with what the scribes have written down. At regattas with large fleets there may be two people sighting the line, one or both of which will have binoculars to see sail or bow numbers of far away boats.
Knowing how the person sighting the line does his job is critical to black flag start success. This person has a difficult job to do perfectly because at 1 minute to go there is just a little bit of action close to the line. Just a handful of boats are close to the line and those numbers are probably visible. But, as time ticks down to zero, there are more and more boats closer to the line and numbers become hidden. So the line sight person keeps a running dialogue going into the recording device and the scribes write down numbers they hear. A typical start sequence passage might sound like this:
“1:20 to go and several boats are very close to the line, 13, 27, 51, 34, 28.”
“1 minute to go and boats 13, 27 and 34 are over the line.”
“50 seconds to go, boat 51 is close to the line”
“40 seconds to go, boat 37 is close; so is 88.”
“30 seconds, 37 is definitely over.”
“20 seconds, 43 is close”
“10 seconds 34 is over, 28 is close, 51 was close, 13 was close”
“At go 34, 27 48, are over there are more, check the recording.”
Lots of numbers and very little time. What happens if the scribe writes down 34 when they heard 43? Or if they wrote down 88 when that boat was only “close.” They are scored BFD. It’s nearly impossible for the person sighting the line to get all of the numbers that are over at go so they go back and check the recording and refresh their memory. They might know that there were 6 boats over early but aren’t totally sure which ones. So all of a sudden, some of the boats that were “close” become “over.” When they re-hear their commentary what was unsure becomes fact and boats are scored BFD. Recalling a start and running it over again is an ordeal and often times there are time limits or sunset in play so people want to be sure, or sound sure, so that the start counts.
Knowing now what is happening on the signal boat, how do we use this to our advantage? Re-read the dialogue, with a few exceptions, it actually pretty unclear who was truly over during the last minute. But if any of the boats in the recording are scored BFD, their presence on the recording makes it very difficult for them to win a redress hearing. The trick is to never be on the recording in the first place. During most starts, you want to be front row during the last minute and protect your position as best you can because there is relatively little risk to being on the race committee radar. We know that is not the case with a penalty start so we have to change our behavior.
How do we change our behavior? A port tack approach where you steal somebody else’s hole is a good way to not get noticed. Hang back in the second row, roaming for a hole rather than being on the line early and protecting one. Stay outside of the committee boat as long as possible since they aren’t looking that direction at all. The earlier you show up in the front row, the more you risk being seen and being on the race committee radar.
Showing up on the race committee radar isn’t limited to where you put your boat. One summer I thought it would be cool to have the sail number 0; I was OCS more that summer than any other in my life. Do nothing to stand out, no fancy numbers, no clothes that stand out, sail a white boat whenever possible. It’s easy for the race committee to just remember the 1 red boat was over, or the kids wearying neon green were over.
When the race committee flies the black flag, that doesn’t mean have a bad start 1 boat length behind the line simply out of fear. It means they can’t keep track of all of the offenders so they have made offending more costly. Make it hard for them to keep track of you too or at all. Now that you know what is happening on the race committee boat use it to your advantage.