The Four-Boat Starting Line
Or How to Eliminate General Recalls and Black Flags by Ken Legler, NRO
Long before there was a Black Flag rule I had the honor and challenge to PRO the 470 class World Championship with 75 boats. Former Olympian Gardner Cox came along one day as an on-board observer. So I asked him “What to you do if you set square lines and too many boats keep starting over early?”
“My son, at some point you have to start sending them home.”
I didn’t want to do that. Every entry in that event traveled a long way, some from halfway around the planet. We were using a mid-line boat and discovered two tricks that solved the problem. By dropping the mid-line boat back just two to four feet, competitors arriving in the front row could see two flags lined up and stopped moving forward. They could see the line! They also knew they would be caught if they went any further because we used the one-minute, round-the-ends-rule.
For the last two Optimist New England championships as PRO I employed a four-boat line. In 2009 we had a strong ebb tide and many boats over. We racked up as many as two dozen OCS’s per race on the ebb but none on the flood. However, there were no general recalls and no black flags. All 36 starts went right on schedule and no boat with a good start ever had a do-over because of all the other boats breaking a rule (RRS 29.1 and definition of Start). In 2010 with a gentle flood tide for most of the time there were only 12 OCS’s recorded in 44 starts. Some 30 starts were “All clear!”
Using four line boats properly and flag I for prep signal virtually eliminates recall problems. In these Opti regattas we dropped both start boats “B” and “C” (Signal boat was “A” and Port-line was “D”) back about three feet. Once again when competitors first arrived on the line they knew to go no further because they could see the line flags lining up. More important the race committee had not one or two, but six sets of eyes watching different parts of the line, one spotter on each end and two spotters in the middle boats looking both ways. Almost every start had three feet of line sag.
Why flag I? It’s not about the penalty or threat of penalty having to sail all the way to an end if caught. It’s about the ability of the race committee to write down any boat they see from one-minute on, rather than trying to take a mental photograph at the gun. With flag I, a boat cannot dip back into the crowd, leaving the RC guessing if they dipped back far enough with other boats blocking their view. Instead the RC clears only those boats that comply with the requirements of RRS 30.1. To soften the round-the-end penalty, we allow boats to exonerate by going around either end OR, around either middle boat as if it were the port end boat. Yes, we need to include a diagram in the sailing instructions as it can be confusing upon first read.
It is my firm belief that general recalls are very unfair. Of course letting a number of boats go that were over but unidentified is also unfair. General recalls are also a huge waste of time. Let’s say boats A, B, and C make awesome starts but boats C-J are over and only a few can be indentified. Two guns, first repeater, do-over start. Now the Black Flag comes out. On the next start A, B, and C are over but C-J make great starts. A-C are told to stop racing but C-J are fully exonerated. What happened to the great starts by A-C at the scheduled time and where is the penalty for C-J starting illegally the first time? See the inequity?
Many sailors and race committees alike are resigned to this problem and believe the Black Flag is the only way big fleets can be started. Having run 50,00 races (literally, I made a rough count) and never having used the black flag, I can tell you the Black Flag is not only unnecessary but actually promotes general recalls.
What? The Black Flag promotes general recalls? How?
The Black Flag threat means “Don’t worry about the first start with flag P, it will likely be a general recall, but once we have a general or two, we’re going to get serious and use the Black Flag.” With that in mind competitors will push the front row, forcing general recalls until the Black Flag comes out. On the other hand, if competitors know the race committee has multiple spotters and can nab any sail or bow number they see from one-minute on with flag I (not Z, the RC can’t tell who has cleared with Z and you still have another general) they are far less likely to lead the front row forward.
This method has been a hard sell for me. Here’s what I often hear as a compromise: “Okay, I like your reasoning for using flag I but let’s go with flag P on the first start and see what happens.” This is admitting to at least the possibility of a general recall and the fleet will understand this and push forward with the knowledge that they will likely be exonerated for free until the threat level increases to its highest point.
“Three or four line-boats sounds great but it won’t work for us because (pick one) A. There’s current here, B. We don’t have enough experienced line spotters, or C. We’ve never done it before.” This last excuse is the same I hear at my 420 clinics when I let kids know we’re going to use trapeze and spinnaker at the same time. At some point you have to go outside of your immediate comfort zone and try something new. With a little practice it can be done when it counts.
Practice is key. The Premiere Racing race committee at Key West Race Week runs through practice starts and mark sets on the day before the first race every year. Without this two hour practice, this race committee would not be world class, certainly not on the first day. For smaller regattas this practice can be done in the one hour, perhaps on the morning of the first race if volunteers cannot appear the prior afternoon. Each line boat should have a laundry basket with 200 feet of extra anchor rode and a counter weight on a ten foot tether to depress the anchor rode to prevent tripping centerboards. US Sailing trained Level I Instructors (with basic small motorboat skills) make great line boat operators. All they need is good ground tackle, a radio or loud hailer, and a script.
Some sailors like the Black Flag. Why? Because it eliminates some of their competition before the race even starts regardless of entry fee or distance traveled. What a shame.