Typically I will sail out to the middle of the course area and begin to take wind direction readings in both the regular wind and the gusts. Sailing upwind to the middle of the course also allows you to see how your boat is going upwind in the same conditions you will be racing in 25 minutes later. Small changes in jib lead, strut position, and rig tension can be tried to improve your sailshape for the given condition. Even better is to sail upwind with another boat that has similar speed to you so that you can determine whether you are going better or worse than average and make changes accordingly. After 2-3 wind checks we will run down to the starting area under spinnaker. Flying the spinnaker allows you to make sure that all lines are as they should be.
While we're at it we do 4 - 5 gybes, both close starboard to broad ports and running gybes.
Once back to the starting area we put the pole on the starboard side, ensure that the spinnaker is well packed down and the sheets are out of the water. At this point we check the wind again and compare angles to that of the middle of the course. Using the 2 or 3 observations in the middle and the current one we can start to develop a picture of the wind. Is it shifting? Is it a persistant or oscillating shift? The conclusions you make are critical to making a proper first-beat plan. I'm sure we've all had that sinking feeling where we've found ourselves on the wrong side of the course.
Once the plan is in place the next step is the start. Choose your favoured end, bearing in mind where you want to be going up the first beat and what you think the wind will do 2 minutes after the start. Being positioned for the first big shift can often be more important than getting the perfect start. Getting a land transit can also be a big aid in large fleets. The use of a land transit will give you an excellant idea of whether you may be over early or not. Not many people are in the habit of taking them, but be assured that all the top boats in the Worlds did, and I often forgot to. Consequently I felt that about 2/3rds of my starts were mediocre.
One other thing to consider is your standing in a regatta that might have as many as 7 or 8 races. Is there someone you must beat or be within a couple of positions of? Don't lose sight of the big picture and the goals you are trying to achieve.
As you can see the prestart is probably the most significant part of the race.
I have developed a technique for starting that I always use. With 2 minutes to go I will try to be the boat furthest to the port end of the line but on port tack reaching back towards the starboard end (this is known as a Port Tack Base Line).
This position gives me 2 opportunities. First, if I want to win the port end I will tack in the leebow of the boat reaching down on starboard (unless I am really early). From this position I can hold the rest of the fleet back. Any boat that goes behind you should be reached over before it gains a luffing right. Just keep your eye on the pin so that you won't be early. If you think you will be, then start to worry only about yourself not being over early and not about others going behind you.
The second opportunity from the port tack base line is to continue to sail through the fleet on port working up the the line near the starboard end. Finding a hole is the tough part. Normally, I will tack back to starboard with about a minute to go and then try to hold my position 3 - 4 boatlengths below the line and move up as I am challenged by boats that have been hanging around the starboard end for the past 3 minutes. Holding a spot can be difficult and is a good thing to practice. If your nose is on the line with 10 seconds to go you're early, but if you stop your boat and hold the spot you will be better off than having to restart and you are at the end you wanted to be at. One note: If you are unsure of which end is favoured or you want to be conservative by being only near an end, then this method still works, just try to find a hole near where you want to start (if possible).
If there is one other key thing to think about in starting is to give yourself enough room to foot off for speed as the gun goes off. With 5 seconds to go, force the boats to windward of you up as high as possible and hope the boats below you bear off down the line. Once you have a boat length gap to leeward of you then you've got plenty of room to get up to speed fast and not get into bad leebow situations which are very slow.
Continued in Part II