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America’s Cup: Expert pre-start tactical analysis from Ian Williams

America's Cup

The tension is mounting down in Auckland, New Zealand and around the world in anticipation of Wednesday’s match up between America’s Cup holders Emirates Team New Zealand and the Challenger Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team.

In recent days both crews have been  spending significant time engaged in high speed duels with their respective chase boats as they try to polish up their pre-start routines and manoeuvres.

With the pre-start activity likely to play such a key role in the racing, we turned to six-time match racing world champion Ian Williams to help us all better understand what the two crews will be trying to achieve in the all-important final two minutes to the start.


I have found the pre-starts during the Christmas Race and Prada Cup really interesting and have certainly enjoyed the return to upwind starts. Offsetting the entry times has of course done away with the dial up phase of the traditional match racing pre-start, and by reducing the entry time to only two mins before the start, the circling (time wasting) phase has been all but removed also.

But one phase of a traditional match racing pre-start – the lead/follow phase – has been replicated quite closely with the new boats, albeit at much increased speeds.

Pre-start goals

The overarching choice that each team will make, probably prior to entry, is whether they want to start to the right (to windward) or to the left (to leeward) of the other boat. This will be dictated by the usual factors that go into any sail racing start; particularly start line bias and whether there is a favoured side of the course. But the more nuanced decision will often come down to what is achievable from the pre-assigned entry end. Critical is whether the windward boat off the start line can hold position all the way to the boundary. If they can, they will have all the early options; either to tack early to the right, or continue to boundary in which case they will then have a strong position close to leeward on the long port tack. If they get forced away early, the leeward boat has the options; either to tack with, or to separate to the left. But crucially, on port tack they will then have enough separation to windward not to be affected. And when they come back together, they will have done only one tack to the opposition’s two – which will give them a good shot at crossing ahead.

Whether the windward boat can hold on that long is down to how well both boats hit the start line, how much separation there is between them, how fast they are, and how far it is to the boundary; in many ways similar to a fleet racing start with a left favoured beat.

ROAD TO GOLD AD MARCH 2021 ANIMATEDHow to achieve those goals

Throughout the Prada Cup finals, we saw a pattern of the port-entry boat sailing on port for about a minute, then gybing round to head back to the start line with just over a minute to go to the start. The critical decision for the port entry boat is what time to head back to the start line. For the starboard entry boat, they then need to decide whether to lead or follow back to the start line.

Of course, the later that the boat leading away from the start line comes back, the easier it is for the other boat to choose to lead back and waste the time. But if the boat leading away comes back too early, the other boat can set up to windward and start with good separation without having to push particularly hard.

If the boat following away chooses to lead back, often you will see a clear win for one boat. The boat leading back to the start line will try to burn the time which will often mean the follow boat ending up late and/or close to windward. But the big risk for the boat leading back to the start line is that they end up with a penalty for being over the start line early. For me it was a great shame when ITUK lost control out of the gybe in the pre-start of race four – I think that was an excellent position to push from and I think we may see teams trying to replicate similar positioning in the America’s Cup if they are confident in their handling.

If the boat following away from the line (starboard entry boat) chooses to follow back to the start line then they can separate quite a way before tacking, and hence start the “fishtailing” (what we call the move where the follow boat bears away to go for the hook then the lead boat responds by bearing away – before both boats luff up again) with good separation.

Critical then is whether they need to push or not. If the lead boat is early, then the follow boat can hold off and make a start separated to windward. But if not, they may need to push harder to force the lead boat down the line. But in so doing they will burn their windward separation and hence be in a weaker position off the line.

Often you will hear a discussion on board, regarding whether “we” or “they” are early or late. Throughout the start, judging this is critical. If “they” are late, there may be an opportunity to lead them back to the line and make them later by blocking their path/wind. Or if “they” are early, there may be an opportunity to hang off and get a good, separated start to windward, or possibly to go for the hook and force the other boat to approach the start line too early.

Developing tactics
It will be interesting to see if the pre-start manoeuvres develop further into the America’s Cup match. Most helmsmen feel more comfortable following back to the start line, and I think that has led to the boats coming back to the line quite late. But I think as they become more confident with the handling the timing back to the start line will get earlier. That will open up the possibility of some different scenarios; particularly the hook and/or the split tack start. If anybody actually gets a hook, one might imagine that it will be a very difficult situation for the boat that gets hooked, as the leeward boat may be able to luff the windward boat and force them to fall off their foils. However, I wonder if their handling might now be good enough that they will be able to tack away and start on port (resulting in a split tack start), or maybe even execute two quick tacks and start separated to windward. I have seen videos online of LRPP practicing a tack onto port just before the start, so it seems like this is something that is in their minds.

One thing I have been surprised about is how late the boats are on the entry. For sure it is difficult to judge at that speed, and there is no point giving away a penalty by risking being early, but I think that it is an advantage to have a good gap to the other boat when leading away on port. If that gap is small then the port entry boat is in a weaker position out of the gybe, which is what we saw in race three of the Prada Cup final where LRPP started the lead-follow back to the line in a strong position because they had been following away close behind. So I also expect the entries to get closer to the time limit (2:10 for port entry, 2:00 for starboard entry) as the teams get more confident in their timing.

Uneven boats

One big difference between the America’s Cup and the match race circuit is that in the America’s Cup the boats are invariably different speeds. So often there is more pressure on one of the teams to make something happen in the pre-start, rather than simply go for an even start on the favoured side. We certainly saw this in the Prada Cup final with pressure on ITUK to try for a big lead off the start, particularly when the conditions were lighter. But it is often the case that if you are trying to force the situation you make the mistakes, and it took until the final race before ITUK’s more aggressive approach forced the error from LRPP who were over the start early. For me, race seven was most telling when ITUK started well bow forward and close to leeward, but were unable to squeeze LRPP off. In even boats that would be a clear win to ITUK, but it was still not good enough to win the first cross. I would rather have had ITUK’s position in four out of eight starts, yet they were only able to convert one of those races into a lead at the top gate.



Split helmsmen

James Spithill is one of the best in the world at managing the lead/follow and I do not think it is any accident that he is holding the starboard wheel on LRPP. I find the solution of having two helmsmen intriguing – cynics might say it is much down to team politics, but though there are pros and cons I see it as a good solution to a tricky problem. The biggest benefit is that they do not lose a person from the operation of the yacht while the helmsman crosses. Given that most teams (ITUK excepted) appear to have only three people to steer, trim the mainsail, and operate the foils, dropping that to only two at a critical time out of a tack or gybe seems a large compromise for those with crossing helmsmen. But I also think that having two helmsmen will have brought benefits during development, with feedback from both helmsmen who are also constantly challenging each other to be better. Sometimes competition within a team can be counterproductive, but in this instance I would expect it to drive performance higher.

The downside of this set-up is that during a race the roles and responsibilities necessarily have to change, depending on who is on the wheel at the time, and the obvious potential for a leadership void. I think this can be managed, but it does require a great deal of discipline from both helmsmen to stick to the protocols that they will have agreed. We saw in the last race of the round robin how it can unravel, but I suspect that those particular problems were quite easily resolved. I do see potential for more mistakes as they come across unexpected situations that their protocols do not deal with. Whether this offsets or not the problems associated with the helmsman crossing will be interesting to see.

I note that ETNZ have been practicing pre-start manoeuvres with nobody crossing. I would not be at all surprised to see them do the whole pre-start with Pete Burling on the starboard side.

Prada Cup starts on YouTube

You can watch all the starts from the Prada Cup final in 12 minutes in the video below. Note particularly the choice of when to head back to the start line, whether to lead or follow, and how hard to push when following.

America's CupAbout Ian Williams
Ian is best known for his success in match racing. He is the only skipper to have won six match racing world championships and also has six national Championships and three Youth National Championships in the discipline.

He was the first Briton to win the match racing world championship and as of the end of the 2020 World Match Racing Tour Season, is a 17-time winner on the Tour with 49 podium finishes.

Ian is also well known on the professional big boat circuit as an accomplished tactician, having won regattas in many different classes. He has been shortlisted three times for the ISAF World Sailor of the Year Award and also three times for the British YJA Yachtsman of the Year Award.

For more on Ian visit his website here.

Main image © COR 36 | Studio Borlenghi