"Even a blind squirrel gets a nut sometimes."
Tillerman recently discussed his efforts at being more aggressive at the start. He talks about two techniques: "You can hold station on the line trying to stay in position just below the line while protecting the gap to leeward as best you can. Or you can be a "shark". A shark cruises along behind the line of boats holding station until he sees a good gap then scoots into the hole at the last minute. A shark can approach the hole on port tack in which case he has to tack into it. Or he can be a starboard tack shark. In the drills, JK had us practice all three options -- hold station, port tack shark and starboard tack shark."
In college, one of the guys on our team had a reputation for another type of start that became known as a "squirrel start". It's not really anything new, but he had the technique down to a science. He would line up at the starboard end of the line just downwind and outside the committee boat about one minute before the start. As the boats on the line started to accelerate for the start an opening would typically open up just to leeward of the committee boat. The key would be to time the approach so as to reach the line at full speed right where the hole had appeared. Obviously this technique could be disastrous alot of the time, so there was a certain amount of skill involved in deciding if the placement of the rest of the fleet was optimal for attempting the start. When it worked it had a similar result as port-tacking the fleet from the pin end of the line; he would be ahead and to windward of the fleet in clear air. When it didn't work there would be alot of yelling and protests. In college regatta size fleets (~18 boats) with short courses the squirrel start was very effective.
I have used the "squirrel start" technique quite effectively in my own sailing although in bigger fleets and in bigger boats the risk involved often outweighs the potential rewards. If you are in "shark" mode and there is no good hole somewhere in the favored half of the line then it can be worth a try.
The times when it seems to be worth it are:
- in a fleet of less experienced sailors
- in boats that don't accelerate without considerable sideslipping
- when the committee boat doesn't create an enormous wind shadow
- when the boat end is weakly favored (or is about to be favored just after the start)
- when you want to go right anyway (even if you are the second row right at the committee boat there can be an advantage in being able to tack away immediately after the start)
- in heavy air
- in small fleets with short start lines