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AutoHoot™ and Starting Sailing Races

The Perfect Start

Race start


Over the years the ISAF Racing Rules of Sailing have changed necessitating that this article be updated. It is currently in line with the 2009 to 2012 rules.


This article is aimed at those who are responsible for organising club racing, primarily, the race officer and team who may only be called on to do a duty a few times a year. However it should also be of interest to all who compete in or help run races as it is only with the understanding of rules, signals and the intentions of the race officer that enjoyable racing will result.

The first thing to realise is that if racing is going to be run successfully a certain amount of preparation is essential. For the sailing committee this means making sure the club has the right equipment drawing up sailing instructions and instructions for the race officer and team. For the race officer this means being familiar with the club's procedures and local conditions, weather forecast etc. Likewise the competitors must know the start times, flag signals and course signals etc. Nothing is more frustrating for the competitors than to lose a race due to some procedural error (wrong flags, inaccurate timing etc) by the race officer. This puts a heavy responsibility on the race officer who may have very little experience of the job.


The simple question of "Where can I find the rules that govern the starting of a given race?" is not straight-forward.

The rules governing the conduct of sailing races are to be found in part 3 of the ISAF Racing Rules of Sailing or if it is a Match Race or Radio-controlled boat race then the rules are in the respective Appendix. Details of flag and sound signals are given in the RACE SIGNALS section of the rule book. There may also be reference to starting in the sailing instructions as it is possible for race organisers to make modifications to these sections of the rules. Also the notice of race must give information on when the start (or more accurately the warning signal) will be.


With digital stop-watches there is always the temptation to record times relative to the start of the race to save calculating the elapsed times when doing the results. This should be resisted because if there are any disputes, errors or if the race officers watch is accidentally stopped, it becomes very difficult to correct. Times should always be recorded as the time of day not relative to the start of the race. Always write down the actual start time of a race as opposed to the time given in the programme.

Setting the course

I am not going to discuss setting courses here as this is dependent on local conditions, type of boats and type of race. It should be noted that RR 27.1 requires the course to be signalled or otherwise designated no later than the warning signal. However the starting mark may be moved up until the preparatory signal (RR27.2).

Starting sequence

The starting sequence is specified in RR26 as follows:

Time to Start Flags Sound Signal
5 * Class flag displayed Sound signal Warning signal
4 P, I, Z, Black flag or I and Z displayed Sound signal Preparatory signal
1 Preparatory signal flag(s) removed Long Sound signal One minute signal
0 Class flag removed Sound signal Start
* or as stated in the sailing instructions


The preparatory signal indicates the starting penalty that applies during the one minute before the start as follows:

Preparatory Flag(s) Meaning
P P Normal preparatory signal; no starting penalties are in effect. Boats that are over the line at the start can return through the line or round the ends.
I I The Round-an-End Rule 30.1 will be in effect. If a boat is over the line during the minute before the start then they must sail to the pre-start side of the line around either end before starting.
Z Z The 20% Penalty Rule 30.2 will be in effect. If a boat is in the triangle formed by the ends of the line and the first mark during the minute before the start it will receive a 20% scoring penalty. (20% of the number entered or as dictated by the sailing instructions)
Black Flag Black Flag The Black Flag Rule 30.3 will be in effect. If boat is in the triangle formed by the ends of the line and the first mark during the minute before its start it will be disqualified
IZ I & Z Both the Round-an-End Rule and the 20% Penalty Rule will be in effect during the minute before the start.



Remember that it is the flag signals that control the start and that getting them correct should be of primary importance to the race officer. Like wise the competitors should know and understand the signals. Nothing spoils a race more than when a signal is incorrectly made or miss-read and half the fleet starts five minutes before the rest. If its the race officers error, then the race for the class or classes affected should be immediately postponed if before the start, general recalled at the start or abandoned if after the start and their starting sequence re-started. Although the sound signals are only to draw attention to the flag signals it is just as important to get these correct as most competitors will use them for their timing. Note that the one minute sound signal should be longer than the other sound signals.

Race Start Sequence Table

A race start sequence table can greatly help in the smooth starting of a race by providing that essential check list during the start procedure. Following is an example for starting 3 classes at 5 minute intervals. The first start is scheduled for 10:30 am. Numerals 1, 2 and 3 are used as class flags. The individual columns in the table are used to representing different flag halyards. In this example four halyards are used although three could have been used if class flag 1 is replaced with class flag 3 after the start of class 1. In the starting sequence code flag P can be replaced with I, Z, or the Black flag if a starting penalty applies. The notes column should be used to remained the race officer of other actions for example signalling the course for successive classes or a note by the first preparatory signal may state that the outer limit buoy must be laid by then.

10:25 1Up       Sound signal Class 1 warning signal  
10:26 1     PUp Sound signal Class 1 preparatory signal  
10:29 1       Sound signal(long) Class 1 one minute signal  
10:30   2Up     Sound signal Class 1 start
Class 2 warning signal
10:31   2   PUp Sound signal Class 2 preparatory signal  
10:34   2     Sound signal(long) Class 2 one minute signal  
10:35     3Up   Sound signal Class 2 start
Class 3 warning signal
10:36     3 PUp Sound signal Class 3 preparatory signal  
10:39     3   Sound signal(long) Class 3 one minute signal  
10:40       PDown Sound signal Class 3 start  

An extra pair of hands

As you can see there is a lot to be done when each signal is made. Flags hoisted (or better broken out), flags lowered, sound signals made, the line watched for premature starters, etc. This is fine if you have several sets of eyes and hands but if you are human like me then a piece of equipment I devised called AutoHoot can be a great help by automatically making the sound signals for you. It is extremely easy to operate. Just switch it on at the first signal and the horn sounds, all subsequent signals will then sound automatically on time. It also has two warning lamps and gives count-down beeps to alert you to the upcoming signals so there are no longer any excuses for any timing errors and you have freed up your hands to operate the flags.


If there are boats over the line at the starting signal and they can be identified then an individual recall must be signalled or if the boats can not be identified then a general recall signalled. It is important that the procedures for recalls are familiar to the race officer and helpers before hand. The start of a race is no time to start reading rule books to find out what to do.

Individual recalls are relatively simple, after the start an extra sound signal is made and code flag X displayed, the rest of the starting sequence is not interrupted. Remember it is important to write down the numbers of any boats that are over and cross them off when they have returned to the pre-start side or its extensions. This record may be required as evidence in a protest. The X flag should be left flying until all premature starters have returned or for four minutes if not all the premature starters have returned. If the I flag rule (RR30.1) is being used then the premature starters must return round the ends of the line before starting. When a competitor is clearly over the line or its extensions they have an obligation to start correctly even if there is no recall. For example a late arriving competitor approaching from the course side cannot join a race part way along the first leg of the course just because the race officer failed to spot them in the melee of other classes and therefore failed to signal a recall.

A general recall should be made when there are unidentified premature starters or there has been an error in the starting procedure. The key word here is unidentified. There have been instances of race officers only signalling an individual recall when all or most of a fleet are over at the start as all the premature starters could be identified by an elimination of the few boats that were not over. Not the most popular way to teach a fleet a lesson, better to have a general recall and introduce the Black Flag Rule. A general recall is signalled after the start by two extra sound signals and displaying the First Substitute, all flags for succeeding classes should be lowered. Before attempting a restart the reason for the general recall should be considered. If it was due to the angle of the line giving one end an advantage which caused bunching then the line should be adjusted. Often a small bias to the port end is required to spread the fleet evenly along the line. Too short a line can also lead to boats pushing each other over. If it was just an over keen fleet or there are reasons why the line can not be adjusted then the use of starting penalties should be considered.

The First Substitute is lowered with one sound signal one minute before restarting the starting sequence at the warning signal for the recalled class. The times on the start sequence table should be adjusted to allow for the general recall. It is always best to keep the delay due to a general recall or postponement to a whole number of five minutes.

The individual recall flag "X" and the general recall flag "first substitute" need to be prepared ready for use before the starting sequence starts. This means that two halyards must be allocated for their use or another idea is to attach one flag to each end of a long pole so the relevant recall flag can quickly be held up if required.


In summary, like most things in life a little preparation will lead to things going much smoother. Time seems to be against you and often it is things like how to find the keys to the start box which cause the most aggravation. A good check list, starting sequence table and clear allocation of the jobs that must be done will lead along way towards that perfect start. Remember keep checking that things are happening to plan - the right flags - the right sound signals - the right course signals etc etc.... and do not be afraid to postpone or general recall a start if there has been an error the delay is far better than losing the race in the protest room afterwards.

Please e-mail the author Richard Russell at if you have any comments on this article or useful tips on starting races.



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