Maybe you’ve read about Sailing in the news or saw a post about it on social media, but could never really follow the sport because it was just too complicated. If you don’t personally know a sailor, it’s pretty hard to grasp the idea of how a regatta (a.k.a. a sailing competition) works or how sailors make their way around the sailing course.


But that’s what this guide is for! This series will explain – sans the confusing sailing jargon – how Sailing works and introduce you to the different types of boats that will be sailed at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.


First, let’s get started on how the sport works during a regatta.


Regatta. Race. Is there even a difference?

Yes, there is! A regatta consists of a series of races, which take place over a few days. The total number of races sailed during each regatta varies, usually depending on the number of racing days and the organisers. All sailors racing in the same event take part in the same races.


Wait… won’t you end up with many winners? Who wins the Gold then?

Well, yes, there will be a winner from every race, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they win the entire regatta.


All sailors would have competed in the same number of races and their finishing position in each race will contribute to their final overall score. However, in most regattas, each sailor can exclude their worst-performing race from their total score. Sailors may be able to discard more than one of their worst races from their score, but it really depends on the regatta’s rules.


Sailors are then ranked according to their overall score, where the lower the score, the higher the rank. The sailor who accumulates the lowest score takes home the Gold. So the Gold can pretty much go to anyone, though a few race wins would definitely help!


Nice! But what exactly happens in a race?

In each race, sailors have to complete a course and their finishing positions are recorded. Buoys (a.k.a. floating markers) are strategically laid in the racing area and sailors have to make their way around these buoys in a specific sequence and direction, depending on the specified course.

Optimist Mark Rounding
Sailors rounding a buoy during a race.


The course is decided by the Race Committee (a.k.a. the officials running the regatta), who will notify sailors of the course during the starting sequence.


A race course looks something like this:

Sailing Regatta Race Course

The race begins at the starting line, which is the imaginary line formed between two orange flags flown on Race Committee boats. All sailors are required to line up behind this line and start together when the gun (or horn) goes.


There are a few different legs in a race course:

Upwind Leg

(A) The Upwind

This is when sailors have to sail towards a mark that is set in the direction of the wind. It is impossible to sail directly into the wind since the sail won’t be able to catch any wind. Hence, sailors sail a close haul in a zig-zag towards the buoy. A close haul angle is one that is 45 degrees from the direction of the wind, as seen in this illustration.


Reach Leg(B) The Reach

On this leg, sailors sail a reach, which is the easiest and fastest point of sail. A sailor is sailing on a reach when her boat is sailing in a direction that is perpendicular to the direction of the wind.




Downwind Leg(C) The Downwind

Sailors sail in the same direction as that of the wind on a downwind. Sailing at this angle is perhaps the most unstable and requires good balance, especially if the wind gets strong.




Sailing Regatta Race CourseSailors are then required to repeat certain legs of the course. For example, they may have to do an additional upwind and downwind leg, as shown here in this illustration.


Finally, after completing the course, sailors will cross the finish line – an imaginary line formed by a blue flag and the finish buoy. And if you happen to cross the line in first place, they’ll sound a horn.


Hold up, somewhere in that huge chunk of words you said ‘starting sequence’ (Yes, we did). What is that?

In the five minutes before the gun goes and the sailors are off, the Race Committee makes a couple of visual signals to sailors, with the help of some flags and a horn.

These signals announce a few things:

  • The class of boats starting in that race
  • The rules that apply to that specific start
  • The start of the final minute – as crossing the start line in the last minute results in severe penalties
Starting Line
Boats positioning themselves along the starting line.

During these five minutes, sailors are allowed to position their boats anywhere along the starting line. Sailors are usually seen competing for the best spot along the line.


And that’s why they say that in sailing, the race begins even before the gun goes.


Okay, you know what? I think that’s enough for today.

Yeah, we figured. It took our sailors months to understand how a regatta works too. But if you’ve got any questions, be sure to let us know in the comments. We’ll get an expert to answer them.


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Part Two - Sailing 101: Boats at the Asian Games

Samantha Yom

Samantha Yom is a sailor and a 2014 Youth Olympic Games Gold Medalist. She is currently our Marketing and Social Media Intern and writes for this website.

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