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Sailboat Racing

For many Canadians, sailing is not a highly recognized sport among the population. One of most genuine comments we get from people is, “So how is your rowing going?”. Trying to explain the complexity of sailing to a person who hasn’t experienced it is an artform in itself, so we usually just say, “It’s going well!”. But a coach knows how to explain their mastery, so in this Beyond the Coach Boat, we will outline the basic rules and details of sailboat racing through our experience in the International 49er Olympic class.

“Sailing and Olympic sport is about compromise, you cannot do everything perfectly. The winner picks the right compromises.”, Krzyzstof Keirkowsk, Canadian Skiff Coach.


The start is often known as one of the most important parts of the race; it can dictate the rest of your execution. The process is a decreasing timer, from 5 minutes to zero. The boats are released to the race course once the timer expires. The line is set base on a series of weather factors by a team of race officers. The boats are not to cross the line established by these two anchor points (the race committee boat and the pin) before the time expires, or else a penalty is awarded. The time is signalled off the race committee boat by a standardized array of flags and sound signals. This pre-start time allows for the different nations to calculate and execute a race strategy aimed to give themselves a competitive edge in performance during the course of the race.

Race Course

The 49er typically has a 25 minute, 2 lap race which consists of a pre-established course based on designated marks.The course - set by a team of racing officials based on international class standards (see example of ‘International 49er Class Rules, 2016:[21049].pdf) - is generally aligned parallel to the wind direction to minimize competitive advantage. The 49er course as governed by World sailing, consists of a start, upwind leg to downwind leg, repeated for two consecutive laps, then to an offset finish line. Boats turn up and down the course tacking and gybing strategically through a race course. The image below outline what a course will predominantly look like in a 49er competition, as well as an example case of a boats potential route.

A typical race course used by the Internation 49er class; windward leeward x2 with an start and finish line.


The athletes use their four out of their five senses to collect data and predict a winning strategy for this continuously developing race course. Factors such as visual wind on the water causing different ripples or auditory communication (mostly in the form of excited yelling) go into developing a strategy with the best permutation between boat speed, angles, and boat interactions. This ever adapting plan occurs as the skiffs travel up and down the race track. With the boats sailing at different angles in order to harness the physical effects of wind and water, athletes strive to achieve the highest average speed, shortest distance around the marks, while minimizing risk. It is primarily the skipper who develops the advantageous path around the racing area, with information being fed from the rest of the team.


Based on a low points scoring system, they record the race finishes of 12-15 separate sequences for a statistically fair competition; for all the golf players this is similar to how there are 18 different holes and several rounds of golf to find the most skilled athlete. These races are generally based out over 6 day with 3-4 separate races occurring each day. With a day to spare in between a qualifying series and finals series, this can be used to account for uncooperative weather conditions or take a well deserved recovery day.


There is a complex process to how sailing and its racing standards are elected to governed. There are systems and processes which outline all the potential variables within racing. Class specifications for sailing procedures, equipment, environment, etc., are outlined in The Racing Rules to Sailing written and revised bi-annually through World Sailing. This govern basic standards across all classes of sailboat racing (Sailing Racing Rules, 2017: World These rules are used to establish standards for situational circumstance (ei. Rules of the road) as well as for racing rules to minimize variability in competition and induce sportsmanship.Furthermore, guidelines specific to different fleets of boats are directed by class organizations, such as the International 49er Class Association. The 49er class is a hybrid of self regulation and neutral party governing. A panel of experienced judges use guidelines to: create and develop currently applicable rules and standards, govern situational occurrence, record competition data, and adjust racing area to level racing area favorability. Refer to World Sailing Race Management Manual for specific guidelines (World Sailing, 2018) This comes in the form of start times and, scores, on-water judges addressing offsetting penalties, and protest committees evaluating witness based cases and assessing a correlated point penalty. All these standardized rules make the class a ‘one design class’, referring to how the odds are statistically fair for competition with the the highest chance of the most skilled competitor winning; it specifically refers to the rules about how all equipment is identical within a certain tolerance.

Hallet, D. (2000, January 30). America's Cup [Prada hold the protest flag as they cross the line]. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from


These different variables within sailboat and International 49er Class Olympic Racing are all presented, outline, addressed, and reviewed to govern the sport across the world. The level of complexity along with calculated skill and probability have made the 49er a very technical and competitive class. On top of the variability and innovation of sailing itself, the sport address high physical and mental performance as Olympic sports should do. With a relatively high presence of different varying factors, it makes for a very challenging and valuable experience. So while racing itself is no more than going in circle around yourself with a bunch of friends/competitors, there is a very complex sport and learning experience underneath.


Hallet, D. (2000, January 30). America's Cup [Prada hold the protest flag as they cross the line]. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from

“International 49er Class Rules.” World Sailing, 22 Apr. 2016.

“Race Management Manual.” World Sailing, 8 Jan. 2018.

“Sailing Racing Rules.”, World Sailing, 2017,

Hallet, D. (2000, January 30). America's Cup [Prada hold the protest flag as they cross the line]. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from


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