How to do rabbit starts in sailing

Rabbit starts are a handy way for setting up a sailboat racing start without much effort.

Why use rabbit starts to start sailing races?

In sailing, rabbit starts can be useful in the following situations:

In this post, I’ll focus on rabbit starts for the first two situations, since they’re much more casual than the third situation, which can get quite complex in terms of process.

What is a rabbit start in sailing?

This video provides an overview of what a rabbit start looks like. Review it first before looking at the tips below.

How to execute a rabbit start

Here are some tips on how to make rabbit starts work for your group:

  • One boat in the fleet of boats is designated as the rabbit, i.e., the boat that everyone ducks to start the race. Why they came up with the term “rabbit” to describe this is beyond me.
  • To determine who’s rabbit, people can self-select. Generally it’s good form to rotate rabbits with each start.
  • Before the rabbit start, the rabbit sails off to port of the fleet (facing upwind). All other boats in the fleet stay to starboard of the Rabbit. Let’s call these the non-rabbits.
  • The rabbit raises their hand high to signal to others they’ll be the rabbit, then luffs on port for a minute or so to give the non-rabbits a chance to congregate on the right.
  • Non-rabbits position themselves at least several boatlengths (or more) to the right of the rabbit, a couple of boatlengths above the rabbit’s ladder rung, with 2–3 boatlengths between them and any other non-rabbit to leeward so you have room to avoid them.
  • This initial positioning is important for non-rabbits: more than a couple of boatlengths above the rabbit’s ladder rung, and you’ll reach off on a quick reach and risk plowing into any non-rabbits to leeward. Setup below the rabbit’s ladder rung, and you’ll cross well behind them.
  • Once the non-rabbits have had reasonable time to position themselves, the rabbit sheets in and sails upwind closehauled on port, and the other boats in the fleet cross the transom of the rabbit on starboard. “Reasonable” is a key word here: if someone is zoning out or otherwise preoccupied, no need to wait around for them.
  • Once the last boat in the fleet crosses the rabbit’s transom, the rabbit is free to tack onto starboard if they want, or continue on port.

Building on the basics

If you have a buoy you can toss in the water, you can do the following to ensure that your rabbit starts consistently get going without a hitch:

  • Have the rabbit luff several boatlengths to the left (facing upwind) of the buoy, on the same ladder rung, to wait for everyone to congregate.
  • The non-rabbits luff a couple of boatlengths below the ladder rung of the buoy. Essentially, in a position where they’d close reach to round the buoy to starboard.
  • Once the non-rabbits have had a reasonable amount of time to get into position, the rabbit sheets in, and rounds this buoy to port, as if it were a leeward mark, then sails upwind as usual.
  • The non-rabbits cross behind the rabbit as usual — but ensure that they pass the buoy to starboard. In other words, don’t cross the rabbit too early.

In summary, the buoy serves as a reference point for everyone to get into position, which should lead to a more consistent line up.

Optimizing your rabbit start

Here’s how to optimize your rabbit start as an individual sailor. The end goal is to pass an inch behind the rabbit, while close-hauled and at full speed. Do the following to make this happen:

  • Bear away onto a reach, pointing a boatlength below the rabbit’s path.
  • As you pass underneath the rabbit, start heading up as you sheet in. Heel to leeward appropriately for the wind — more in light air, less in heavy.
  • In Lasers, I try to aim for my bow to be close enough to the rabbit’s transom that I splash the aft part of their deck.
  • As you pass behind the rabbit, you’ll experience a temporary lift from the backwind off the rabbit’s mainsail. So watch your telltales closely to stay in the upwind groove as you pass behind, then be ready to bear away a few degrees as you sail out of the backwind zone.

Maximizing your time

If you’re running windward-leeward courses, have an agreement that when the last place boat rounds the leeward mark and heads upwind, they become the rabbit for the next race. In doing so, you can bang out more races in less time.

Rabbit starts and barging

What if two boats are next to each other just prior to passing astern of the rabbit, and the windward boat can’t duck the rabbit without leeward boat bearing away — how do we handle this situation?

Remember, this post is focused on casual races — either in a practice, or when there’s no race committee — where we’re simply trying to give everyone an even start without a race committee. This isn’t a world championships where you’d expect cutthroat starting tactics. This colors my recommendations below:

  • First, we obviously don’t want a collision. So, the leeward boat should bear away to let the windward boat duck the rabbit. If they don’t, windward will hit the rabbit, or do a last-second tack into port into the path of starboard boats about to reach off to duck the rabbit — and even more collisions.
  • Second, barging is never a good look, even in a practice race. So, windward shouldn’t reach down to wedge themselves between a leeward boat and the rabbit. If windward follows the advice above — set up with 2–3 boatlengths between them and any other non-rabbit to leeward so they have room to avoid a collision —then windward shouldn’t have to resort to barging.
  • Third, a leeward boat shouldn’t reach behind a windward boat at the last second to “hook” them and force them into barging. Proper rabbit starting technique means setting up just above the “layline” to the stern of the rabbit, so it’s trivial for a leeward boat to hook someone into barging. But, again, we’re trying to get everyone off to an even start.

There you have it… now you have a way to easily run sailboat starts without a race committee!

Occasional thoughts on tech, sailing, and San Francisco