Ten Minute Guide to Match Racing

What is match racing?

Match racing is arguably the simplest form of racing to understand. It is you against one other boat and the first to finish wins.

Normally, match racing is done in keelboats with a team of 3-5.

The course

Before we go into any specifics, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the team racing course. It’s fairly simple it’s a windward leeward course, with at least on lap. Standard start line, then up to the windward mark, down to the leeward (one lap), up to the windward, then back down through the finish line, and make sure your team get there before the other team. So how is this done?


The Start

The start of a team race is a little different from most other styles of racing. You have a line and a countdown from five minutes. You will be assigned an end of the line to start from in that race and must be to windward and outside of the start line before the start. At the four minutes signal you need to cross through into the box and go below the start line. This is the “feed in”. This is also where things get interesting, as the starboard boat has right of way initially so starts in control of the race.


Starting tactics involve making sure you cross the line on time, with boat speed, in a position to control your opponent. Which means tactics such as we see in team racing are common, such as holding opponents in to the wind, or preventing them from starting.


The Beat

As well as your normal fleet racing stuff, such as sitting above someone and stealing their wind. There is also no proper course rule so if you get an overlap you can push your opponent into the wind, just like at the start. If you are crossing each other you can also “dial down” and sail on a beam reach towards your opponent to make them go behind you, if you are on starboard!

The Downwind

The plan here can be the same as in fleet racing again, if you can get between your opponent and the wind, or sail faster than them. But there is one that comes up a lot in match racing that barely appears at all when you’re racing in a fleet. This is the concept of luffing rights.

If you’re a boat to leeward, you can push a boat to windward all the way up to head to wind, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Because there is no proper course, this applies in all circumstances. Remember port has to give way to starboard as well.


The Mark

The room at the mark rule is a little different from fleet or team racing. If you have an overlap inside when you enter a two boat length circle from the mark, you have the right to go inside. If you don’t have that overlap at that exact point, no rights, even if you get one later.

This means that if you are clear ahead of someone, you can enter the two boat lengths, and then stop. Nobody can get water on you now, so any opposition boats have to sail around the outside, even if you were on opposite tacks when you entered the 2 boat length circle.


The Penalties

Races are normally umpired. This means that if you break a rule, it will probably be seen.

If you want to bring in an umpire, shout “protest”, and show a red flag. The umpire should then give a decision.

If you think you have broken a rule, you can exonerate yourself with a 270 degree turn, so that the front of the boat passes through the opposite point of sail to the one you are supposed to be on. So if you are going upwind, you must gybe and if you’re heading downwind you must tack. You can take your first penalty whenever you any time after the start, but you must take the second immediately after you get it, or after the start (whichever is relevant). Three penalties and you are disqualified from that race.

The Format

Things usually move fairly quickly. Races are only about 20 minutes in length, but you’ll end up doing a lot of them throughout a day.

There’ll be a race schedule telling you when your races are, who they’re against and which side of the start you are on. It’s your responsibility to be ready to change over into boats when it’s your turn to race. If you’re lucky there’ll be someone calling your team name as well.

The most important thing - Match racing is hectic, fast paced, and great fun. Enjoy it, get out there, make mistakes, lose races, because there’s always at least one moment that makes your day!

About the authors;

Thank you to Joe Penhaul Smith for writing this guide, Joe is the BUSA development officer 2019-2020. His match racing career started at when he moved to Scotland and founded UHIWWC.