In the Olympic sailing regatta, watching sailboat racing is much easier than elsewhere, and here’s why. Modern technology has turned sailing into a more engaging contest, first through changes to the competition itself and also by altering the ways it can be watched. That’s why Olympic sailing regattas have become accessible to millions of viewers on location, online or on TV.
Despite the technology and large country flags carried on the sails, there remain several unique aspects to sailboat racing that make watching it a challenge. It’s not like most arena sports, where it is relatively easy to see who is ahead and behind, or to look at the scoreboard to see who is winning. Most of the races still happen away from shore, so it can be hard to follow from the grandstands. And even if you are close enough to see the competitors clearly on the course, the rules are complex and boats are swarming out across a wide area instead of racing in a neat peloton like bicycles. And important things that dictate tactics and influence the outcome of a race are not always obvious to spectators, for example changes in wind strength and direction or the effect of variations in the current.
Nevertheless, watching the races on Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, in the shadow of the famous Sugarloaf Mountain, can still be fun and exciting. There will be streaming coverage of the races online and the boats will be fitted with satellite trackers, which make them easy to follow with a dedicated app (available to fans closer to the beginning of the Games). In addition, the decisive final races in each class— the “Medal Races”—will be moved close to shore where a crowd of spectators can watch the top-10 teams fight for the places on the medal podium.
To help you get the most out of watching the Olympic sailing races, here is a condensed review of the basics of sailboat racing, as well as some of the idiosyncrasies of the sport.
What’s the objective in a sailboat race?
Using only wind power, each racer tries to sail faster around a racecourse that is prescribed by buoys and has separate starting and finishing lines. The courses are set so that the boats must sail on different angles relative to the wind direction: against the wind (upwind), with the wind (downwind) and on a reach (across the wind).
There are 10 different Olympic classes, but all boats or windsurfers are identical in design and manufacture, which means that the outcome of the race largely depends on the sailors’ strategy, tactics, fitness, boat-handling skills, and how they discern and adapt to the every-changing conditions on the water.
How is a sailboat race started?
If you’ve never seen a sailboat race begin, you’re not alone. If you watch this video filmed during the 2012 Games, you’ll see what we’re talking about—and also get to view the countdown period to the start of a race. (Note: salty language alert!)
The starting line is marked between a mast on the race committee boat and a floating mark or second officials boat. Boats are free to cross that line until one minute before the start when all have to be positioned behind the line. The starting sequence lasts five minutes during which time the boats work to position themselves on the starting line. Sometimes one end of the line is advantaged by virtue of having a stronger wind or being favored by wind angle, which can lead to more boats contending for a position there.
During the starting sequence the race committee makes sound signals and displays different flags (from the international flag alphabet) that inform the sailors of the penalty incurred if they cross the line before the signal. (World Sailing has you covered, if you want to learn more about the rules of sailboat racing).
Time to start / Flag / Sound
- 5 minutes / Class flag raised / 1 horn
- 4 minutes / Code flags or black flag raised / 1 horn
- 1 minute / Code flags lowered / 1 long horn
- 0/Start / Class flag lowered / 1 horn
Why are the boats sailing in different directions?
Sailboats can’t sail straight into the wind, so they need to take a zig-zag course when they sail against the wind. Wind varies in strength and direction, and the strength and direction of the ocean current also influence the tactics of the racers. When sailing to a mark that is downwind, the fastest craft (e.g. the skiffs, multihulls and windsurfers) sail faster by steering at an angle to the wind than they can by taking a direct line. They cover more distance, but the speed advantage they gain more than makes up for it.
How and why do the boats turn?
When sailing against the wind, boats can’t sail at an angle closer than roughly 45 degrees from the direction of the wind, so they must change direction at some point to reach the course mark. Turning the bow through the wind to go the other way is a maneuver called tacking. In this process, the sailors or sailors must ease the sails for a moment, switch sides, then trim the sails again on the other side.
When sailing downwind, turning far enough to require switching the sails to the other side of the boat is called jibing, meaning the stern (back end) of the boat turns through the direction of the wind. Especially when the breeze is strong, this can be exciting, because the boats are moving fast and in many classes the crew has to handle a big colorful nylon sail, called a spinnaker or a gennaker. A small mistake can wreak havoc and cause a capsize, typically landing the sailor in the water.
Who’s ahead in a sailboat race?
Judging who is in the lead can be tough because boats do not race on a narrow track like racing cars, and they often go at different speeds because the wind changes in strength and direction. However, they all have to sail by the same marks, so at each turn, it’s easy to see their position in the race.
Who has the right of way when two boats cross paths?
Except when tacking or jibing, each boat is said to be on a “tack,” either port or starboard tack. In most instances, when a boat on starboard tack (sailing with the wind from the right side of the boat) holds the right of way over a boat on port tack (with the wind from its left side).
When two boats are sailing on a parallel course—on the same tack—the boat that’s ahead has the right of way. If the two boats are alongside each other on the same tack, the boat that’s farther away from the wind (to “leeward”) has right of way.
At a mark of the course, the inside boat generally has the right of way, provided that it has established this position before it sails within three lengths of that mark. (To understand the many exceptions, read Rule 18 in the Racing Rules of Sailing).
How many races and how are the medals awarded in Olympic Sailing?
In each of the 10 classes that race at the Olympic Games, the event consists of a series of 10 to 12 qualifying races for which sailors earn points based on their finishing positions – the first boat scores one point, the second boat gets two, and so on. The goal is to collect as few points as possible. In the end, the 10 lowest-scoring competitors race in the Medal Race near shore in front of a live audience. Double points are awarded for this race, which are added to each competitor’s cumulative score, with the winner being the competitor with the lowest points total.
What sailboats and windsurfers are raced in the Olympics?
A total of 270 sailors from 62 countries will compete in the Olympic regatta in five men’s classes, four women’s classes, and one mixed class.
- 470 (men's and women’s two-person dinghy): A two-person, 4.7-meter sailing dinghy used both for men's and women's competitions.
- 49er (men's skiff): The twin-trapeze, high performance skiff, the 49er is a 5 meters long, very fast and prone to capsizing in strong winds.
- 49erFX (women's skiff): Also sailed by two people, the 49erFX carries a shorter mast and less sail area than the 49er.
- Finn (men's one-person dinghy heavy): This one-person dinghy has been used in Olympic competition since 1952 and is very demanding technically, tactically and fitness-wise.
- Laser (men's one-person dinghy): The most popular one-person sailing dinghies in the world is a relatively simple dinghy with one sail that requires great fitness and agility.
- Laser Radial (women's one-person dinghy): The Laser Radial also requires strength and agility. It uses the same hull as the Laser, but sets its single sail on a shorter mast.
- Nacra 17 (mixed multihull): The Nacra 17 catamaran, new for 2016, carries wave-piercing hulls and is the first class requiring that one of its crew be male and the other female. (See Multihull and skiff Olympic recommendations announced).
- RS:X (men’s and women’s windsurfer): The RS:X windsurfers have a carbon rig and centerboard and specifies different sail sizes for men’s and women’s events.
For more on the classes, see the boats.com Olympic Sailing Guide.
Where will the Olympic sailboat racing be staged?
Guanabara Bay is a renowned sailing venue that hosted a stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race in 2009 and the Pan American Games in 2007. With the backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain, the setting for the races is as dramatic as any in the world, but the water quality has been an ongoing concern. During the test events leading up to these Olympics, pollution from untreated sewage and garbage floating in the racecourse areas produced negative headlines around the world. It did not help that one sailor from Germany had to be hospitalized with an infection. Event organizers promised to install sewer treatment plants, but fell short in achieving their ambitious plans. Although there have been calls to move the races elsewhere, the Olympic event is set to begin on August 8, as planned. The boats will be launched each day at Marina da Glória, which also is the base for the regatta.
There are five sailing course areas – three inside Guanabara Bay called Pão de Açucar, Ponte and Escola Naval. Outside the bay, there are two open ocean courses called Copacabana and Niteroi. There is also a reserve course – in case the wind conditions don’t work for the other courses – called the Aeroporto area. Course layouts are available in our Olympic Sailing Guide.
What is the race schedule for the 10 Olympic Sailing classes?
The racing schedule for each class generally runs five days but may be altered depending on weather conditions. Check the Olympic sailing website for changes to this provisional schedule.
How do I follow the competition?
Most will watch electronically, either on TV or, more likely on the Internet, either via live stream or through World Sailing’s tracking apps that let you follow the racing through visualized with computer graphics, produced by the boats’ satellite transponders. That same page also will offer live competition status updates.
On-site viewers at Flamengo Park will get to see the action close to shore in the medal races, which take place at the end of the competition. This practice is called stadium sailing and can be exciting to watch, but for the athletes it is often difficult because of large swings in wind speed and direction created by the shoreline. This can introduce a random element to the racing that is less of a factor in the qualifiers, which are sailed farther from land. If you plan to follow the action live from shore, bring a beach chair, sun protection, bottled water and a good set of binoculars to make the most of it.
If you are going to Rio, you will want to download the Rio 2016 smartphone app. If you need to buy or sell tickets, go to the ticketing page. To navigate the crazy Rio traffic and avoid heartburn, check out these Golden Tips . One thing is for sure: allow ample time for the commute.
Olympic sailing trivia
- Brazilians Robert Scheidt and Torben Grael and Briton Ben Ainslie are the most medalled sailors in the Olympic Games, with five medals each. Ainslie though won gold four times. On the women’s side, Italian windsurfer Alessandra Sensini has four medals to her name, followed by fellow windsurfer Barbara Kendall from New Zealand and Ukrainian 470 sailor Ruslana Taran with three each.
- A total of 49 sailing classes have already been part of the Olympic program, including classes with boats weighing up to 20 tons
- The Games in Rio are the first time in history that will not include a single keelboat class.
- The Games in London 2012 marked the first time the United States did not win a single medal in Olympic sailing. However Jen French, 41, a quadriplegic and her crew Jean-Paul Creignou, 57 who’s legally blind, won the silver medal for the U.S. in the Skud 18 class at the Paralympic Games.
- Still, the most Olympic sailing medals in the history of the sport were won the United States (59), but the Brits hold the edge in the number of gold medals awarded. See medal tally below.