About Olympic sailing

A bench in front of a sunset

Olympic sailing consists of 15 different boat classes, but only 10 are proposed to be sailed in the London Olympics. These are:

The remaining five consist of three variations on a high-performance two-person dinghy, known as the 470 (dinghy), and two completely new classes for this Olympics – the laser radial and laser 4.7 (both single-person dinghy classes). Each of the classes has its own rules, but they are all broadly similar in that they are governed by a “windsurfer” – a hollow sailboard that allows the sailor to sit down while maneuvering.

The ten proposed events are split into two fleets, the windward-leeward fleet, also known as ‘fleet racing’ or ‘match racing’, and the medal race fleet which consists of all but three of the events. The fleet races are short races, while the medal races are a test of skill and endurance for both man and machine. The windward-leeward fleet is further split into two groups known as the red group and the blue group, which take part in their own series of races to decide not only individual medals but also who will be competing against who in the medal race series.

How do the races work?

A person riding a surf board on a body of water

A regatta contains many races, but for the purposes of Olympic sailing, there are five key stages:

The first is known as the ‘warning signal’, which marks the start of racing. A flag on a mast indicates that all boats should round it up and head out to sea in order to begin racing. The sailors must then round marks, identified by either numbers or colored buoys which mark the course for each race.

The boats are then generally separated into two groups – the ‘up’ group and the ‘down’ group – before waiting at their starting positions for either another set of flags to be flown at the mast (known as the ‘go’ flag) or the starting gun to be fired. The start signal begins with a five-minute warning period before racing begins, which is known as the “pre-start sequence”, followed by an announcement over the tannoy system. Once started, sailors race around one or more courses – there are 25 in total during the Olympics – which are composed of a number of turning marks, again identified by numbers or colored buoys.

The first five boats to cross the finishing line, win gold, silver, and bronze medals, depending on their position across the line. After this initial sequence has been completed, there are further races for those who finished outside of the top five in the medal race. These are known as the ‘repechage races’, and they determine final overall positions for all competitors other than those who won a medal in the initial race, but have no further chance of winning a medal.

How are performance factors determined?

A man riding on the back of a boat in a body of water

Sailors are ranked according to their points totals after each Olympic regatta – both the fleet races and the medal races. This ranking is used to determine which group each boat should compete in for subsequent events, with boats being assigned a grouping according to their performance in previous regattas.

For example, the first group of the windward/leeward Olympic fleet will include those who have performed well in previous events, but not well enough to qualify for the medal race. The second group is composed of those who have been less successful in previous events, and so on.

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