So you'd like to watch Olympic sailing, especially as it's one of the UK's most successful Olympic sports, but you're not too sure about how to follow it. Watching the dinghy classes racing at the Olympic Sailing regatta is easier than watching many sailing racing events, so it's a great place to start.

Big sailing events with big audience figures, such as the Olympics, the America's Cup and the Extreme Sailing Series, have adapted to the needs of the viewer by changing competition formats as well as ensuring the competitors themselves are easily recognisable. Where once Olympic sailing was staged for the sole benefit of the racers, who naturally demanded clear breezes out at sea and cared little for big, bright national branding, the modern event has become accessible to millions of viewers on location, online or on TV.

watching Olympic Sailing

Large country flags on sails and medal races held close to shore have made it much easier for spectators to watch Olympic sailing. Photo OnEdition.

Despite the technology and large country flags carried on the sails, there are several unique features of the sport 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.

Olympic sailing on Rio's Guanabara Bay

The racing in Brazil, shown here in a 2015 test event, is on Rio de Janeiro’s photogenic Guanabara Bay. Photo Rio 2016/Alex Ferro.

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 basic guide to the racing rules of sailing, as well as some of the idiosyncrasies of the sport.


What is the objective in an Olympic sailing 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).

Watching Olympic Sailing: RS:X windsurfing class

Sailors must trim their sails to take advantage of wind power as they sail around a racecourse. On some of the boats, such as the Olympic RS:X windsurfer class, kinetic power is allowed, and sailors can literally fan their boats forward by pumping their sails, which is a rigorous physical challenge.  Photo OnEdition.

There are 10 different Olympic classes (see our Olympic sailing guide), 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 ever-changing conditions on the water.


How is a sailing race started?

If you’ve never seen a sailing race begin, make sure you tune in to a broadcast with a well-informed commentator, or you may find yourself thinking along the lines of the comedy voice-over on the clip below. (Note: salty language alert!)




The starting line is marked between a mast on the race committee boat and a floating mark or second official's boat. Boats are free to cross 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 jostle for position on the starting line. Sometimes one end of the line offers competitors an advantage by virtue of having stronger wind or a favourable wind angle, which can lead to more boats contending for a position there.

Watching Olympic Sailing: 470 class start

At the beginning of a race, the fleet of boats such as these 470 class two-person dinghies, is usually closely spaced. Each competitor has tried to cross the starting line at full speed exactly as the five-minute starting countdown reaches zero. Photo OnEdition.

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 racing rules of sailing).


Olympic Sailing start sequence: 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

  • Start / Class flag lowered / 1 horn


Why are the boats sailing in different directions?

Sailing boats 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 influences 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 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 manoeuvre called tacking. In this process, the sailor (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 gybing, 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 colourful 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.

Watching Olympic Sailing: wind angles

Because a sailing boat can't sail directly into the wind, teams sail on starboard tack (boat at left) or port tack (right) and zig zag their way upwind. Lightweight skiffs such as the 49er (shown) also zig-zag when sailing with the wind (e.g. red sail); the boats gain so much speed that they more than make up for the extra distance covered. Photo US Sailing Team Sperry/Will Ricketson.


Who's in the lead in a sailing 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 gybing, 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-hand 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 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 score 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.

Watching Olympic Sailing: Finn dinghy class

The Finn Dinghy is typically sailed by a tall, heavy sailor with the strength and skills to manage a large sail and heavy boat. Photo Tom Gruitt/Creating Waves.


Where will the 2016 Olympic Sailing regatta 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 rubbish floating in the racecourse areas produced negative headlines around the world. It did not help that one sailor from Germany had to be hospitalised with an infection. Event organisers promised to install sewage 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.

Watching Olympic Sailing: Guanabara Bay map, Rio de Janeiro

The course map shows the available racecourse areas both in Guanabara Bay and offshore. Credit: Rio2016.

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.


Olympic sailing schedule Rio 2016.

The Olympic sailing schedule for Rio 2016: the days where a class has no racing scheduled may be used to catch up in the even of races being cancelled. Each event concludes with a medal race, a double-points race contested by the top 10 boats.


How do I watch Olympic sailing?

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 visualised 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.

For more on the 2016 Olympics see Sailing at the 2016 Rio Olympics and UK Olympic Sailing medal predictions 2016.Save