I'll describe the Saturday race first as this is simplest. I earnestly recommend that you begin your racing career with one of these, it is less crowded and less serious - and more fun! I'll then demonstrate differences for other races.
First, go and put your race card in the central rack - if you don't do this you won't get a result unless you pay a £2 fine! (No race card? Speak to the membership secretary) If races are defined as 'back to back' entry to the first automatically enters you for the second, otherwise you must go and put the card back in for the second race. If you're using someone else's boat, write your name on the back of the card and insert it this way round, but check the results sheet afterwards because the race crew may not notice. The club boats all have race cards.
If it is less than half an hour to start time, there should be a course up in the clubhouse, so write that down. (Please put the biro back!!) It is shown as a diagram and as a list of marks, obviously red numbers mean 'go round the mark to port' and green 'go round the mark to starboard'. Work out where the start line is.
The marks go clockwise round the water from the clubhouse. Even numbers are yellow, odd numbers are orange and round. Also there's a pink 'X' in the middle, and a yellow 'F' by the clubhouse. Don't get confused with the various rescue boat mooring buoys. The chequered buoy by the clubhouse indicates a large and solid pipe under the water, don't go inside it. The clubhouse produces strange wind effects and you will find that the klutziest things happen there, with a grandstand view for the onlookers.
Aim to be leaving your pontoon 15 minutes before the race start time - for me, this means arriving at the club about an hour before to give time to get changed and rigged up. Allow for a queue to get down ramps, don't hog pontoon space and remember that it takes longer to get to the start in light winds!
Sail to the start line, remembering that it is between the flag mast (in the committee boat, or on the shore if wind direction permits) and the outer mark. The inner is just an indication and does not necessarily mark the other end of the start line, it's often there to protect the committee boat from ramming. However, to start you must pass between the outer and the inner if it is there - it's just that the inner does not indicate the position of the line.
Keep an eye on the race crew as start time approaches, and have the counter on your watch ready to go. The race officer's watch is definitive. The sequence is as follows for two-minute intervals.
Four minutes to go: one hoot, and one flag goes up
Two minutes to go: one hoot, and a second flag goes up
Start: one hoot, and both flags lowered. Go!
Easy. Now you've mastered that, what about Sunday?
Same principle really, only one of the flags indicates the class. You can memorise your class flag, but it is easier to work out which class of boats has the start before you - when they go, you have two minutes. If you have the first start, then just apply the above principle. If it isn't your start, please try and keep clear of the line.
Postponements, course changes, recalls and other confusions
Winds shift and die, and race officers have to respond. So the course might change or the race be postponed between your visit to the clubhouse and the start.
If the course is changed, you will hear two hoots and see an yellow-and-red checked flag. The new course should be displayed at the start, and the race officer may well be yelling that he's changed the course. Two hoots can also mean a postponement and the related flag. When the postponement is over, the postponement flag comes down and there is one hoot. The four-minute signal will be one minute after that.
Most race officers will set a course with more kaps than they think will be needed and shorten the course at an appropriate time - when lunch is ready or if it is going too long; it isn't possible to lengthen races. If you hear two hoots from the club house and see the 'shorten course' flag, (white with a blue square in the middle) you will be finishing the next time you go through the finish line. For class races, the race crew will be trying to finish the slower classes early - if, like me, you are often at the back of your fleet you may hear the shorten course signal as you go through F.
Accurate finishing of pursuit races requires an airship (no air disturbance) hovering above the race to take a snapshot when the time is up. As IBRSC's airship is grounded with a puncture (JOKE!), we finish races by driving the rescue boat from the front of the course to the back, noting numbers as it goes. The crew will tell you when you have finished. If you're on a beat, don't stop sailing until you have been finished as you need to carry on to the next mark.
Line-jumpers will hear their sail numbers or names called, and must come back and re-cross the line without getting in anyone else's way. Somebody may well be waving a tatty blue-and-white checked flag too. If too many jump the line the fleet is recalled - if it is a class race the guilty fleet goes to the back of the queue and has to wait until all the other boats have gone. If it is a handicap, everyone goes back and tries again.
For back to back races, the start sequence for the second race should commence soon after the last finisher crosses the line in the first race. If you are one of the last finishers, you'll have to go straight to the new start line and note the new course from there; as it is a back-to-back race you are automatically entered.