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The sailing field of play consists of four waterways, which are used to define the competition course. These courses are indicated with marker buoys that are laid daily for the duration of the Games. These buoys must be repositioned with every shift in wind strength or wind direction. Officials at sea monitor the weather and lay the buoys accordingly. The object of yachting is to complete the course marked by buoys using sail power in the shortest possible time. Sailors must find the most efficient way to make use of the available wind. Since a boat cannot sail directly into the wind, sailors must ‘tack’ back and forth at an angle when sailing into the wind. The closer a boat sails to the wind, the better it is able to follow a tight course, and the sooner it will cross the finish line.

The starting signal is given from an anchored vessel. Participants are warned five minutes before the start by a pistol shot and a class flag. One minute later, a second pistol shot is fired and a preparatory flag is hoisted. One minute before the start the preparation flag goes down and sailors are not allowed on the course side anymore (triangle between the first mark and the starting line). The race officially begins at the sound of the fourth pistol shot when the class flag goes down. Because sailboats cannot line up immobile at the starting line, they jockey for position in order to be the first to cross the line when the gun goes off. Those who cross the line prematurely must go back and re-cross it. Positioning is also crucial during the race, since a boat to the windward side of another (that is, between the other boat and the wind) will literally take the wind out of its opponent’s sails.

Competitors are scored based on their finish position: one point is awarded to the first boat, two to the second, and so on. Once all races are completed, each crew may eliminate its one or two poorest rankings, depending how many races it has completed. The final race is called the medal race, for which points are doubled. Following the medal race, the individual or crew with the fewest total points will be declared the winner.

At London 2012, the 10 different Olympic Sailing events (six for men, four for women) featured a variety of craft, from dinghies and keelboats to windsurfing boards. Each of the classes in sailing competitions has its own specifications for length, weight and sail area.

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