The ILCA UK Qualifiers



This is a short guide to the ILCA UK Qualifier series, last brought up to date for the Spring 2020 series. It is intended for newcomers to all three fleets, the ILCA 4, the ILCA 6 and the ILCA 7, but experienced Qualifier sailors may still learn something. The ILCA 4's Qualifier and ladder events may be organised separately, sometimes with other organisations, so some parts may not apply, but if you're a ILCA 4 sailor you should still read all of this guide to prepare you for your move to the larger rigs.

The main thing to remember is that we are all part of one class with different rigs. The same philosophy applies to everyone.

Philosophy? What's that?

In the ILCA fleet it means Fairness:

Fair Racing

The ILCA UK Qualifier circuit will be the most challenging event you will face until you compete at your first major international championship. You may find yourself alongside one of your sporting idols on the start-line, because all UK ILCA sailors, even Olympians, have to compete in this series to qualify for ILCA World and European Championship places. This open access to compete against the best is almost unique in top-level sport. Imagine getting the opportunity to play Andy Murray for a place at Wimbledon, or a race-off against Laura Kenny for a place on the British Cycling team. (OK, so you'd be unlikely to win either, but at least in sailing you get the opportunity.) And you are sailing an ILCA, which means that, at one minute to go before the first start, you have the same equipment and the same opportunity to qualify for the Worlds as Elliot Hanson, Ali Young and Hannah Snellgrove. You just have to go faster and hit the shifts better. Not a big ask, then.

Windshift flukes aside, it will be your skills that get you to the front, or the lack of them that keep you at the back, whether it's boatspeed or decision-making. In an ILCA dinghy you can't blame the boat for your poor performance, but it also means you deserve all the credit when you do well. That is not the main reason why it's been re-adopted for 2024 as the Olympic single-hander, but it goes a long way towards explaining why the Olympic movement and the IYRU (the predecessor to ISAF and now World Sailing) wanted the Laser to become an Olympic boat twenty years before the Class membership agreed.

A Fair Racing Structure

The ILCA dinghy is the fairest test of your sailing ability. There's no hiding: if you get a poor result it's your fault, but if you do well that's your fault as well. For their part the Qualifier organisers will do everything to ensure that the racing is fair.

Split fleets are sometimes necessary for the ILCA 6 fleet if a weekend is popular. (Split fleets used to be normal – not quite so often now.) Starts with large fleets can be difficult to get away. ILCA 6 competitors could spend most of the weekend practising starts, not racing. (There are several reasons, some technical, why the ILCA 7s didn't have quite the same problem when they were the larger fleet, but they occasionally misbehave.) If we do have split fleets there will be a qualifying day on the Saturday, with known good sailors seeded into each fleets. For the Sunday the fleet is split into Gold and Silver. This will allow the top sailors to compete against each other, but new entrants who perform well can get into the Gold Fleet right from their first regatta. Each weekend will be as fair as possible: the Split Fleet concept only really works well when several days of racing can sort the fleet out, and a weekend is not really enough. So it's a compromise. There will always be a perception of unfairness from mid-fleet sailors around the cut-off point. The answer is to get better to escape the drop-zone, but someone's got to be there. Just make sure it's not you.

ILCA UK Qualifier events normally have a jury afloat in one or more RIBs. The on-water jury is there to help you, the rule-abiding competitor, by identifying those who infringe the racing rules. The jury's presence on the water tends to keep everyone honest, in your interest. They will be watching for infringements, and dishing penalties out for Rule 42. They will also signal with a whistle if they see what they believe to be an infringement, such as touching a mark and not taking a penalty.

If you have been pinged for Rule 42, or have been whistled at, and you're not sure why, do your penalty and get on with your race, but more carefully. After the day's racing – and this is most important if it was your first offence – go and see the jury members after the day's racing. They will usually have sound-recorded what they saw on the water, and will be able to tell you why they pinged you. (If you're really fortunate they'll have videoed you, but this is uncommon.) They are there to help you become a better sailor, and that includes teaching you to avoid rule-breaking errors.

Make sure your boat conforms with the ILCA Class Rules. A short section on scrutineering and class rules goes into this below.

Fair Opportunity

The ILCA UK Ladder is the basis of qualification for the ILCA Worlds and European Championships. The emphasis is on equality of opportunity for all UK sailors provided they are eligible for the event. The principle is that, if there are six places at the Worlds and the sailors lying 4th and 6th on the ladder can't go, then 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8 get to go.

UKLA once had a situation where we had to ask ILCA for an extra place: after winning Olympic Gold, Paul Goodison had left it to the last four 'Q' events to qualify for the 2009 ILCA Worlds. The last 'Q' was canned, and Paul hadn't qualified. There was no provision in our 'Q' series (or within ILCA) for a World or Olympic champion to have an automatic place, so he had to qualify like anyone else. What was the UKLA Committee to do: kick out the lowest sailor who'd qualified for a place? That sailor had earned their place, and it really wouldn't have been fair. Fortunately ILCA came to our aid by offering Paul a place; he lived up to his reputation by winning the Worlds.

The RYA may choose anyone they want to fund as part of an RYA Squad, but if a Squad sailor finishes 9th on the ladder at the selection-point, he (or she) doesn't get to go to an ILCA championship unless enough sailors higher up the ladder drop out, even if they aren't Squad members. Tough, but fair. We accept that there may be problems with booking flights and accommodation, but think of it this way: sailor No. 8 has earned his or her place, and deserves to go. Does UKLA kick that sailor off? I don't think so.

The ILCA UK Ladder has stood the test of time precisely because it has been seen and accepted as fair since we started it the 1980s, precisely because it is based on performance on the water, and nothing else.


It's now down to you

If you've just come from one of the Junior classes, you will be treated more as an adult, though not completely. This applies to the ILCA 4 Fleet, too, with allowance for age. Of course we ensure that the necessary safety aspects are complied with, but you will be expected to make your own decisions about whether to sail, and whether to come ashore if it gets too rough for comfort. The 'Q' events are designed to choose between the UK's top ILCA sailors for the privilege of competing at ILCA World and European championships, and if the weather conditions get rough, sailors who aspire to compete at this level are expected to cope with the strong winds they may encounter at Championship level. It's not that you'll be expected to compete in a Force 8 even at World Championship level, but a squall can change everything in an instant, and if you're three miles out at sea you'll just have to deal with it.

Am I ready?

The ILCA 6 and ILCA 7 Qualifier events are not for beginners. Even if you're experienced on inland waters, it is not adequate preparation for racing on the sea. All ILCA 6 and ILCA 7 Qualifier events are held on the sea, so you need to have done one or two coastal Open meetings before attempting a 'Q' event. Some ILCA 4 events are held on inland waters, some at Weymouth, which might be outside the harbour.

If the wind is too strong for you, know your limitations. We won't send you out to sail in conditions that are not sailable, but they might be too rough for you. If your mates tease you for not going out, or for coming ashore early, they'll be the stupid ones, not you. The sea is always stronger. With several patrol boats out on the water you'll be quite well-protected at a 'Q' event, so these events are a good opportunity to push yourself a little beyond your comfort zone. Just don't go too far.

If you decide to go in, you must find an 'official boat' — a patrol-boat, or a Jury RIB, but not your Mum or Dad in a RIB unless they are also an accredited 'official boat' — and take its guidance about coming in. It is written into the Sailing Instructions, so you'll be penalised if you just sail in. Don't rely on your mates nearby; as soon as the next race-sequence starts they'll forget all about you. If you can't find a patrol-boat, head for the Committee Boat and tell them you're going in. The safety fleet will soon know you're going in: they will keep their eyes on you, and warn those ashore that you're coming in.


Hypothermia is insidious: it creeps up on you. You might think you're OK, but it will be plain to anyone in a RIB once you start becoming muddled and unresponsive. If you're told to leave your boat, obey the rescue crew. Your boat can be replaced. You can't.


If you are poorly prepared for the weekend you'll suffer for it, but if you are well prepared the ILCA dinghy is the best fleet to find out how good a sailor you are. You may not get the answer you're looking for - the first beat may show that you're not quite the hotshot your club results make you out to be - but if you use the event as a learning experience to build your skills you'll have a head start on those who don't.

Do I need a new boat?

You do not need a new ILCA, or even a new sail, to do the Qualifiers. Until you're getting regular top ten 'Q' results a new boat would be wasted on you. Until you're really fast and make good tactical decisions most of the time, your mistakes will more than cancel out any advantage of a new boat. A well-specified used Laser will be fine, so long as you check that it has a World Sailing plaque at the rear of the cockpit — and don't be fooled by a plaque issued by 'The Laser Class'. Spend the difference on getting fit and practising your sailing skills. That'll do far more to get you near the front. Once you get there you might have a reason to pester your parents for a new ILCA. But you've got to get there first.

A relatively dry hull with a fairly new sail will be fine. (In 1982 a young Kiwi visitor called Phil Douglas borrowed a local club sailor's old blue hull off the beach at Lyme Regis, stuck his own (used) sail on it, and won the Qualifier.) Save a brand new sail (if you've got one) for a championship. But a brand new hull with a knackered sail will see you slide out at the back fairly quickly.

Just make sure your sail has a class-legal ILCA button, with ILCA embossed on the button.


There are three documents which you are advised to read well before you set off for your first event: the Notice of Race (NOR), the Sailing Instructions (SIs), and any Local Instructions.

Oh, and make sure to take your UKLA/EurILCA membership card — this year's — and a copy of your insurance policy. If you aren't insured with Noble, you should be!

The Notice of Race (NOR)

The NOR tells you about the overall series and the events that make it up: who's running it, who can compete (and who can't), details of Registration, the racing schedule, special rules for each fleet, and categories of competitor.

The Sailing Instructions (SIs)

The Qualifiers used to have a standard set of SIs that were constant for the entire series under the same PRO. Location-specific deviations were handled by separate Local SIs. It meant you had a consistent playing-field, which meant less to read before you went afloat.

The current Qualifier SIs are specific to each event. They may look similar, but there can be changes that could cost you plenty. For instance, at the Autumn 2019 'Q' at Weymouth you could do a one-turn penalty if you infringed another boat, but for the Hayling 'Q' a week later (and for the earlier Sunderland 'Q') the penalty was the default two-turns.

Read and understand the SIs before going afloat. This will get you into good habits for when you do other events, especially international championships. It is essential to sit down for ten minutes and read through the SIs closely. Talk them through with a friend, who may have spotted something you haven't. If you're the one to spot something odd, the other sailor may have cause to thank you for it later.

The SIs will usually have been posted on the UKLA website a day or so before, possibly longer. Print them off and study them closely before you set off; you will be too busy to take them in if you skim-read them just before you go afloat — or, as I have been known to do, read a soggy set of SIs on the run down to the start area. If the SIs have not been available before you turn up, give yourself five minutes quiet-time in the car.

Local Instructions

Local Instructions relate to particular facts about the venue itself. They tend to deal with rules that people who normally sail there will take for granted but that you, as a visitor, will not. As a guest of the club you will be expected to obey their rules while you are there. More useful information will be peculiarities about the launching and recovery area, any local dangers such as wrecks to avoid, the harbour layout, and the route to the starting area. They may also give information about the shape and colour of the racing marks.

Also, look for any changes to the SIs; these will have been signalled.


Pre-enter if you can. (You may have to; watch for any cutoff date before the event.) On arrival you'll still have to check in, but it takes much less time. If you haven't pre-entered, be prepared for a long queue. Every minute you spend in the registration queue is time wasted.

Arrive at the venue early. Aim to arrive between 9 and 9.30. Much later and you might find yourself in a bit of a rush. Sometimes it can be a long way out to the start.

Measurement and scrutineering

Unlike most classes, the ILCA's strict class rules are as much about how you rig the boat, and what you rig it with, as about its measurements. In fact, if your boat has not been tampered with, by you or a previous owner, about all you need to check in terms of measurement is the placing and spacing of sail numbers and letters on the sail: your sail numbers at a 'Q' event must be complete, must match the hull number, and must comply with the ILCA Rules on spacing. (The UKLA Qualifiers are not international events, so country letters and a flag are not necessary.) If you have borrowed a sail make sure to get permission from the Race Committee when you register. You will not be popular if there's a duplicate sail-number out there, even in a different fleet.

Scrutineering is when someone checks that your boat has been rigged correctly, and what you have rigged it with. If you are checked before the start of the first race there can be no penalty, but you can also be pulled over on the water, or as you come ashore. Then, if your boat has infringed a class rule you can be penalised. The penalty may be less than a DSQ, but at championships it can be a lot more: at the 2009 Laser Radial Europeans a sailor was done for padding the inside of his centreboard case. He was DSQ'd from the previous eight races.

If you have bought a boat from someone else, even a reputable dealer, check it carefully for compliance with the rules (and get someone who knows them to help you). Just because something was illegal when you bought it doesn't make it legal.

Scrutineering at Qualifiers

In the dinghy park or on the launch beach you may be checked over for compliance with the ILCA Rules. This is more likely if there's a postponement. Before you go afloat on the Saturday morning, it gives you an opportunity to correct anything that doesn't comply. If you disagree, you will be given an opportunity to show that you're compliant. I shouldn't have to tell you that replica/'replacement' kit is not allowed.

On the Water

The Start

Questions you should be asking yourself:

It is now usual practice to display the orange start-line flag on the committee boat five minutes before the warning flag, but it's not compulsory. (It's recommended in the Sailing Instructions Guide, Appendix 'S', but it's not a Rule.) The current Qualifier SIs state 'will', not the mandatory 'shall', so a Race Officer pushed close to the cut-off time on Sunday could legitimately put the orange flag up just before the Warning Signal.

Watch the Committee Boat

If it's a restart, the recall flags will come down a minute before the Warning signal; the same goes for the AP flag after a postponement.

So, here's the situation. You're sitting in your boat after the third Recall, munching a Twix bar and trying to keeping warm in an extra windproof jacket you picked up from a RIB. The Recall flag has been flying for several minutes. Suddenly it comes down. Panic! You have just two minutes to dump your jacket and your snack-bag. Two minutes ago you were near a RIB but now the nearest one is some way off. If you dump your kit into a coach or rescue RIB after the Preparatory signal you may be seen by the Jury — who tend to keep their beady eyes looking out for this — and just don't try dumping it on to a Jury RIB! Even if you're still under the weight-limit the jacket will really hamper your sailing. Just pray for another Recall!

One trick is to hang around to leeward of the Committee Boat. You can generally tell when they are getting ready to start again, and you can head for a RIB and dump your excess kit. Please don't go to windward of the Committee Boat: your flapping sail will get in the way of the Race Officer trying to gauge the wind direction, and it'll take longer to set the course. And you'll make the race committee annoyed, too, which isn't to be encouraged.

The Preparatory signal

At the 4-minute signal, note which Preparatory flag is used. It determines the penalty that applies if you're OCS (On Course Side) – a premature starter, over the line:

The Black Flag

If there's a General Recall — OK, when there's a recall — you may go into Black Flag starts unless there was a problem with the starting procedure. A race may go straight into a black flag start if the Race Officer is running short of time, or if he's fed up with doing start-sequences for an unruly fleet.

Being caught OCS on a black flag flag start is the pits: you have to sit there and wait for the race to run its course before you can race again, and its worse if there are several more starts before the fleet gets away. Make sure you keep well away from the starting area and the course, or you could be penalised further.

The only time it's good news is when it's the last race of the day, it's a drifter in drizzle, and you weren't doing that great anyway. You can get in early, have a shower while they're hot, change and pack your boat away, all before they have finished the race. Shame about the max points, but at least it sorts your discard.

No 'X' Flag

The Committee boat may not display the 'X' Flag to tell that someone is OCS. The line is too long for a sound signal to be any use at the far end, and if you're over there are usually too many boats around to leeward to let you return unless you're right on the pin. Within a nanosecond of the start you won't be able to see the Committee Boat unless you're so far out in front that you won't need a flag to tell you that you're OCS, and unless it was a 'P' or an 'I' flag start you're stuffed anyway. Just hope you were hidden in the pack.

General Recalls

It's normal practice for a RIB to charge along to windward of the fleet if there's a General Recall. Ideally the RIB should be waving a 2nd Substitute flag (blue & yellow triangular pennant) as well, but if there's any doubt look back at the Committee boat, which will display it. Don't use the recall as an opportunity to test out the first beat; head back behind the start line as soon as you can. The Race Officer will want to get another start in quickly.

Watch out for the Race Officer changing to start the Radials if the Standards have too many false starts.

The Course


The default course is now a trapezoid / Carantec, with outer ('O') and inner ('I') loops. There is also a simple Windward/Leeward course ('L') with a short offwind leg to the finish from the leeward gate, though I'm not sure when (or why) this would be used.

Check the SIs for the following:

  1. At the windward mark, is there a spreader mark to be rounded before heading downwind?
  2. What do each of the marks look like, and what will the substitute marks look like?

Rule observance and Jury boats.

Jury boats are a necessary evil. In the days before we had Jury boats rule observance at the Laser 'Q' events was anarchic: illegal propulsion was the norm, and rule-observation at marks was a joke. It wasn't much fun at all to find yourself illegally barged out from a mark, and it was certainly not fair competition. Only when the UKLA Secretary started to go out in a RIB armed with a whistle did things improve. Now we have a trained Jury to ensure competition is fair. Whether you enjoy your racing is up to you.

Rule 42:

Jury boats will loiter on the course, often some distance away. The Jury boats carry binoculars, and if you're doing something you shouldn't, they'll probably see you before you see them. If your Rule 42 breach was particularly blatant you may get 'yellow-flagged' straight away. It's more likely that your 'first offence' will alert them to look at you more closely: you are now 'in the zone'. You will be monitored for several minutes, possibly without you being aware of it. If you hear a Jury boat whistle, look at the boat and the juror. If it's you, the Jury member will point the yellow flag directly at you to identify you as the offender. Ignoring it, thinking it'll just go away,, or thinking 'if I look round, will they pick on me?' doesn't work. They may even close in on you to avoid confusion. (I have seen several boats do turns from one yellow flag!)

If you've been 'yellow-flagged', find clear space and do your penalty immediately. It may be one or two turns; read the SIs to avoid doing more turns than necessary! And immediately means just that: as soon as you possibly can, within seconds of getting the call. You may think you've done nothing wrong, but the incident may have been a minute or so earlier. The Jury boat may have spotted you several times, and from some distance away, so you may have forgotten about the movements that attracted their attention. You may think that you've been yellow-flagged for a minor pump compared to your earlier ones, but if you're already 'in the zone' it may takes only a small breach to trigger the flag. If there are two jury boats they may consult before agreeing to 'ping' you, which takes more time.

At the start Jury boats will have stationed themselves behind the line watching for excessive body or rig movement. Trust me, it's really easy to spot! On the beats they will be looking for a flicking leech, and on the reaches and runs they will be looking for body and rig movement without a corresponding change of course. At marks they will be watching for collisions without penalties. A favourite Jury spot is the final reaching leg after the leeward mark. As a sailor it's tempting here, especially with someone trying to overtake you to windward, to overcook your body and sheet movement to keep ahead. It's the fastest way to lose twenty places while you do a two-turns penalty, and there's never any room.

When you take a penalty for Rule 42 you are accepting your guilt; this is different from taking a normal penalty, where no guilt can be implied. Yellow flag protests under Rule 42 are almost impossible to appeal successfully: just do your turns, forget about it and get on with your race. Just don't incur another penalty that weekend; that's very slow!

Near the finish line

If you are 'pinged' just before the finish and you cross the line before doing your two-turn penalty, RRS 44.2 allows you to re-cross the finish line to the course side and do your penalty. (And you must go back across the finish line; you can't pass to windward or leeward of the finish line. And because you're taking a penalty, even though you'll probably be on starboard you have no rights of way.) You can then re-cross the line in the normal way, a long way back from where you would have crossed.

Rule Observance at Marks

Most infringements outside Rule 42 occur at mark-roundings. The Jury will often station a RIB near the mark looking for collisions, either between boats or for hitting the mark. If you hear a whistle, someone's been seen to do something that the Jury believes has infringed a rule. If you think it might have been you, best do that one-turn or two-turn penalty. If you've practised doing penalty turns you should be able to flip a pair of tacks and gybes at a moment's notice and get on with the race. If another boat protests you, even if you think it was their fault you still might be found in a protest to have been in the wrong, so do the turns anyway. You haven't acknowledged guilt, and can still protest the other sailor; the difference now is that they can collect a DSQ but you can't.

If someone hails 'Protest' at you, you must seek clear water and start your penalty turns immediately: even five seconds after the hail might be considered too late by a protest committee.

Tips for Penalty Turns:

Practise penalty turns until you can do them without a second thought. Find an empty piece of water and try doing turns with your eyes shut! (But keep them open in a race.) It will make your sailing stronger, knowing you can make a mistake without it costing you the race.

My most useful piece of advice on this is to incorporate sets of penalty turns into your practice routines. You will soon surprise yourself how quickly you can pop in a couple of turns without losing much ground against other boats.

As soon as you decide to go for a pair of penalty-turns:

  1. If you're on a beat, release the vang to block-to-block or less. If it's windy, you won't be able to gybe with the vang on. Keep the Cunningham on.
  2. On a reach or run, pull the cunningham on; this will help you bear away on the second tacking turn when the boat has lost much of its momentum through the water.
  3. Place the centreboard at between half to three-quarters down. This gives the hull enough to rotate around, but it's not enough to trip the boat over in the gybe.
  4. Keep towards the back of the cockpit so that the bow stays out. The hull rotates easier on the flatter stern.

I prefer to gybe first: that gives me the speed to flip it through the following tack. But there may be circumstances when it pays to tack first, especially if the area is crowded (e.g. close to a mark) and you can do it as part of finding clear water.

After the first tack, hike hard to heel the hull to windward and help the bear-away for the second gybe.

A single penalty-turn is less of a problem because the boat doesn't lose momentum through the tack.

Don't be afraid to ask!

A final point about the Jury: if you've been yellow-flagged, and you're unsure about why you were picked out, seek out the Jury after you come ashore. They will be happy to point out exactly what you were doing wrong; they are there to help you all compete fairly against each other.

The Jury should be able to give you a detailed explanation of what caused you to be flagged. Jury members tend to carry voice-recorders, and they may play back the record of their observations about you, and any conversation they may have had with other jurors to seek confirmation.


If you've been sailing in the Junior classes, you should already be familiar with the tally system. You have two things to remember: tally out before you go afloat, and tally in when you come ashore. Some clubs nobble you as you come up the slipway; others leave it to you to hand your tally in. Either way, it's your responsibility, no-one else's.

There are normally two types of tally:

The tally is the safety fleet's record that you've returned safely. If you've forgotten to return yours, the safety fleet cannot be stood down until you've been found and accounted for. That means Safety RIBs and others staying out on the water as it gets dark, not to mention the Coastguard and other rescue services.

Don't be tempted to ask someone else to post your tally for you while you get changed or have something to eat. They may forget. You, the sailor, are entirely responsible for your tally.

© Nicolas Livingstone, 2021
photo: Bia Saboia

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