The Santa Maria Cup is a match race regatta, and like the America's Cup, the sailors are racing head-to-head in direct competition. Unlike the America's Cup, the Santa Maria Cup provides sailors with equalized boats, and, as a result, it is more a test of sailing ability than design, materials, and development.
The objective in match racing is very simple: to be the first to cross the finishing line. There are, however, a few caveats, the team must have no outstanding penalties, it must have started correctly, it must have sailed the course, and it must have complied with any special requirements. The simplest way to achieve this is to be in controlling position at the start and to remain ahead and in control for the entire race.
With evenly matched boats and crews, a good start usually results in winning the race; however, the downwind finish provides the opportunity to work the wind angles - a small lead does not always equal victory.
The race course is a simple windward-leeward course with a combined start/finish line at the leeward end. The course will have two laps, and the length of the course is adjusted so that a race will take approximately 15 minutes. The Santa Maria Cup will have six races making up one flight. During each flight all 12 teams will be racing. The pairs of boats will start at five minute intervals. After each flight, the teams are rotated to a different boat, and in the next flight will race a different team. The Santa Maria Cup begins with a double round-robin (every team sails every other team twice), then the top four go straight to the semi-finals for a best-two-out-of-three series. The top two from the semi-finals compete for first and second, and the other two compete in the petit-finals, both finals being best two out of three.
The pre-start is critical
The teams begin their pre-start maneuvering by entering the starting area from above the starting line, each coming from a different side of the course. The teams dive down through the start line four minutes before their starting signal, then begin their intricate ballet. In the pre-start period there is no "proper course". This is significant from the point of view of the rules. During this period the teams are looking for one of two things: forcing the other team to infringe a rule so that she will have to take a penalty (after the starting signal); or to be in a controlling position at the start and/or to get a significant advantage at the start (ie: be in the lead).
Being "in control" at the start doesn't necessarily mean being in the lead at the moment of the starting signal; the object is to be "in control" soon after the start. With superior speed and timing it is possible to be second across the starting line, but achieve a controlling position very soon after. Depending upon the experience and confidence of the teams, there is often a psychological advantage to be gained by the skipper who is clearly in control during the pre-start period.
During the race
On upwind legs the team in control is either ahead and in such a position that any windshift will not benefit the other team, or close ahead in a position where her "dirty wind" or backwind is adversely affecting her opponent, or her opponent is trapped and unable to tack because of the proximity of the controlling team.
On downwind legs, protecting a lead is often difficult and, unless well ahead, the leader will be concerned with ensuring she is inside or ahead at the next mark rather than being "in control".
During the race, umpires decide who has broken a rule, if the competitors request that they do so. If a competitor believes a rule has been broken, she will wave a 'Y' flag (red and yellow diagonal stripes). The umpires work in pairs aboard small quick powerboats. The two umpires each represent a boat and confer with one another during the entire duel. They indicate their decision through the use of flags and a whistle. If they feel no rule has been broken, they will wave a green flag (with a whistle to call attention to their signal). If they believe a team has broken a rule, they will wave either a blue or yellow which is associated with the team to be penalized. You can tell by the flag flying from the backstay of each boat.
The umpires will also place a colored ball on a stake on their powerboat indicating that a team has been penalized, and has not relieved itself of the burden. The penalty to be taken is a 270° turn (one tack and one gybe), and the team may take it whenever it wishes. If a team gets a penalty while still having a penalty to perform, they must immediately take one of the penalties. The exception to this is if a team is penalized, and its opponent has a penalty to take. The slate is wiped clean and neither team must take a penalty.
The team that crosses the finish line first wins the race - as long as they have taken all of their penalties. Watch out for a team that is leading with a penalty to take - they will spend a lot of time either trying to get way out in front to take their penalty, or forcing the other team to get a penalty that will wipe the slate clean.