Thursday, September 9, 2010

WNR Series 3 Race 4 Recap: Calliope Rumbles

The 5 boats who showed up for final race of the 2010 WNR season were greeted with a sweet northwesterly breeze at about 12-15 knots. With the course of A2 set, we had a downwind start. On board Calliope we elected to stay away from the favored pin end of the line, instead intending to shoot for something 'middle-ish'. We felt that because we have good downwind speed it would be better to try and stay clean and keep other boats off our breeze by keeping a clear lane to windward and we felt that would be easier to do by starting in the middle. We waited till inside of 30 seconds to the start to go for our hoist because there was a good bit of pre-start jockeying for position and we got taken up by a couple of boats. Once the monkey business was overwith and people started turning down to head for the line, we got our kite up and got things rolling. It looked to me like we might have been a bit late for the start and certainly boats that had started more towards the pin seemed to be ahead of us. However, with our clear lane of breeze to windward, we were able to put our rumble on. After a few lengths, we broke our pole bridle and had to jury rig a foreguy to keep the pole under control. I told the crew that it's not a good day of sailing if you don't break something. Once we got that fixed, we rolled the boats below us and by halfway to the first mark, we were showing the fleet our taillights as it was just us, a J/24, and a Pearson 30 out in front. As we approached the mark, we looked back and saw a beautiful array of spinnakers spread out behind us:
For some reason, it appeared that LinGin, who was our closest competition, was going to the wrong mark for a significant part of the leg as they sailed far to the left of the rhumbline and they certainly gave us pause to double check the SI's to make sure we were sailing the correct course.
Coming into the mark, we owed room to the Pearson 30 on the inside. He sure took his sweet time making the turn, and we had a much more seamanlike rounding (in wide, out tight!) which put us in a higher lane for the first part of the beat back into the harbor. Our takedown was very clean and with the new long jibsheets that fit over the pole we were immediately ready to tack. Unfortunately, even though we were in a higher lane, they were to leeward and ahead and we had to contend with their wind shadow that forced us to hang in some less than ideal breeze. Nevertheless, for strategic reasons, we didn't want to tack out so we stayed on port and worked on keeping the boat rolling. After boats behind had rounded we looked back at LinGin and they seemed to have a higher angle as well as better speed than we had and it looked like they were gaining. We decided that pulling our jib draft forward might help and decided to tighten the backstay and jib halyard (during the tack). Once we started to get in close to the spider, we tacked out, cranked up the jib halyard tension, and headed back across on starboard. We had a tack snafu that slowed us down a bit, but once we sorted that out and got the boat rail-down-and-rumbling again, we had a full knot of increased speed through the water probably due to the increased jib halyard tension and better shape of the jib (draft more forward and powered up). This was satisfying as we could then hold the same speed/angle as LinGin and we felt good about that.

With the RN being a port rounding and well inside the starboard tack layline to the harbor, we decided that there was no real penalty for under-standing and tacked relatively early to head back toward the USNA annex seawall. We went all the way to the wall before tacking out to head for the harbor, leading LinGin by 8-10 lengths at that mark with Laughing Gull in 3rd about 3-4 lengths behind her. Unfortunately, we could not quite lay the can at the mouth of the harbor and so had to throw in 2 extra tacks as we worked our way in, but we still passed the can about 5 lengths ahead of LinGin and it was a close reach to the finish with enough pressure to keep the normal WNR flukeyness from stealing our victory. We crossed the finish line first for the 3rd time this summer and secured a win for the 3rd part of the 2010 WNR. All in all it was a great night of sailing, with excellent breeze, good competition, and a beautiful sunset!

Complete results at: http://www.race.annapolisyc.org/RegattaModules/ViewRegattaResults.aspx?RegID=325&mid=254&tabid=10

I was recently reminded that team Calliope has been a competitor in AYC Wednesday Night Racing for 8 years now. It has been a hugely rewarding experience and taught us many things about sailing and about building a team. In our first season, we competed with no spinnaker, a ratty cruising genoa, battenless main, and having almost no keelboat driving experience, with a motley crew of St. John's students, most of whom had never sailed before. Over the years, we have made many modifications to the boat, to the sails, to the crew, and to our style of racing. We've learned what's important and what's not. We've learned what driving techniques work and what doesn't. We've learned how to work together, and we've learned how to teach people and how to learn from them.

It occurred to me that it might be good to have a list of the top things that I think have made a difference in getting us from the back of the fleet to the front. Not that we'll stay at the front mind you, but I think we've made some really big strides, and I want to share what I think is important. For those of you seasoned racers out there, this is probably not news, but for some of the newer people, I thought it might be helpful, so here goes:

1. A clean bottom is a must. This cannot be over-stressed. It sounds obvious, but one of the big things I changed this year is I bought my own SCUBA gear and try to clean the bottom every week. It is amazing how much growth you can get even in one week. I used to use the Yellow Dick guy and I can't un-recommend him too much. I know of at least one case where an owner had supposedly had his bottom cleaned and then had an emergency haulout only to find the bottom was totally encrusted with growth. That guy is dishonest. Don't use him. My solution is to clean the bottom myself because that way I know it gets done and done right. But there are probably honest divers that can be found. Unfortunately, it sounds like Yellow Dick is not one of them.

2. Building up a good core team of committed people who may not always make every race but enjoy racing with you is so important. Once you have a core group of people who know your boat and know your style, you will really make big strides of improvement. It has helped me a lot.

3. Talking through maneuvers before you go into them is really helpful. We do this all the time on Calliope and it really helps new people, but even with experienced crew, discussing the sequence of events that's going to occur before you get to a mark rounding makes a huge difference and reduces costly mistakes. So talk about what side the kite will come down on, when you're going to set the jib, and when the gybe will occur. This allows everybody on board to think their part through before you get to the mark rounding and there's chaos all around you with other boats.

4. Always try to think one step ahead on the race course. So if you're going downwind, have your rear-view spotter look at the course and pick a side for the next upwind leg. The best time to make strategic decisions is when you have the boat settled down and moving and you can think. Don't waste this time by relaxing. Use the time to plan your next leg. If you're on a beat, discuss whether you want to gybe early or not on the next run before you get to the mark. Pick a strategy, analyze it after the fact.

5. As an owner, I used to helm all my races. This year, because of my school commitments, I had to relinquish this role to someone else because I simply could not be present for a lot of the races. As a consequence, in cases where I was in attendance, I would elect to trim or do some other job and work with the crew. For better or for worse, this has worked really well. I enjoy being able to get my head 'out of the boat' and I also feel like I can focus a lot more on getting the boat set up properly which I think makes a speed difference. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the helmsman that I have currently is at least as good as I am (probably better)... But even without a crack helmsman, if you can get a competent driver and dedicate your resources to focusing on tactics and making the boat go fast, it can help your performance. Also, you will learn something about the other jobs on your boat. As an owner and usual helmsman, it is both liberating and scary at the same time to put your boat in somebody else's hands during a race.

6. I think the importance of sails and furling systems is overstressed. Our main was built in 2002. Our kite was built in 2003. Both are stock off the rack sails. Our jib is 3 years old but was not at all fast in our first year using it. We use roller furling which I am convinced makes absolutely NO difference to Alberg racing except MAYBE in extremely light air (although we have been fast in some light air races this year). Don't worry about your sails. If they were made within the last 20 years they are probably fine. Improving your crew work in tacks and gybes and upwind/downwind driving will make a bigger difference than new sails.

7. I also think there is over-emphasis on bottom coatings, which is silly. I have ablative paint on my bottom. I have always had ablative paint. It works fine. I scrub it every week. It may wear off faster, but in my opinion it is certainly not slower around the racetrack than hard paint. I don't think that, for the speed, hull shape, and average roughness of our boats, there is any difference between ablative and hard bottom paint. So if you worry about your bottom, don't. Get it clean, but don't agonize over what kind of paint you have.

8. One of the biggest things you can do to improve is try to eliminate mistakes. Whenever we have a bad tack or sail change, I try to work through it with the crew. I ask what went wrong. We try to analyze and discuss what could have been done differently. We try to do this every time there is something that doesn't go right, and I think often we make improvements by going through this process. By eliminating mistakes, you elevate your game and you shave boatlengths off your total distance sailed. It allows you to hold lanes and keep your air clear, which pays huge dividends in the end.

9. Another thing we always try to do is debrief after every race. We discuss what decisions were good and what decisions were bad. If we did well, we think about what made the difference. If we did poorly, we look for reasons (excuses?). We replay the race in discussion and talk about where we could have chosen differently and what might have happened if we'd done it another way. By doing this we prepare ourselves for future races when we will be faced with similar decisions.

10. The last thing is we always have fun. On Calliope, we have 2 sailing mottoes: the first is when the skipper starts yammering too much, the crew should say: 'Shut up and drive.' The second is "We win by leaving the dock." If you take the attitude that simply getting out on the water already is winning and everything else after that is gravy then you are guaranteed to achieve your goal. It has worked for us.

We have enjoyed a great season of Wednesday Night Racing. I won't make either Oxford or Queenstown personally, but Calliope will be there without me. I hope y'all have a great time and I do plan on seeing everybody at PSA for the Rankin Regatta!

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