Staging A Comeback in Shifty Conditions
Staging A Comeback in Shifty Conditions
Onne Van Der Wal
I laugh when I think about Race 9 of the New York YC Invitational Cup. Phil Lotz' Arethusa was the most lobster-pot-paranoid boat on which I've ever sailed. If there was a buoy within 200 yards of us, someone would say, "Phil, do you see that pot?" And yet, in that race, we almost lost the regatta because we got stuck on a pot.
It happened with about 4 minutes to the start. We immediately pushed the main out and started backing down, trying to free our keel. With 40 seconds to go, no one was sure whether we were off it, but we pulled in the sails and went. Miraculously, we were off. We were late to the start and slow crossing the line-a second-row start on a line long enough for each boat to be in the front row. But there were 2 miles of shifts and puffs to work with before the weather mark-opportunities galore.
Tim Barker, tracking data courtesy of www.kattack.com
|For the New York YC team on Arethusa (above in red, No. 19 in photo), the start of Race 9 was nearly a disaster. Stuck on a lobster pot until 40 seconds before the starting gun, the team was late to the line and slow, quickly falling into the second row. But this was no time to panic. The author, who served as the team's tactician, resisted an immediate tack and waited for for the left shift to develop. He called for a tack before the shift hit to ensure a clearer lane on port.To see the full diagram of this race Click Here|
Load the hard drive
Before we get into the race, let's back up a bit. In my mind, there are two very specific tactical days: when the shifts are large enough to warrant sailing in some dirty air, and when the shifts are subtle enough that an extra tack or two to get into clean air is a good idea. It's a mindset I get into at the beginning of any race.
I make this call primarily on feel, but the more research I can do, the more likely the call will be correct. Before racing on this particular day, we started in the bottom left corner of the racecourse and sailed for 15 or 20 minutes on port tack through as many shifts as we could.
I like to do this on one tack, jotting down the low and high numbers, and how quickly it's getting from low to high. I use true wind direction if the instruments are well calibrated, but heading will work as well. Every once in a while I'll jot down a windspeed in a given wind direction. These numbers are just basis points. I'm just loading information into the hard drive. The more time you can spend getting in touch with the day's weather, the better the chance you'll make the correct decision should things not go according to plan.
We sailed this race in a very shifty westerly in the cozy confines of Narragansett Bay's West Passage. Playing the shifts correctly would be more important than always sailing in clear air.
We crossed the line slow and in a very poor lane. The knee-jerk reaction would be to tack immediately. But that's not always the best call. You can't gain back on the first tack all that you lost due to a bad start. But you can certainly make things a lot worse with a rash decision or two. Right off the line we were lifted and we needed to stay. To create a thin lane, we sacrificed a bit of windward gauge for some forward position, knowing that we would eventually fall into the guy to leeward of us. At that point, we were doing whatever we could to buy a little time.
Tack before the shift
When sailing in dirty air or heavy traffic, or both, it's best to get out of the situation a little before the shift hits. If you wait for the shift to materialize, everybody is going to tack in unison and you'll be in the same situation, struggling to find a clean lane. So as soon as we started, I focused up the course, looking for the next dark line, trying to determine whether it would be a left-hand or right-hand shift. After hanging on starboard for a minute or so, we tacked. It was a little out of phase, ahead of the anticipated left shift, but it set up the rest of the leg by giving us some space to play the shifts. That was really important.
Avoid the packs, think ahead
Not long after the first tack, the Royal Canadian YC team tacked right in front of us. Heading into the race, they were second in the regatta-we were in first-and my guess is they felt this was a chance to make us pay for the bad start. They were a little early on their tack, so we pinched through the bad air. We thought we were lifted, and there were no lanes going back the other way, so we really worked hard to keep that lane. But, at this point, the bigger picture shows far fewer boats on the right side of the course. After that first tack, I immediately thought: "We're going to play shifts up the right because the chances of clear lanes on that side are far greater." I wasn't worried about giving up a little bit here by hanging in bad air. I was trying to set us up for later in the beat.
Also, in flat water, with even boats-every boat in the Invitational Cup had identical sails and rig tune-everyone goes the same speed. So one starboard tacker to weather of a group can potentially corral a large part of the fleet into the wrong corner. The herd isn't always right, especially when pinned by one boat.
Be patient, rely on your research
To call the breeze, I work with what I think are high and low numbers. Anything higher or lower, respectively, is an extreme-you'd sit in the worst air in the world to stay in those shifts. A lot of people play off a median true wind direction or heading. I don't. What you really want to know is whether you're in a left-hand or right-hand phase; which way is the breeze moving? On a day like this, you sail through 15-degree shifts to get to the next 30-degree shift. The high number and the low number are the two things that give the best reference. Patience on a day like this, even though it's really shifty, is as good a buzzword as you'll find.
Use the other boats
One-third of the way up the beat we were still to the left of the rhumb line-our goal, remember, was to play the right side-but the biggest pack was to our left. More important than our position on the course was our position relative to the other boats. A little while later, we found ourselves on starboard, sailing toward a lot of congestion. We were in a right shift, but it was slowly phasing back. If we waited for the left shift, we would be too late and get sucked into the large pack to the left. So we used the localized left shift created by the disturbed air off the back end of the starboard-tack pack to windward of us as a temporary lift on port; this allowed us to escape the left corner ahead of the impending major left shift, but with minimal damage.
Foot toward the shift
The breeze quickly went left, and most of the other boats followed us onto port-when that happens, it's a good confirmation you're in phase-but we had clear air because we tacked early. The next shift would be a right-hander. So, it was time to put the pedal down, go two-tenths of a knot over target, and get some leverage so we could benefit from the next big shift from the right. How fast depends on how well you have the shift, and your boat. On the New York YC Swan 42, it's easy to go from a target of 7.6 knots to 7.85. We added a little twist to the mainsail and aimed 3 degrees low of our best upwind VMG angle. The boats on the left were going to hurt each other-sailing in a crowd is rarely fast, and some even tacked back to the left due to the congestion-and I was looking at the weather mark, tucked close to shore, thinking, "It's dicey up there. The last thing we want to be is near other boats."