[UPDATED version: The previous version had non sequential paragraph breaks and the spelling of Meagan Ruhlman was incorrect].
Sailboat racing is indeed a game of inches. Ask Wooton’s skipper Bill Smith, who continues to lead the J/111 North American Championship at the Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta in Chicago, but now by only 2 points over Karl Brummel, Steve Henderson, Mike Mayer’s Kashmir. It was inches that made the difference in two of Wooton‘s races today and as Smith analyzed what went wrong after racing, he placed the blame squarely upon himself, not that of his hard-working crew.
“It was my inexperience in critical moments,” he says, describing one downwind finish in which they were overlapped with Kashmir. “There was a moment when we were on starboard and I could have heated it up, pushed them out a bit, taken control and then jibed to cross the favored end of the line. Everyone on the boat knew we needed to do it, but I didn’t. They literally beat us by 3 inches.”
Conditions were tamer than Thursday’s races for the J/111 fleet, which is now two days into its 15-boat championship. The flatter water and more consistent breeze, says Smith, made it easier for them but also for other teams that posted good results, including Rob Ruhlman’s Spaceman Spiff, which finished third in the day’s first race and then went on to win the next two.
“We did a better job of getting off the line than we had been doing,” says Ruhlman, who’s family team from Cleveland, Ohio, climbed into third overall, only 5 points out of first. “In the second and third race we just got away with good starts and sailed our own race.”
His daughter Meagan, 31, is trimming mainsail, which is critical to the J/111’s upwind performance, and today, says Ruhlman, the two of them in much better sync.
“We worked on things after yesterday, and what we were doing differently was driving the boat with fewer big adjustments to the main trim. Yesterday, in the really puffy conditions, we’d get out of sync. Today I was concentrating more on trying to maintain target speeds.”
With Ruhlman’s son Ryan trimming the spinnaker they worked hard on sailing lower than anyone else on the run, “just one half-step down” he says, and unlike the first day in which they picked up a weather mark penalty, they sought opportunities to avoid high-risk situations. The results were dramatic and they go into Saturday’s light-air forecast with momentum on their side.
While the battle for the J/111 North Americans played out on Chicago YC’s Belmont Circle, the Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta’s other fleets joined in on the fun off Monroe Harbor, including the iconic Tartan Ten fleet, with a familiar, but perhaps forgotten program at the top of the scores. Don Wilson’s Convergence, loaded with family crewmembers, was pulled out of retirement and made a big reappearance by winning all three races.
“The boat was last sailed in 2014,” says crewmember Tod Reynolds, fresh off of running the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series in Chicago last weekend. “We dropped it in the water yesterday, put the instruments on, and we were ready to go this morning.”
Wilson has been sailing far more high-performance grand-prix boats lately, but he pulled his T-10 out of retirement on the behest of his 14-year-old daughter Eva. Filling out the rest of the crew is Wilson’s seven-year-old son, his cousin, his sister, and his brother in law.
“On our circle it was shifty conditions so it was good the race committee got in three solid races,” says Reynolds. “The first race was lighter than forecast, and we came off mid-line with good pace to grind our way to the front at the top mark and lead from there. The second race had some big shifts — 10 to 15 degrees — and Retention was leading the race around the bottom mark, but we got past them on the second beat.”
They were well shy of optimum weight on the rail and were overpowered at times, but they were happy to be competitive and back out racing with the class in which Wilson got his start as late-blooming racer in Chicago. “It’s a fantastic class to be a part of,” says Reynolds. “They’re all great people and Don’s daughter is the one who really enjoys it. She wanted to sail and that’s why we’re racing it this weekend.”
Like Wilson, Beneteau 36.7 skipper Mark Norris, was enjoying the regatta with his offspring as well, including his son Nick and his fiancé, who also happens to be his headsail trimmer. The all-amateur team on Split Decision put up an outstanding performance with a 1-2-1 to stand 1 point ahead of local rival FOG, co-owned by Charlie Wurtzbach and Mike Bird in the overall standings. “I race with people that have been sailing with me for 35 years,” says Norris, “and after today we’re happy to be doing well.”
He attributes the team’s top finishes to consistently good starts and great boatspeed (assisted by a new headsail), and while they’re historically fast upwind, he felt they were particularly fast downwind. “We sail with the rig tuned lighter than most. We were a couple of turns above base. We don’t sail with the rig rock hard so when the puffs hit the top of the mast can fall off and depower the sail.”
Downwind, he adds, their technique is to sail deeper than others. “We tend to do it a bit more efficiently,” he says. “It’s our forte.”
It was anything but an easy day, however, as Split Decision battled all day with FOG, which engaged them in several tacking and jibing duels. “We started to get into it with them a few times, but we didn’t want to wear out our trimmer, so we broke away as soon as we could,” says Norris. “Even downwind at times we’d be a half-length apart with them and they’d start a jibing duel. But we just jibed away and tried to our own thing. We do well in tight situations but when we can on our own, we’re much, much faster.”