The J/105 feet on San Francisco Bay is growing in leaps and bounds. San Francisco Bay, however, is not. As a result, the fleet is experiencing crowding at mark roundings and an increase in the number of collisions and protests filed. In an effort to cope with these problems, the fleet held two rules seminars. I participated in one of them along with US SAILING Judge Tom Roberts and Olympic medalist Mark Reynolds. Before I spoke in San Francisco, I picked the brain of Ben Altman, a rules guru who sails regularly near the top of crowded fleets. This resulted in some suggestions for coping with growing pains.
Competitors must adjust their tactics to the increased size of the fleet. For instance, starting at the favored end of the line becomes much more difficult because youre vying for the best start with so many other boats. You wont get that best start every time and, when you dont, youll find yourself way back in the fleet. Reynolds pointed out that you can usually get a start in clear air a few lengths from the favored end, and over the course of a series youll do much better than you would if you consistently tried for the best start right at the favored end. Reynolds also recommended conservative mark roundings where you work to assure yourself of clear air and the freedom to tack or jibe after you round. If your boat is fast, you can afford to lose a couple of lengths to a gaggle of boats crowding in at a mark if youre in a position to use your boatspeed advantage to blow by them on the next leg.
Reynolds said that he and many other top-caliber helmsmen rarely protest. He avoids situations where protests are likely to occur and often waves by a keep-clear boat so he can sail in clear air. Instead of forcing a confrontation, offer friendly advice after the race. This approach may help retain a new member discouraged by poor results.
Race committees must adjust the course to the size of fleet. The right-of-way rules simply do not work if too many boats are in the same patch of water at the same time.
The bigger the fleet, the longer the starting line must be so that all boats have a chance for clear air. Also, if the fleet bunches at an end, postpone before the starting signal and drag the favored end downwind. Repeat this process until boats use the whole line as they approach to start. The resulting line may not be “square to the wind” but will give the best odds for a clean, fair start. Clearly state in the sailing instructions that you will use VHF radios or a loud-hailer to inform boats that are over the line early, and that you will start hailing one minute before the start. If general recalls become a problem, use Flags I and Z together (see Rules 30.1 and 30.2). Dont use the black flag (Rule 30.3). Sailors come to race, not to sit out.
The larger the fleet, the longer the first leg must be so the boats will spread out before the windward mark. This is crucial to avoid a crush at the windward mark. Additional marks can also help to reduce crowding. Ben Altman suggests using a pattern of three marks: W, the windward mark, O, an offset mark, and C, a control mark. In the example in diagram 1, all three marks must be left to port. Mark O requires boats to reach after they round mark W, separating boats setting their spinnakers from port tackers who are still on the beat to windward. Control mark C prevents port-tack boats from approaching W on or close to the port-tack layline. The use of C is a new idea. Set C about three lengths downwind of W so that a starboard tacker that fails to fetch W will have room to jibe without running into C. In diagram 1, Portia is forced to reach off to leave C to port. This prevents her from tacking into the line of starboard boats inside the two-length zone.
At the end of a run, use a gate instead of a single leeward mark. Require boats to pass between the gate marks and then round either the port mark to port or the starboard mark to starboard. The idea is to encourage about half the fleet to round each mark, thereby decreasing the crowding that would occur at a single mark. If one side of the next windward leg is favored, then the gate mark closer to that side of the course should be farther downwind to compensate for the advantage of being closer to the favored side.
Adequate spacing of gate marks is crucial. I recommend a distance of about seven or eight boat lengths. There are three reasons for this: 1. The farther the marks are apart, the easier it will be for an approaching boat to determine which mark each nearby boat intends to round; 2. If the marks are, say, 100 feet apart and the boats with booms out and spinnaker poles set are 25 feet wide, then only four overlapped boats will fit through the gate. There will be chaos if more than four arrive overlapped at the same time, and the racing rules were not written with the resulting crunch in mind. 3. If the marks are too close, a boat running toward the gate may be put in an impossible situation. Look at the plight of Nellie in the second diagram. Shes innocently dousing her chute as she runs into the gate on port tack. She must keep clear of both Stan, who has tacked onto starboard after rounding the port gate mark, and Pat, who tacked onto port after rounding the starboard gate mark. Nellie cannot anticipate that these boats will tack, and after they do she will be hard pressed to avoid them both.
However, if the space between the gate marks were greater, the safe area (shaded in the diagram) would be larger, and any encounters with boats that tack would take place farther from the mark before running boats begin their spinnaker takedowns. Ben Altman found himself in Nellies predicament in a recent race. He feels lucky to have escaped unscathed.
Finally, many fleets are adjusting the penalties for breaking a Part 2 rule. Near a rounding mark the penalty is a 720, but in open water only a 360 is required. Another approach is to use scoring penalties (Rule 44.3) with the penalty dependent on where the incident occurred.
Fleet leaders would do well to follow the lead of the San Francisco J/105 fleet and organize off-season rules seminars. The San Francisco fleet even gave members who attended both seminars and took a rules test a few points advantage in the season scoring.
Sometimes, when boats are equal in speed and when the racing area is small, all the techniques that Ive discussed wont solve the problem. There will still be too many boats trying to round the marks at the same time. If this happens, the fleet should be divided into two (or more) smaller fleets. Often the top half is put in A fleet and the bottom half in B fleet, but this hasnt been a popular solution because the novices want to go up against the top guns. Instead, fleet assignments can be generated randomly, or past results can be used to assign boats so that the average skill levels are approximately equal. The assignments can then be varied from day to day so that any two boats race against each other about half the time. If you want to spread the trophies so they dont always go to the same top boats, try giving awards to boats that improve their series scores as compared to past series.
E-mail for Dick Rose may be sent to email@example.com