John Aras: Farr 395 Tsunami

To win PHRF Class 3 at Key West, the crew of /Tsunami/ had to beat everything from a J/44 to the new Farr 36. Helmsman John Aras tells /SW/ how they did it. From our April 2003 issue.

Winning PHRF Class 3 at the 2003 Terra Nova Trading Key West Race Week was Tsunami, a Farr 395 owned by John Aras, Bud Dailey, and Preben Ostberg of Annapolis, Md. Winning a PHRF class that ranged from a J/44 to a new Farr 36 was difficult, especially considering the gamut of wind experienced at this year's Race Week. Yet with a 1-1-2-1-(5)-3-2 score, they made it look easy. Tsunami's helmsman Aras, 48, who claims to be more of a boat manager for his son's Optimist dinghy than anything else these days, shares his thoughts about what it took to pull off a PHRF win at Race Week.What experience do you bring to the program as helmsman?Before Tsunami, I steered a couple of Edgar Cato's Hissars, the Farr 40 and the Swan 60. A friendship with Mike Toppa [a sailmaker for North Sails] has kept me in the game and allowed me to sail a variety of big boats. Before that, I campaigned a J/30 for a number of years. We won the North Americans five times. I didn't come from a sailing family, so I didn't start sailing until I was about 13. In fact, I sailed with Stuart Walker a fair bit as a young man on I-14s and in college I sailed for Ohio-Wesleyan, where Doug Fisher [sailmaker for UK Sailmakers] and I went to school together.How do you get a 395 to sail fast?We've found that you have to go more powered up on the jib and more rounded then one might think. Also, we go straighter and tighter on the main--as much as I can steer to. The jib tracks are mounted a little wider than we like, so we've also done some experiments with a jib barber-hauler system, which is illegal in 395 one-design racing but fine for PHRF. The boat is a little hard to sail to its rating in 15 to 20 knots of breeze and up, but in anything less, especially around 10 or 12 knots, if it's well-sailed, we can certainly sail to our rating.Are polars useful in PHRF racing?We don't stick right with them because no matter how well you calibrate the instruments, they're never perfect. You have to go with what feels good.How do you guarantee that the boat gets well sailed?One way or the other, we've ended up with older, experienced individuals as crew. They're guys we like hanging around with, having dinner with, and playing with. Through my experience on other big-boat programs over the years, I've sailed with enough guys I knew what we were getting into. In other words, I'm able to secure the right guys for the right positions. We did a lot of work in the beginning of the class with Dave Scott and Andreas Josenhans [of North Sails], and we did a lot of two-boat testing. A lot of the crew we have now were with us then, so everyone knows the boat well.Your average crew age was 47. Do you think it's easier to sail with older, more experienced guys?When I'm inviting people to sail, I try to match personalities for the boat, for the job, so that everyone will get along. Since our guys are older and we've all sailed together so much, we know each other's personalities. By being older, we tend to have our dinners at the house and not hit the party scene as hard. We know that, as a crew, we'll show up on the dock in good operating condition.Did you practice before Key West?We sailed for two days beforehand; that's typically what we do before every big event.What do you do during practice to get everyone's head in the game?We work through the mechanics and work over the rough spots, making sure that everyone's clear on their positions and what they should be doing. We rotate a regular group of 15 or so people, so we do a little job shifting. Invariably, with 10 guys, you're changing at least two positions per regatta. So we'll designate work responsibilities and practice what we plan to implement. We sail so much in light air that when we got to Key West this year, we intended to practice for heavier air, so on Saturday and Sunday before Race Week, we did a lot of outside jibes with the asymmetric, which certainly proved to be helpful on the last [windy] day of the regatta. The practice showed us that if we didn't haul in the main aggressively on a jibe, the spinnaker would be sucked in behind the main and wouldn't flag out in front of the rig. When it got windy on the last day, the outside jibes were a piece of cake.What were your fundamental tactics?Bob Slattery was our tactician. We haven't sailed together very much, but from sailing against him a lot I have great respect for his ability. I normally try to do more jobs than I should when I drive. During Key West, I had to catch myself a couple of times and put my total confidence in the calls he was making. Ninety percent of the time, he was right. He paid a lot of attention to the forecasts, which were generally spot on, but sometimes deviated from them. I give him the credit for putting us in the right corners. He wasn't afraid to pick a side.Like anyone else, when going downwind we try to keep our lanes open, keep our wind clear. That's Slattery's job. We've sailed on the boat long enough to know our polars and what works well. It's simply a matter of not being locked into a side, to be able to jibe to a favored side of the course. In Key West, the right-hand side of the run was where we wanted to be, and we were able to do that without sacrificing too much to the other boats.Also, sailing our own race. Sailing well set-up for the conditions at the time, looking at the big picture, and not focusing too much on covering other boats.It was a crowded racecourse at times, especially with all the different types of boats. How did you deal with that?It was better than last year when we were behind the [Corsair] trimarans. This year they started them behind us, and that helped. The only issue we had this year was the Farr 65s. Even though their beats were longer than ours were, more often than not, we had to deal with them on the downwind legs. Our sailing angles are hotter with the asymmetric, and with them sailing dead downwind, we sometimes were caught in their lee, and ended up jibing when we didn't want to. They were also a little cumbersome in the corners, and you could never really make any assumptions about what they were doing.How do you deal with a mixed-fleet starting line?We can't rely on great pointing ability; the 395 needs to build up some decent VMG, which means putting the bow down and building speed. We tend to focus primarily on clear lanes and will sometimes sacrifice a favored end so that we can end up without someone pinned underneath us and inhibiting us from cracking off and really developing some speed. If the windward end is favored, we might start just to leeward of it because that's a small price for allowing us to go where we want to go. If we have to sail for too long bottled up, the boat just doesn't sail as high as we'd like. Same thing applies for downwind. When you go around a mark you have to ensure that you can go where you want to go and not be locked.What was the biggest ingredient to your win?Personnel. When I'm able to put together a group of guys like those that we had, I don't worry about anything other than steering. The depth of our people and their positions was key. The confidence, the quiet on the boat, nothing bad happening, nothing breaking, just a bunch of good guys who know what they're doing.On the last day, I wanted it to blow 25 or 30, because I thought we could out-maneuver everybody else, despite our ages. We wanted to let everybody else make the mistakes, and that's what happened. An Olson 40 that was ahead of us went baldheaded around a mark and one of the Mumm 36s had chute problems.Was there any luck involved?We prefer 12 to 13 knots and under for windspeed, so if we were lucky, it was in getting enough mileage in that kind of wind velocity that week. At 18 to 20 knots, we couldn't begin to compete with the J/44 and the Mumm 36s on a boat-for-boat rating basis. In breeze, they'd do a one-tack beat to the mark, square, hoist the chute, and go dead downwind. They had us hammered; there was nothing we could do except sink 'em. Any final wisdom for your fellow PHRF racers?Spend a lot of time making sure that everything on the bottom of the boat is perfect. I'm a stickler for clean, smooth, hard bottoms and straight foils. We also spent a lot of time making sure the foils were symmetrical, which is probably something alot of people don't do. Boat preparation pays big dividends.