Mark Fischer, the local ace, came from behind to win the first race of the championship—a light and fluky one. Then, in strong air, beat us in three of the next five. But the series was close, and after winning the first race the following day, we had high hopes we could beat him in the finale, and take the trophy.
The current was roaring up the Bristol Channel (England), where the tidal rise and fall is the second greatest in the world, and the peak current off Barry is often more than 2 knots. The westerly wind had dropped from its earlier 6 knots to about 4. We would beat parallel to the Channel’s north shore against the easterly flood. An immediate tack to port would place us inshore of the fleet, in less adverse current, and provide the benefit of the near-shore divergence, acceleration, and veer in flow that results when the wind flows parallel to shore with water on its left.
To ensure that we could be the first to tack to port, I decided to make a late start at the committee boat in the hole that the current would open as the gun fired. We made our start, but Fischer made a better one, and was able to tack before we did. As we headed right, he was two boatlengths to windward, slightly ahead, and leading the fleet. We headed lower and faster and gradually worked out on his leebow, but did not gain enough to permit us to tack and cross.
The question that now preoccupied us both was when to tack for the offshore mark? After tacking, we would sail for about 5 minutes on the starboard layline (about one-third of a mile at about 4 knots boatspeed) during which the average 1-knot flood would set us to leeward 600 feet. We would need to sail 600 feet beyond the normal layline before tacking. We reached that position, tacked, and once on the layline, we could see we were holding the mark against a range on the far shore. I expected Fischer to tack ahead of me, but he held his starboard tack and (inexplicably to me at the time) continued across and to my right. I thought that if I were in his place, I would have tacked dead ahead and thereafter kept him in my bad air. But I wasn’t complaining.
Now it all depended on who had chosen the better layline.Two hundred feet beyond where I had tacked, Fischer tacked. As we were still holding the mark easily, and were thereafter gradually working out ahead and to leeward of him, we decided that we had made the better choice. When a 10-degree lift and an increase in velocity appeared, we congratulated ourselves and presumed we would round with a four- or five-boatlength lead.But then the wind died and we had to head lower. We could see we were barely laying, and then we were no longer laying the mark. I heeled over, opened the leeches, and we charged toward the mark. We were alongside it, shooting head to wind, expecting to be required to tack, when the crew shouted, “You’ve made it!” We rolled the boat to starboard, I gradually bore away and we squeaked around with an inch to spare.
But now, after a luff and a sharp turn, we were barely moving in the 2-knot wind and had only the 1.5-knot favorable current to propel us. The spinnaker wouldn’t fill and the jib wouldn’t come down, and when we jibed, which we had to do to get to the stronger air inshore, the spinnaker stuck to the rigging. And there, a boatlength astern with his spinnaker full on the inshore jibe, was Fischer, rolling over us. We never got him back.
All of this had transpired because he had gone another 200 feet beyond our line and had come into the mark with a full head of steam, he won the championship and we were second. As we sailed home later, I thought how different the outcome would’ve been had that final lull not appeared as we closed the weather mark, but I also thought how much smarter Fischer had been to prepare for it.
Sailboat racing is characterized by its intermittency-hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror! Once out on a leg where speeds are similar and speed differences are the only determinants of progress, positions rarely change and then only at a snail’s pace. Most changes occur at starts and mark roundings, and these are the situations to be exploited. Here, many boats gather; only one or two are in clear air; only one or two can freely advance in the direction desired.
These situations provide the opportunities and the wise sailor prepares to utilize them. Starts and mark roundings always warrant concern, but when conditions are adverse, when speed is difficult to achieve, they become crucial. One must plan the start and the mark rounding so as to assure both the most advantageous position and the best preservation of speed, or even for an increase in speed at the crucial moment, coming down from above the layline as you round the weather mark or coming up from below as you approach the leeward. So as to be able to bear away (or head up) to gain speed when it matters, sail high when approaching the weather mark (and sail low when approaching the leeward mark). In moderate to heavy air, you gain little speed by altering course, but in light air, upwind and down, major differences are possible and you should preserve the maximum possible for the end of the leg. A speed difference may have little effect along the way, but as the fleet converges to round the mark ahead, an increase of one-tenth of a knot can result in gaining an overlap instead of being buried in blanket and dirty air, or driving over to windward and emerging in clear air. This applies especially well in big waves that intermittently slow the boat’s progress. One must be able to bear away to get up speed after being hit by a wave, and in a chop, one must approach a weather-mark rounding high so as to be able to bear away and carry speed into and out of the turn. Momentum is valuable in adverse current, in any condition that slows the boat, that makes it less able to accelerate, less able to maneuver, less able to escape from a crowd, or in any condition that requires the preservation of speed for a crucial moment to come.
This is, of course, the advice that Fischer had heeded. His local knowledge probably provided insight into the likelihood that the westerly gradient wind would die as the sea breeze came up the Channel and into the major increase in the strength of the current at that outer mark. He must have recognized that I might lay the mark from my early tack, but presumed that his restraint would give him the advantage of making it, if I didn’t, or of bearing off and driving over me, if I did. He could not have hoped for the ideal solution that transpired, finding me stopped, head-to-wind, at the mark, waiting for him, but he had certainly prepared for it.