Lessons From Charleston Race Week

Here’s what Quantum’s Bill Wiggins learned from his week with Vortex Racing, a team new to the sport, and how you can use the event to better you entire season.
Quantum Sails
Charleston Race Week is a challenging event, even for experienced crews. Quantum Sails

This year I had the pleasure to sail the regatta aboard a J/70 from Hampton, Virginia. Vortex Racing is a relatively new program with a crew that is very dedicated to learning the sport both practically on the water, and theoretically on shore.

Although the primary focus of a one-design regatta is to cross the line first, the importance of learning while in the process should never be overlooked, especially for a new team. Here is what we learned from the regatta and few quick tips that can be applied to your whole season.


Although placing is an important measure of a successful performance, you will notice that even the top teams don’t cross the line first every single time. The saying goes “if you never fail you didn’t try hard enough” and that is true in the world of competitive sailing. Racing teams are always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible; for instance, your tactician takes a gamble and heads to the other side of the course, or the skipper jumps the line while being a little too aggressive at the start. In a world where an extra sail change could mean the difference between a trip to the podium and a soggy mess, all good sailors know that great teams come from always riding a thin line between brilliance and disaster. It’s important to know you can be on either side at any given moment and to constantly learn how to increase your chances of excellence.


With that in mind, winning isn’t always “winning.” When planning for the regatta, decide what winning means for your team and start there. This doesn’t mean you don’t try for first, you just have achievable goals. For example, if you normally place in the bottom half of the fleet, “winning” might mean making it to the top half this time. We went into this event with the understanding that the learning curve would be sharp. We knew that at the end of the day our results may not reflect our gains but we didn’t let that bother us. We were more focused on understanding the boat and practicing the techniques involved with racing at the top level than winning the regatta. We used the event to build a solid foundation that would help Vortex create a competitive program in the years to come.


Especially with as a new team with a lot to learn, the list of areas for improvement can be overwhelming. Choosing one or two things to focus on for the race, event or possibly even season, makes growing a lot more manageable. Make a list of what your team needs to work on and prioritize it. Once you do that you can focus your energies on one thing at a time and truly master it. One of the primary focuses for Vortex during this regatta was to work out the rig tuning. Having brand new Quantum Sails (Cross Cut Main & Radial Jib), we knew that we would need to work on adjusting our tune to the new sails and the wavy conditions the harbor presented. This isn’t an uncommon practice in Charleston. Almost all the boats are trailered to get to the race and for many boats traveling from northern latitudes, this is the first race of the season. Every crew takes the time to make sure to adjust their rake and tensions to the perfect reading.

Once we were satisfied with our base setting, we took caliper readings on all 5 turnbuckles to ensure we could duplicate the settings each morning. Throughout the week we adjusted the tuning until we found the optimum sag for the conditions, powering our sails to their full potential. Keeping records for both the base levels as well as the adjustments made for wind speed, direction, and waves on a master chart will help all sailing teams better understand how their boat performs under a variety of conditions creating predictability for future races.



At a major event like Charleston Race Week, there are often a lot of hosted opportunities for learning, from morning weather briefings, to practice races, to drone-footage-enhanced racing debriefs. Do what you can to soak up everything the experts have to tell you and ask all of the questions you can think of. It might seem daunting to walk up to Ed Baird to ask about your pointing problem, but it’s why he’s there and trust me it’s worth it. Obviously, back home, the local Wednesday night race or regional regatta doesn’t have these types of opportunities, but keep an eye out during the season for local seminars, your sailmaker walking the docks, or even online webcasts and articles to help you up your game.

At this year’s event Quantum Sails put on a starting practice session for the J/70 class on Thursday afternoon. Every third start was a short windward/leeward race as well. This was a great opportunity to work on close quarters boat handling, time and distance at low speeds, and gave us the opportunity to see first-hand how the strong current can affect the boat at slow speeds. The short races were beneficial to see how the tuning setup performed against other teams and for the team to get comfortable with their positions and the course.

All-in-all, we came out of the practice races feeling like we could get off the line well and hang with the top teams but only when we had a decent lane. Taking the time to test the vessel during the practice races reinforced that clean lanes are as critical as anything else in such a tight group. We came out of the day understanding that this would be a tough event and that we had a good bit to work on.



As we sailed through the three race days, we worked on different methods for getting off the starting line clean and finding a clear lane to get up the course. Taking into consideration that Charleston Harbor offers challenges with shifty breeze and strong currents, we spent a good bit of time before and between races talking through the micro forecast for the next race. We used Quantum’s daily weather briefings with Ed Baird, a survey of the current conditions, as well as a myriad of local weather data for each race to determine where we needed to position the boat at the start to get to the best wind and favorable conditions. Every time we left the start line our strategy adapted slightly based off our cumulative knowledge from the prior races.

When you’re back home, don’t forget to plan and test during every race. It can be stressful running from the office to the yacht club in time for the weekly beer can race, but if you take five minutes before the race to make a plan with your team it will be worth.


After an exhausting but wonderful few days on the water I felt confident that our relatively new skipper made huge gains in holding lanes and keeping the boat up to speed. The entire team kept an open mind and worked together to better their understanding of the boat and what it takes to race against a competitive fleet in one of the most challenging venues in the United States. None of this would have happened without an open mind and a willingness to put egos aside and learn.


Coming down here with a clear focus to learn and adapt to situations by trying new strategies will undoubtedly make team Vortex a boat to keep your eye on in future years. I look forward to sailing with Vortex Racing again later this season to see what they have worked on from the regatta.

This tip was brought to you by Quantum Sails.