Rick Wesslund: J/120 El Ocaso

/El Ocaso/ 's sole focus has been preparing for Acura Key West Race Week, and their training paid off this year when they won both the PHRF Boat of the Week and Division titles. From our June 2006 issue.

Everything Rick Wesslund and his crew on the J/120 El Ocaso do on San Francisco Bay is simply honing their skills for the big game known as Acura Key West Race Week. This, he says, has been their modus operandi for the last four years, and it all came together at Acura Key West and Miami Race Weeks, where they won their division and snatched PHRF Boat of the Week titles at each event-the first team to ever do so. What was the magic this year? Those were our conditions in Key West-it's what we're used to in San Francisco-but we did have to overcome a lot of adversity. Our tactician sliced his hand while we were practicing, I missed the first day of racing because I got food poisoning, and on Wednesday, the real heavy-air day, my tactician separated his shoulder. This was our fourth Key West, and fourth was the best we'd ever done, but every year we keep coming back and pounding away at it to get better. What did you focus on specifically this year that made a difference? It was cumulative, really. We focused on very aspect; from the boat, to the team, to getting the right people sailing together well. This year I got everybody from my regular crew, except one person, down to Key West. That was a huge step forward. I really placed more emphasis in recruiting; on having the right people on the team and telling them from Day 1 that they had to be available to go to Key West. That gives them time to plan and get the time off they need. And what about the boat? What made a big difference was having the right sail inventory-having fresh sails-the right rigging, a lot of the things I didn't have in the past. This year I had my rigger, and one guy in Key West, coordinating the rigging of the boat so when we showed up it was ready to sail. Having it ready allowed us to practice Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the regatta, allowing us to work out the cobwebs. What did you focus on, specifically, in these practices? We cover all the basics. We bring marks and set up short windward/leeward courses and work up and down the course, covering every aspect of getting our upwind speed, and working on our tacks to make sure they're efficient. We work on rounding marks wide and tight, and on our starting routine. What's your starting philosophy? I'm a firm believer in hitting the line on time with speed. It absolutely trumps being in the right position. The important thing is to think about where you'll be one minute after the start. You might be in the right spot on the line, but if you're going 4 knots and not 7, the guy who is going 7 will be ahead in one minute. How do you make sure you're at speed and on the line? With a heavier boat like the 120, you need a huge amount of runway and to know where you need to be with speed at a predetermined time-our start revolves around that. We have a conversation among the tactician, main trimmer, and me, and we talk about what we're seeing and agree what side of the course we want to be on. Once we're in agreement, we pick our spot and target speed and go from there. How do you avoid being distracted by other boats? It's my responsibility to be at that spot, and we don't tip our hand by showing where we want to be. We lurk elsewhere until we start making our way to that spot. In Key West we didn't have a lot of problems with other boats. Our starts weren't our best, but we had good conservative starts. A lot of teams were struggling in the windy conditions, but you guys seemed to handle it just fine. Sailing upwind in heavy air, this boat is all about the main and the main trimmer; he has to be aggressive with it. We focus on boatspeed and angle of heel, and he's burping the main all the time, adjusting the traveler one inch here and there. To do this requires anticipation and seeing the puffs, and this comes from one guy calling the puffs from the rail, which allows us to be sailing ahead of where we actually are. You mentioned you work on making your tacks efficient; what do you mean? Our tacks are fast, especially with the No. 3. The tactician calls the tack and counts down, "3-2-1," to the tack. The cutter comes down off the rail to release, watches it to the point where it's just starting to backwind, cuts, and I bring the helm over consistent with the way the grinder and tailer are bringing in the sail. I'm watching where they are in their trim before I press on it as I come out of the tack. Once the sheet is on the self-tailer, the tailer goes to the rail, and the grinder finishes the trim. The main trimmer calls for them to "nail it" when we're at the speed we want to be and we bring the trimmer back up to the rail after it's locked. Usually our target coming out of the tack is 6.5 knots, and we'll go for a minute or so before having the trimmer go back down and do a fine tune. Advice on rounding the weather mark? In heavy air we band [tie with wool] the spinnaker. We find that as the tack goes out you can easily lose it if the bottom of the kite fills with water or wind. Having it banded helps on the pre-feed to the end of the pole so we're ready to hoist at the offset. If it's banded you can also cheat up the halyard before the offset. Another thing we do as we're going up the beat is watch closely for any reason to jibe set. So many people automatically assume they're doing a bear-away set when the gains can be huge by doing a jibe set. I don't understand why more teams don't watch for it. What's your preference with jibes, inside or outside? In light air it's always inside, but in heavy air with the 120-and not everyone agrees with me on this-outside jibes work best. Doing the inside jibe in heavy air you're basically trying to invert the darn thing. It's this huge kite that's loaded with 30 knots of breeze, and we found it would take four people to tractor it around and that's got to slow the boat down. When you go outside, it floats around. You have to pull a ton of sheet, but it doesn't put the pressure on the boat, you're not trying to invert the kite, and you're not battling the thing. With the mixed spinnaker types you had in your PHRF fleet, how did you play the fleet downwind? For us it's less of an issue because we've really learned how to sail the boat deep. To do so comes down to communication between the downwind trimmer and the driver and using the speed to push the bow down as often as possible. You need someone calling the puffs so you can push the boat down and rotate the sail to weather when they hit. On the 120, it can be scary for the trimmers because when you press down so far it looks as if the kite's going to collapse, but it will fill again so you can keep rotating it deep. Plus, the kite on the 120 is huge [1,776 sq. ft.], so with a lot more sail area we can go faster downwind than most symmetric boats in a PHRF class. We also look to get the starboard advantage as we get down to the gates. We try to get left and come in really hot; it's a nice way to attack the symmetric boats. It's intimidating to them because all of a sudden they have a freight train coming at them at this hot angle. You can watch the reaction on their faces-at least for the first couple of times. Once we're at the mark, our focus is to get the turn wide and tight. We want the crew on the rail and hiking as we turn up on the mark-when we pass the mark we want the crew almost kicking it. This is another place where we've made huge gains. I've found it really easy to turn up inside a lot of other boats because they can't get on the wind right away; they come out really wide and you can get inside. With that said, we typically go for the gate that gives us the clearest air. How did you make sure you didn't lose momentum after Key West? Miami was a big change because the team was different, and I was only able to get in a half-day of practice. Plus, the fleet had really improved; the other 120s had done a lot of work between Key West and Miami to bring up their programs. The best thing to come out of Miami was our port-tack start. We were set up for the start and all of a sudden we saw the shift coming through. Luckily we were near the pin at 3 minutes so we changed plans and port-tacked the fleet. We were actually late, but everyone else was bunched up fighting for the boat. We were all alone at the pin. I understand you nearly lost in Miami. We were halfway up the final beat, in position to win the regatta, and all of sudden a lifeline broke and two crewmembers went into the water. The natural tendency is for people to go dark and start thinking about how we'd lost the regatta, but we turned around to pick up the crew, screaming for them to swim and get on the boat because we were still racing. We were dead last, but managed to finish fourth after all. It was classic example of never say die.