Turning Windemon's Weaknesses into Strength

A final check-in with the winners of SW's 2005 Coaching Contest.

Windemon Sequence
John Burnham

When we invited readers to enter our Win a Coach contest we were looking for a team with a strong desire to improve and an ambitious summer sailing schedule that would allow them to work on strengthening weaknesses. The team that stood out among nearly 50 applicants was Dave and Debbie Clasen's Tarten Ten Windemon, from Chicago."We started racing competitively about six years ago," they wrote, "and we've been racing our own boat for three years now. We have experienced some exhilarating successes, but we have also been disappointed by our lack of progress at times. We are ready to turn the corner."The Clasen's goal for the year was to build a stronger, more cohesive program, and they initially gave me a wish list of result goals for the 2005 season: Chicago NOOD, top 15; Verve Cup, top six; Chicago Mackinac Race, top 5 in class. In order to get these kind of results, though, we needed to address the very things that they felt were holding them back: general spinnaker work, getting crewmembers to take ownership of their individual positions, and boatspeed in light-air, choppy conditions. It's likely that many of you reading this can relate to Windemon's struggle, so let's get to it.After a few e-mail exchanges, we felt the best way I could help them was to be on board for a few races as a player/coach, riding the rail and listening in on the tactical discussions. The Chicago NOOD, in June, seemed like the best place. We left the dock early on the first day to get in some pre-race spinnaker work in a 12- to 17-knot northerly that was whipping up plenty of chop.As soon as we found our course area, we put up a kite and practiced jibes, and as we rolled into the first few, some common issues quickly popped up. Dave was inconsistent in his helming in the jibes, so Debbie, on the sheet and guy, was having trouble keeping up with Dave's rate of turn. When he under-steered the turn, the boat slowed and wallowed in the waves, and it took Debbie a long time to get the sail set properly on the new jibe. When Dave over-steered the turn, the kite would sometimes fill on the wrong side of the headstay, and it would take forever for foredeck Bob Muhn to get the pole on the mast after the jibe. Each jibe seemed different from the last, so at first my focus was with Dave, to help him make more consistent turns.Here's where it got interesting. As we did a dozen or so jibes, a pattern emerged. When we jibed from port to starboard, we always seemed to come out of the jibe too deep, the kite would sag and the speed would crash. Once we got settled, and then jibed back onto port, the mainsail would slam across before Bob Pugh could pull it, the boat would heel excessively and accelerate, and the kite would collapse. Could Dave be this bad at helming his own boat, or was something else happening?What started as a jibing practice, with boathandling being the focus, turned into an interesting lesson in wind sheer. What we were experiencing was a right twist in the wind-vertically-which made the boat feel powered-up on port jibe, and underpowered on starboard jibe. After a few more jibes, we took a break and discussed the boathandling details with the crew. At the end of the discussion, I tabled the wind sheer idea, suggesting it might be to blame for some of the inconsistent jibes, and that maybe it was telling us something about the breeze for the day. Often when the boat has more power on one tack than the other, that side of the course may be favored due to more pressure, or favorable shift. Typically this is felt while sailing upwind before the start, when you may feel a bit faster on one tack, or you are sailing with more heel. This also made sense with the forecast, which was calling for the breeze to decrease and shift right. In addition, Dave noted that the right side usually paid in this condition, as it was farther offshore, and windier. Cool! Now we had the beginnings of a strategy for the day (protect the right), and this might have gone unnoticed if we hadn't gone out early to practice our jibes. We also had made great progress on spinnaker work, one of their previously stated weaknesses.OWN YOUR POSITIONBy noon that day, the breeze was up to 17 knots, the waves were big, and it was race time. There was a bit of nervous energy on board, and a fair amount of yelling. Our helmsman, Dave, was relying on his tactician, Bob, to call a lot of his maneuvers, time to the line, and look out for other boats. The problem is that the Bob is on the bow, too far away for effective communication in all but the lightest breezes. In the six races that I was on board, our starts were less than outstanding. I think this was mostly due to the team being uncomfortable with the strong wind early in the regatta. We worked a bit on pre-start communication, and having Dave take ownership of the final positioning and speed build. Towards the end, they got a lot smoother with the pre-start communication, and Dave had a few solid starts in the lighter air. Let's go back to Race One. After a poor start, we cleared out and settled into a lane on port tack, and the Windemon team was good at feeling the boat, communicating well, and moving smoothly through the gear changes. Two things became clear as the first beat unfolded: We weren't the only ones who thought to go right, and a lot of the competition went right early, which filled the starboard tack layline with heavy rush hour traffic. In the big waves, tacking was really slow so most boats continued to what they thought was a safe starboard layline before tacking. From the coach's position on the rail, it was easy to see these boats overstanding, and we discussed how we could use this to our advantage.We gained by working the right side early in the beat, but crossing back to the middle early, shy of layline, and against the grain of the leaders. Then Bob put us on a safe approach to the windward mark from the top left, avoiding the bad air of the early starboard layliners. This meant coming in five to 10 lengths off the port layline, and finding a comfortable spot to tack to starboard. Because we stayed clear of the starboard layline until the top of the leg, it was much easier for Bob to call the layline. We tacked well underneath the early layliners, having sailed a much shorter distance on the beat. We gave up a bit of the right-side advantage, but made a big gain by observing where the fleet was headed to, and not overstanding.In this situation, Bob and I worked together to formulate a plan, without waiting for a question from the helmsman. By watching the fleet set up early on the layline, and trying to anticipate their next move, Bob was able to present a plan to Dave, without distracting him from the discussion. Bob had his head out of the boat, looking up the course, and Dave could concentrate on driving Windemon fast. With both of them owning their roles, the boat was quieter, and faster.EXECUTING THEIR STRATEGYIn our first e-mail correspondence, the Clasens told me, "It's not unusual for us to have a good first leg, but it's also not unusual for us to struggle after that." As we sailed up the first beat, I asked the tactician the question he needed to ask himself: If the right is good upwind due to more pressure or shift, how will that effect the next run, and how do we capitalize on that? The answer was to consider a quick set-jibe to port after rounding the windward mark [see photo sequence].After a final check of our upwind compass headings, we determined that the wind had shifted a bit right, and clearly there was more pressure on the right. So, as a team, we talked through the maneuver-standard bearaway set, and then roll into a jibe as soon as the jib is down.The key here was to have a look at the traffic. Because we were usually rounding the mark in mid-fleet, traffic on the starboard layline was thinning slightly, plus there was an offset leg, so by the time we got the kite up and ready to jibe, we would have extended enough on starboard to jibe and be clear of the snowfence effect of any boats still on the upwind and offset legs. The other key with the set-jibe was to have the sheet ready to ease once the kite fills on the hoist, which would allow us to rotate the kite around the headstay in the turn.The first set-jibe was a bit of a yardsale, and it took us a while to get the kite full and the pole attached on the new side, but sure enough, once we got settled and up to speed, we saw instant gains on the boats that delayed their jibes. On one run, we ended up laying the leeward gates by jibing right away at the top, and we made our biggest moves through the fleet downwind on the first day of racing.The quick set-jibe was a simple maneuver for the team to master, and it became a really useful weapon to unleash on the competition, when the right side (looking upwind) was favored. Achieving this required full ownership by each crewmember of their role: Instead of having one person directing traffic from their position (typically the driver), each person focuses on executing their jobs. When Bob makes the call for the set-jibe and just focuses on getting the jib down and jibing the pole, Debbie is ready to ease the new sheet, Chris has the new afterguy ready to load on the winch, Bob has the main controls eased and ready to pull across, and Dave just drives the boat smoothly through the turn. SLOW IN THE LIGHT AND LUMPYThe first day of the NOOD regatta started in 18 knots and ended in 12. Day 2, started in 10 knots and rapidly dropped to 6, but the chop stayed the same. These were heinous conditions for a T-10. Upwind was tricky, downwind was dreadful, and pressure was king. For our coaching goals, we couldn't have asked for a better day! Light air and leftover chop was a condition that the Clasens had listed as their weakness, so we had a great opportunity to make some improvements. It was my first time on a T-Ten, so I tried to keep my suggestions on boat setup and trim at a fundamental level. Bob worked on keeping the traveler up and twisting the main, carefully watching the speedo to be sure he didn't overdo the sheet tension in the chop. By getting input from the wave caller on the rail, he was able to trim a bit in the flat spots, and ease for a bad set of waves. The more we worked on communication, the smaller the adjustments became. This was fast.On the jib sheet, it looked as if Debbie and Chris (port and starboard trimmers) were struggling in some of the tacks, getting overrides on the winch. We discovered that the boat needed an override preventer to keep the jib sheet from riding up the winch drum on the tacks, so we rigged up a rudimentary set of preventers out of shock cord we had on the boat. That quick fix reduced the overrides. We also found that, in less than 8 knots, if Debbie backed the jib slightly against the shrouds before the release, the bow came through the wind better. Without backing the jib, Dave was forced to use a lot of rudder to push the boat onto the new tack. The amount of jib back required was slightly different every tack, and Debbie got really sharp at the timing.As the weaknesses of the Windemon team are exposed for all the readers, it's important to note their strengths as well. They are good sailors from a variety of backgrounds, they are willing to do the work to improve, and they truly have a blast sailing together. Probably this last point is the most important strength of the team, because when it's fun, the learning and the results usually follow. Dave and Debbie have made it clear that fun and teamwork are an important priority for Team Windemon, and it showed in their results this summer. We had some solid finishes on the first two days, but the best part was that Windemon had a great final day on their own and finished eighth overall of 39 boats. They had hoped to finish in the top 15, so they were pumped. While the Chicago Mac didn't go as planned ("big navigational error," says Dave), they went on to some really good finishes this summer, both in their local series, and in the Verve Cup, where they finished third of 25. They'd hoped for a top-six. These were top performances in a tough fleet, results of which they should be proud.