A Key West Muse

Musings from a J/70 at Key West Race Week

Friday, Jan. 24

How true is it that when your best day is your last day, it’s the only day you can remember. That’s how today went for us on the Muse: With 20 knots, waves, and sunshine, all was good for three solid, but physically abusive races. The race committee did an outstanding job getting us out there early, and turning around the races quickly. The beats were short and lumpy, the runs shorter and exhilarating.

The planing return trip to the harbor . . . ahh…just an extra shot on top.

Starting had been our issue all week, and while today was a slight improvement, despite an OCS restart, we did finally get a good clean jump in the final race. A bit on starboard, a bit on port, and a whole lot of working the main we were with the top 10, and when you’re in the top, everything is a lot easier: cleaner entries into the leeward gates, less potential for chaos, and of course clear air.

There were times where we were really struggling, though, especially on port tack, more bow into the steep chop. Trying a combination of changes to the other controls, we ultimately just put the bow down more regularly and it seemed to help most of the time. There were many times where Heather and I were out of sync, and part of this I’m still learning how the boat should feel, anticipating and reacting to the puffs and waves better, and more than anything else, anticipating what she is going to do. When the bow is being thrown around up, down, left, and right, that’s not easy…at all.

But we were clearly as best as we’d been all week in that final race, and the highlight of it all was the final jibe into the finish. We hadn’t had a single perfect jibe all week, and magically this one happened. The kite came across and filled, the main floated and stalled mid-way through the turn, we popped up on a 15-knot plane, with the finish straight ahead. Fifty something boats in the rearview mirror was a perfect image to end it.

We finished 17th overall in the big fleet and second overall to Jim Cunningham in the Corinthian division. Cunningham ran away with it, but we squeaked into the silver on a tiebreaker with Brian Elliot’s B Squared. And now speaking of silver, this thirsty sailor sure could use one of those Key West margaritas to ease the pain in my lower back.

Silver tequila, please.

No salt. I had enough of that for one day.

Thursday, Jan. 23 See what happens when you don’t go to the tent party? You miss the important stuff.

Like the hour-early start time.

There I was being the do-gooder worker bee, catching up on stories and emails. The alarm popped up telling me it was time to go down to the boat, as I’d had all week. When I looked at my phone, my heart stopped. A string of missed calls and text of messages: “start time moved up.” “where are you?” “we’re leaving the dock now.” “find a ride out to the racecourse.” Ahhh!

I called my skipper immediately, and fortunately they weren’t all the way out the to the racecourse so we set up a rendezvous location where I could jump on board. Rushing out the condo half-dressed, I peddled like a mad man through the bustling streets of Key West, running red lights, scaring up a rooster, and taking short cuts through bank parking lots—the advantages of having ridden this route many a time.

I get to the agreed upon dock, dripping sweat, huffing. No boat.

Phone rings.

“Where are you at?”

At the Hyatt dock.

“No, we’re at the Westin, by the Argo catamaran.”

Ahhh!

Back on the bike, through the bushes, and over sidewalks, I emerge onto the quay and see the sail…the boat hovering in the basin.

I scramble to find an open bike rack space—harder than you think down here.

Lock on, scramble down the dock, make the leap, and my apologies, effusively.

I am NEVER that guy. Always early. Mr. Reliable. I felt terrible.

Then I felt for my phone, planning to stow it below. Uh oh. No phone. Not in the sheet bags, not in my pocket. What the?!

I’d lost it somewhere. Probably never to be seen again.

It’s funny how little things like this can get in your head and just rattle your senses.

Even though we made the start with enough time to get settled in, we hadn’t sailed the beat, hadn’t gotten the groove, and upwind in the start we were slow. Dog slow. Through the chop, the main couldn’t set right, everything I did seemed to be wrong, and Heather could feel it on the helm.

I could sense hear frustration like never before. The feel was simply wrong . . . and if she should know, she’s been in the boat since Day 1. When we talked about our speed issue after the race we troubleshot it to the traveler. By habit over the past three days, and by distraction of losing my phone, I had the damn thing pegged to weather all race long. Not fast.

With that out of my system we were going better through the chop in the second race, but only marginally. For the third race we addressed the rig, had a better groove upwind and everything clicked that much better, getting us our best finish of the regatta.

In the big fleet we’re solid 20th. In the Corinthian breakout we’re third, five points out of second and twice that from the lead. With three races planned for the final day, we can and must try to put four days of practice racing together.

Oh. And it’s an earlier start time.

That much I know.

Time to set the alarm. Make that two alarms, including the one on my phone, which by some Key Weird circumstance was found by Argo skipper and KW contributor Graham Landy. Small world, indeed.

Wed. Jan. 21 Wednesday. Hump day.

More like humph day.

Where the hell is all the breeze?

Our young forward crew from San Diego, Patrick Powell, summed it best today: “I sail in this stuff all the time at home. I’m really looking forward to sailing in some real wind.” We’ve got two more days to make that happen, and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to it, too, mainly because it’s getting old shifting my body weight every time the boat gets mushy and underpowered. And I’m sure my skipper is tired of having to ask us to move to leeward every other minute.

But that’s what it was all about to today: keeping the boat moving in the light stuff, and getting off the starting line clean. This later one evaded us again today. It happens with big fleets like this; you set up well at the favored end, everyone’s behaving, and then all of a sudden a port-tacker comes sweeping in to create the chaos. There yelling, there’s pushing, shoving, skulling, and tacking. When you finally clear out you “want” to move on mentally, but you can’t get it out of your head that you were royally screwed. Best to move on, and we did, pulling out the protest flag and chipping our way back into the race, getting to the left side where the shift and pressure were best. We threaded a thin lane to get into the first mark in the top third, staring down a long line of port tackers.

Just when it was looking ugly a boat well ahead of us hooked the mark on the keel and dragged it downhill a few boatlength. It was if someone someone shifted the traffic cones, opening up a new lane. We took it, round clean, and jibed around the mark…away from the fleet.

In the moment it was the right thing to do, to quickly separate from the big pack ahead, grab a bit of clean air and work the edge of the fleet. But here again the shift didn’t come round to us, and by the bottom of the run we were driving into the leeward gate pile-up as well, getting involved in minor skirmish and rounding wide and slow. Battling back to 22nd was about all we could do from there. Fast but frustrating is how I’d sum it up. We have the speed, but the clean start is elusive yet.

After finishing the one long, hot race, the race committee pulled the plug, and wouldn’t you know it…the northerly delivered a beautiful two-hour-long sail into the harbor. The talk of the dock when we got in was Bella Mente’s hitting a marked wreck in their first race, after stuffing Shockwave out at the start with some incidental contact (“that’ll buff out!”). I’m told they were hooked on the wreck for nearly 30 minutes before Spookie’s tender pulled them off, stern first. They sent a diver down to inspect the bulb and deemed it mangled, but good enough to race the second race.

While hauling it out at the Trumman Annex with a crane and single-point lift strap, Bella Mente’s Sean Clarkson said they hit the wreck at 10 knots, the boat come to full stop. Once the boat was airborne and the keel bulb visible the team started on it immediately, prepping for a night of grinding, coating, and fairing.

As they were inspecting the bulb, Bella Mente’s Mike Sanderson received word they’d been granted redress in the days two races, putting the onus on the race committee for setting a course in an area with known hazards.

Redress was granted, strange as it may seem, but that wasn’t the end of it. Shockwave’s tactician Paul Cayard lamented in his nightly email blast that fault lied with Bella.

“19:00 UPDATE: I just went to yachtscoring.com myself and saw that Bella Mente asked for redress for both races today, based on their running into the wreck. Hard to imagine. Whats more, the jury award them redress for each race. They gave them a 1.25 score for each race rather than the 4, 3 that they scored. What could be the basis for that decision? I could not find any “facts found” issued on the official jury notice board.

So get this; you are sailing along, no other boat within 200 meters of you, you run into something and tell the Jury it was someone else’s fault? The wreck is marked by a government buoy! It is marked on the navigational charts! Further, the race committee has warned the fleet about it each day before racing. Never heard of anything like that. I don’t know what is more unbelievable; the asking or the getting.

21:00 FURTHER UPDATE “I am now told the Jury is reopening the hearing in the morning."

By the morning Bella will surely be back in the water ready to race. If redress is overturned and they pile on points, I’m sure it will only fire up the Bella boys. There’s a good little rival between the two maxi camps. Big boats, big crews, and an even bigger desire to make good for their respective owners….

Tuesday, Jan. 20

Bizarro day. That's how it felt on the J/70 circle today. With a light southeasterly and thick cloud deck, there wasn't much wind action on the water, unless your idea of action is crazy shifts, chasing wind lines, and teasing the edges.

On the Muse we had two bad starts in two races: the first was front row without pace, the other, a manic struggle to start at the pin in a big left-hand phase. At 30 seconds we knew we weren't making it, we went into survival mode: with a few tacks and a few hair-raising dips, we were off and running, at least on the lifted tack.

But had we won the pin…

Anyway, the second race was the one we’d rather remember for the day, despite the start we finished 11th—not bad.

In the first race we “couldn’t buy a shift,” our tactician Stu J kept lamenting. Just when we thought we were in phase and happy, away the breeze would go, only to appear on the opposite side of the course. We weren’t the only ones struggling in this race, though. World champs Tim Healy and the Helly Hansen crew said they were a victim of their own conservative tactics, losing boats that would dig just that much deeper into a side or corner. Frustrating stuff. We ultimately finished 22nd, which wasn’t as bad as it felt at the time.

The team of the day, though was Jud Smith's Africa. Absolutely launched out of the right corner in the first race, they led for most of the race before coughing up the lead to Doug Strebel's Black River Racing. But there they were again in the second, with a huge lead and win, which shunted them straight to the top of the standings. Smith, a Marblehead wizard, is king in the light and shifty, and certainly showed it today.

The forecast is for more or less of the same light stuff. If we race, it’s going to be mentally brutal. If we don’t we’ll get warm, sunny hump-day lay day. I’m preferring the latter…for me a good lay day is better than a lousy race day, plus I’d like to put some miles on my rental cruiser.

Monday, Jan. 19, 2015

One of the best places to be at Quantum Key West Race isn't on Duval Street or Mallory Square, it's at The Galleon, a non-descript beige condo building with a marina on one side and a tiki bar on the other. Packed into the marina are most of the sportboats, J/70s, Melges 24s, and a whole bunch of the IRC big-boats. Come 0900, the place is a bustling with pros going to work and the rest of us amateurs enjoying another holiday in the sun. When the races are done, boats get put away and the question of the day before heading over to the Tiki Bar for a mudslide is always, "How'd you do?"

I posed the question to Bennet Greenwald, who is always at the top of the J/70 fleet, and in typical Greenwald fashion, he simply shrugged and said, “It was good day.”

I pressed him further. “It was a crazy day, and let me put it this way. It’s better than being in the ground looking up at the bottom of the grass.”

He had a point. The sun was shining, the wind was insanely predictable, and the racing in the J/70 was tough. With big shifts, big windless holes, and big wind lines dropping in at random, there were plenty of opportunities to get back into a race, or get flushed.

Onboard Muse, we had it all. After a bad start in the first race, we found ourselves fighting to get to the left corner, managing to come out OK, somewhere mid-fleet. With a quick jibe set to separate from the big clump of boats around us we were making inroads into the fleet, and feeling better. A leeward gate pile-up, however, took away all that we’d gained, and we were fighting back again…this time from the right side. Tactician, Stuart Johnstone, worked his brain hard to get us in the mix again, and we salvaged the race with a 35. For our first race together it could have been a lot worse. It could have been better, too, so in the 30-second post race debrief we resolved to do it: better communication at the start and going into the corners: We were fast in a straight line, so lets be smarter about getting around the marks.

We were called OCS in the second race, and in a moment of utter chaos of heading back to the starting line, Heather asked, “They said o-seven. Is that us?” The three of us were silent…I actually had no idea what our bow number was…I don’t think any of us were sure, but Heather’s instinct was right. O-7 it was, and we restarted well behind the fleet, watching them all sail away into what was supposed to be the preferred left corner. But what do you know? The right worked out best, and at the top of the course we were in the top 10. It’s funny how that happens. Free of the mid-fleet chaos, but still tacking twice as much as we normally would, chipping up the beat on all the random shifts. Stu and Heather later agreed it was like sailing on Boston’s Charles River: when the shift comes hard, just take it. Finishing off the day with an 11th was miracle unto itself.

When I ran in Greenwald at the evening awards party, I gave him some grief, because Mr. Humble himself had more than a good day. He won the last race, is leading the standings, and got the week’s first Boat of the Day trophy.

When I asked him how he managed the zaniness of the breeze he credited his tactician Eric Doyle.

“Eric was on fire today,” he said. “Ed Adams said in our morning briefing that it would be tricky, and that was an understatement. Eric was great at finding the pressure, and that’s really what it was all about.”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

“Nice. That’s it.”

My skipper, Heather Gregg-Earl, likes the sensation she’s feeling on the helm as I squeeze the mainsheet another inch tighter. The leech loads up and the boat squirts forward with a half-knot boost.

The J/70 has this sensation when it happens, as if the boat gets lighter, and it just sort of wiggles upwind. I remember this feeling well from a few years back when sailing with Tim Healy at the first Key West Race Week for the J/70 class. Healy is a magician with the boat, there's no doubt about it, and he had this technique down. On Gregg-Earl's Muse, we can only hope to have a bit of his speed voodoo this week.

Of course, the other part of the squeeze is the ease, and in my role as the mainsheet trimmer for Gregg-Earl for the week, after a day of practice I now know my shoulders will be getting their daily workout. Crossfit meets sailing.

The magic, says my crewmate Stuart Johnstone, is to work the main with a vengeance: big dumps in puffs to keep the boat at 20 degrees of heel, followed instantaneously by big, aggressive tugs on the sheet to load up the sails again. I was finessing my adjustments, and that’s not how it’s done on the 70. With a slow ease, the boat is instantly heeled and drifting sideways. No finesse. Work it, Johnstone reminds me.

I got it: Big ease. Grunt it in to grab the power of the puff.

In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. In.

“Nice. That’s it. You got it.”

OK, I can feel it now. I’ve got the throttle in my hand this week, so it’s going to be full focus, full time, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s the next best thing to driving, right?

Gregg-Earl, one of the best Corinthian skippers in the class since its inception, is also the class’s first North American champion, and as a skilled skipper to begin with, she’s spent the last few years honing starts, communication, and understanding the boat’s “modes.”

The J/70 is hypersensitive to being in the right mode downwind: planning versus displacement, and on our first day’s practice, we focus on the subtleties between the two: shifting weight by inches, small adjustments in trim, and being alert to not getting stuck in either one too long.

So that’s what we worked on during a few hours of practice on a beautiful, sunny, 10-knot day off Key West. With Stuart Johnstone’s lead we orchestrated the maneuvers at the front of the boat with our forward crew, Patrick Powell, and we began to develop the groove between Gregg-Earl and myself. It was a quick and productive three-hour practice with a long sail back to the harbor, which is an excellent time to get to know each other, share a few laughs, and begin what can be a long and fruitful week of racing.

J/70 Muse
Dave Reed/Sailing World