McKee's Key West Minute

Jonathan McKee reports on tactics in the IRC2 Class

Friday, Jan. 23

What a great last day! We finally got some strong wind today, 18-22 knots from the SE, and a rough sea state to match. It was the perfect stage for two final races. Onboard Hamachi, we reveled in the stronger breeze, scoring a 4, 5 in IRC2, our best day of the regatta. On the strength of those scores we vaulted from 8th to 5th in class. There was enough wind for us to plane downwind, while the Swan 42s and 2 other heavier boats in our class could not. It was a day to avoid boathandling errors and find a good groove upwind. We had one little hiccup, when we had a minor spinnaker shrimp in the first race, but we cleaned up our technique for the last race.

Another thing we learned today was the importance of sailing the right heel angle. Instead of trying to focus only on target speed, we started to keep a consistent heel angle of about 20 degrees. This is a little flatter than we had been sailing. Although the speed did vary a bit more, we had a more consistent track trough the water and better height, so I think the foils were working better. I think this is a lesson that applies to almost any boat. Try to find the right heel (which may be flatter than you think) and then steer and trim the sails to achieve the right average speed, if not the perfect speed at every moment. Accept a little more variation in speed in return for a more efficient foil.

One thing that I have thought a lot about is managing expectations, my own and others. In our class, there were a few boats that were clearly more optimized for IRC than our J/125. So even if we sailed perfectly (which we did not), we were probably not going to beat a well-sailed boat that has a more favorable handicap. This is not a complaint against IRC, which is reasonable rating rule, but a recognition that every rating system will have winners and losers. We chose to race in IRC rather than PHRF because the fleet is more competitive, and we felt we would learn more. So are we disappointed to get 5th? Sure, we left some points on the table, and made plenty of mistakes. But we also sailed some pretty good races, and we learned how to sail our boat better in a range of conditions. We all had a great time, including our owner Greg, and we ended up being more dialed into our boat, both speed-wise and boathandling. We all got along well, enjoyed the sailing and the shoreside activities, and right now everyone on our crew has a smile on their face. So I think we won.

A little follow up on my tirade from yesterday on the Maxi boat redress situation: After another hearing, the jury ended up reversing their previous decision, and not awarding redress. Not to be deterred, the boat in question came out and won the last three races, so they earned their class victory fair and square.

Thanks for sharing this Quantum Key West Race Week with me. It has been fun to pass on my thoughts, and I hope fun and interesting for you too. See you next year!

Thursday, Jan. 22

Great day of racing in KW today. The wind was 10-15 from the east, which means there is bit a wave action. The courses were a little longer today, but with a pretty steady wind, there was still a strong emphasis on starting, and of course boat speed. Onboard the J/125 Hamachi we had a good first race. We took the pin at the start again (always a good feeling), and sail pretty smart and fast. The second race also started well, but on the second lap we started going noticeably slower. Belatedly we realized we had caught weeds, which knocked about 0.3 off our speed, and this made for a much more challenging race, and a worse finish position.

So how do you deal with weeds? Step #1 is realizing that you have them. In the clear water of Key West you can see most of the rudder and part of the keel, but the most common place to get kelp or weeds is at the top of the keel, which is very hard to see. If you have an endoscope, you can use that to detect weeds, and you should probably check if you have any doubt. Most boats do not have this little piece of equipment, so you need to use your performance to assess. If you are struggling to hit target speeds, and if your speed seems to go up and down more than normal, then there is a good chance you have weeds (assuming normal setup). Here at KW, you sail through patches of weeds all the time, so it is definitely a possibility.

After determining that you are weeded, what do you do? Sometimes they come off on their own, especially tacking, jibing or rounding marks. But sometimes not, like today. So your next option is to back down. This is nearly always successful, but it will cost you maybe 10 boat lengths. Is it worth it? If you are close to the finish, maybe not. But if you are 0.3 knots slow all the time, you are losing 10 lengths every 10 minutes or so. Painful as it is, it is probably worth doing. There is another technique called “flossing”, where you throw a rope over the bow and work it back both sides of the boat and down the keel. This works well with a swept keel, but is less successful with a vertical keel or a T keel, because the flossing line does not get all the way to the bottom of the keel. The third option is using a weed stick, which is typically a batten with a piece of rope attached to the end. With smaller boats this can sometimes be used to solve the problem, especially on the rudder. Sometimes you have to slow down, otherwise the force of the water is too much. In any case, what I learned today is not to ignore the issue, or you bleed slowly to death. As with anything in sailing, all of the above will work better if you have practiced it before!

Looks like great breeze tomorrow for the final two races. I can’t wait.

There was an incident yesterday that really bothered me, so allow me to get it off my chest. In the first race, one of the top Maxi boats ran into a sunken wreck and had to be towed off. The RC had announced the presence of the wreck on the radio before the start. The boat filed for redress for both races, presumably on the grounds that the course should not have been there. Well lo and behold, the jury awarded them average points for both races, which was 1.25 points per race. I find it shocking that they would even have the nerve to request redress, when it was obviously their own navigational error which caused the incident. And furthermore, the weak willed jury gave it to them, for both races!

Now I am sorry, but I believe that sailing is a sport where sometimes things happen, and that is part of the sport. Are boats supposed to request redress every time some “act of God” occurs? Or is there a double standard here, where the average sailor has to live with his screw ups, but the top boats get preferential treatment? Whatever happened to taking responsibility for your own mistake, owning up to it and moving on? To me this would set a much better example for other sailors. Maybe I am missing something here, but I think this was a terrible decision.

Editors note: According to reports Bella Mente's redress was overturned on appeal by competitors in the mini-maxi class. A change in the results shows Bella with a DNF and a third.

Wednesday, Jan. 21

Despite a dismal forecast, it turned into a pretty good day of racing today on Division I. We postponed for an hour then headed out to greet a 7 knot northerly for 2 decent races, which was better than anyone expected.

In our class, we are the smallest boat and generally the slowest upwind. So the start and the first beat have been a tough challenge, and I suspect there are a few readers that have encountered a similar situation in their PHRF fleet. How do you race against bigger and faster boats, especially at the beginning of the race? We had a little discussion on this topic on the way out to the racecourse today. We decided that one option is to take the pin (the leeward end of the starting line). If you can achieve this, you will at least have clear air for a little while, until eventually one of the bigger boats runs you over and you have to tack. Another pretty good option is to start at the boat (the weather end) and tack. Then you will have clear air on port, at least for a while. This works particularly well if the weather end is favored, or if you like the right side of the course. In any case, we decided it was better to not get too close to the line in the final 2 minutes, so you can approach any situation with speed, and not have to kill speed to avoid being early, leaving you easy prey for bigger boats coming in with speed. Except in very light air, better to be the hunter than the prey! So, these concepts actually worked pretty well for us today. In the first race we took the pin and were able to sail as long as we wanted to. In the second race we were second from the pin, but were able to tack to port and duck the fleet, giving us a nice wide lane on port. Since right turned out to be good, this also worked out well!

Last night, we experienced a unique Key West institution called the “shot and shoot”. This has apparently been going on at the Schooner Wharf Bar for 15 years. Here is how it works: You are given a 20’ piece of heavy rope, and there is a road cone about 10 feet away. In the finest KW tradition, you start by taking a shot of Mount Gay rum down an ice luge, then you have to tie a bowline in the rope, throw it around the cone (harder than it sounds), and finally drink a beer. In the spirit of competition, this is timed. Our crew arrived just in time to see the World Record holder, known locally as “Captain Wasabi”, perform his work. He was a little off the pace on this occasion, throwing down a time of 13.7 seconds, far from his record of 7.3 seconds. Several other patrons gave it a shot, many obviously veteran nautical cowboys. The winner on this night was a spry young woman from Maryland in cowboy boots, who threw down a sub 10 second time! It turns out her entire family; Ma, Pa, sisters, in-laws, come down every year specifically for this little event. So basically they are ringers. In any case our bowman, Andrew McCorkindale, decided to give it a shot, and he acquitted himself very well. He nailed the bowline, as you would expect from a bow guy, then he managed to throw it on the come first time! The only trouble came when he was so shocked with his own success that he momentarily forgot to drink the beer, so that cost him a couple of seconds. Nevertheless he got a time of 13.3, better than the famed Captain Wasabi, but not quite as good as the ringer rom Maryland. I suspect we may be back tonight…

Tuesday, Jan. 20

It was another challenging day today (although it seems like they are all challenging). The breeze totally died during the first race and the race committee wisely abandoned. Then, after about an hour wait, a little southerly breeze filled in and we had two pretty good races in 10 knots.

One thing we tried today is making the headstay longer in lighter breeze. This does two good things: it makes the headstay sag more, which is generally a good thing for the jib shape in underpowered conditions, and it also puts more prebend in the mast, which flattens the main a little. I have done this with success in a number of keelboats, so you might give it a try some time. For some reason, it does not seem to work as well in very small boats, but over 30’ it seems like a good thing. Try about 5-10 turns on the turnbuckle for starters.

We had a close upwind crossing with a boat today. We saw them from a long way away, and they saw us. But for some reason as we got closer, the tactician on the other boat started yelling like crazy. We tacked below then, and they tacked away. Two minutes later as we were approaching the top mark, we tacked underneath them, and the same guy started yelling about tacking too close, even though it seemed like a non-issue from my perspective. This kind of loud and aggressive behavior drives me nuts, and is something I think we should try to reduce in our sport. Any time there is yelling, whether it is between boats or among a crew, the tension level rises for everyone and the fun factor goes down. So, please try to use a civilized voice and use only the minimum of communication needed to convey your point. Yelling “Starboard” 10 times in a loud and aggravated voice is not helping anyone enjoy their sailing. And, trying to intimidate your competitor into doing a penalty turn is no better.

The forecast is light air again tomorrow, so we may start earlier than normal. We might have a chance to try that long forestay again!

Monday, Jan. 19

Sometimes inspiration and truth can come from unexpected sources. I am referring of course to the Seattle Seahawks amazing come from behind victory over Green Bay in the NFC Championship last night! Of course I am a Seahawks fan, as every red-blooded Seattleite is. But even if I wasn't, there were some relevant lessons. Number one: Never give up! Even as they were playing terrible throughout most of the game, even as the game seemed out of reach with five minutes left, they never relented. They just kept playing, kept pushing, and just when it seemed impossible, the game turned around.

Number two: Keep playing as a team. There is a tendency when the chips are down to try to do something special as an individual. We have all felt that. But in the end, we don’t know who the hero is going to be. So we need to continue to trust our mates, and believe that as a team, we can still do it. Have your teammates’ back and keep doing your job.

Number three: Football games, like regattas, usually have swings of fortune. Sometimes you come out hot, and you get some breaks, and it seems you can do no wrong. Other times it is the opposite. No matter how hard you try, the breaks don’t seem to come. But nobody is lucky (or unlucky) for a whole regatta. As I have said before, you are not as good as your best day, nor are you as bad as your worst day! You don’t know if you are going to get your breaks early or late, but you will usually get your share of both good and bad luck, so you have to keep mentally tough and just deal with what you have.

Number four: Take advantage of the good fortune that comes your way. In the first quarter, if Green Bay had been able to score two touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, the game would have been out of reach. It’s the same in sailing. When you get the killer start or the miracle shift, you have to convert that into a top score.

I wish I could say I converted the Seahawks mojo into great results onboard the J/125 Hamachi today. We sailed pretty average, especially upwind. In the puffy and shifty northeast wind, I was too often in between the best breeze on the edges, especially the left edge, which paid most of the time. A good lesson, which I have probably learned about a thousand times! One challenge of today was trying to differentiate between a lull and a header. When the boat loses pressure and the bow goes down, how do you know if you should tack because it is a header, or if you should carry on to wait to tack in better pressure? In retrospect, I think you have to look at the water and be prepared for the lull, and don't tack unless you see pressure immediately ahead, or the shift is really huge.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize Martin Luther King on this day. He is one of my personal heroes. He had conviction, he had courage, and he was smart about how he worked to advance his cause of racial justice. Through his strength he changed America, for the better for all of us. He paid the ultimate price.

Sunday, Jan. 18

It is so great to be back at Quantum Key West Race Week again this year! It is one of my favorite sailing events in the world—an incredible combination of great racing, a really fun and interesting town, and a good variety of boats. This year I have the pleasure of sailing on Hamachi, a J125 owned and driven by fellow seattleite Greg Slyngstad, with a fun and talented crew made up of some of my best sailing friends. We are in the IRC2 Class, which features a wide variety of boats, ensuring that every dog will have her day!

We have had two very productive days of practice. Conditions have been perfect: sunny skies, emerald green water, and 8-15 knots of tropical breeze. We worked on the rig tune (since we have brand new carbon standing rigging) and also dialed in the sails and the boathandling. I find it really fun to work up a crew to fighting condition—we have lots of talented guys on our boat, and most have sailed together before. But, you still have to get everyone working together, and define the roles so everyone can contribute.

After concluding our practice today, I thought a little bit about how we could sail to our potential and get a good result come Friday. The first and most obvious thing is to avoid the big mistakes. This includes being over early at the start, going hard the wrong way, and making a major boathandling error. So, as a tactician, I need to try to control risk at the start and limiting our leverage on the course, as well as avoiding difficult moves at the corners. It’s not that I don’t have faith in my team, it just makes sense to limit high-risk situations. The flip side of this is that we have to capitalize when we are in good positions. In his kind of competitive fleet, you don’t get that many chances to get ahead, so when you get them, you have to convert that race into a good score. So that is my mindset going into tomorrow’s first race. I’m excited! Go Seahawks!

Sharon Green/Ultimate Sailing