Cornering the Market on Success

Every racetrack has its unique facets. For Key West Race Week, one of the keys to success runs counter to one of the more basic lessons in competitive sailing.

Sailing World

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Sailing World senior editor Stuart StreuliMax Mooseman

Like with any racecourse, there are a lot of ways to skin the cat when it comes to succeeding in Quantum Key West Race Week. But if you could browse the memory files of the top tacticians racing here, I'm betting you'd find at least one common theme: Stay out of the middle.

From an early age, sailors are taught that the corners are the lands of desperation, a place where sailors go when they are out of other options. We are taught that good sailors play the shifts, leave their options open, and generally take a “centrist” approach to upwind tactics.

Key West, however, is a place that seems to reward the inverse. Today, on board Phil Lotz' Swan 42 Arethusa we re-learned that lesson the hard way. We had good starts in both races, played the shifts up the first beat and rounded the first mark in both races in the cheap seats.

It was a vexing conundrum because the vast majority of the boats that started ahead of us (Mini Maxis, TP 52, HPR, and Farr 40s) all played the hard left. Those boats are staffed by some of the finest sailors in the world. Surely, collectively, they know what they’re doing. We played the middle, but were largely to the left of the rest of the Swan 42 fleet, which favored the right side, especially on the first beat of each race. And we got whipped.

We expended a lot of mental energy trying to figure out what went wrong. One theory was that there was two breezes, one left-shifted breeze coming around the west side of Key West and the other, a right-shifted breeze, coming along the southern edge of the keys. And in the middle there was just a lot of confusion. It seemed to make a lot of sense, especially when you looked at how the breeze set up across the course.

But I also think that, as was the case in so many previous Key West Race Weeks, the middle is a no-mans land of disturbed air and the fresh breeze at the edges pays off even if means you spend a disproportionate amount of time sailing on a header.

Which actually brings up a second common theme you might find if you could browse the brains of the world's top sailors: avoid learning the same lessons twice (or more). I’ve been here enough to know to avoid the middle. If only I’d remembered that a few hours ago.

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