There have been a lot of opinions flying around lately about how “we” are bored with windward/leeward races. While I enjoy random-leg courses for certain casual regattas, the sausage must be preserved as the course of choice for most events: It’s the most straightforward for a volunteer race committee to manage, and when done right, is best for time management (less sitting around between races). But alas, the cries from on high in the sport are growing louder, to start races on time—course bias be damned—and throw in more reach legs for excitement. That’s easier said than done, of course. The more marks a race committee has to set (and move), the longer we wait, and the more unmanageable our racecourses become. When that happens, there will be confusion, requests for redress, and disgruntled racers.
With all the yammering about new courses, though, no one—as far I could tell—had sought the opinion of our race committees. So at the US Sailing Leadership Forum in San Diego in February, I found Anderson Reggio, whom is probably the youngest high-profile PRO in the States, and he agreed to share his thoughts on what he and other race committees can do to deliver the best possible racing experience.
“I’m all for change, but as a race manager, I’ll also add that we need to be careful about changing what’s taken decades to improve,” says Reggio. “The windward/leeward racecourse is popular for one simple reason: Most sailors consider it to be the best test of overall skill. Race committees used to struggle to get this configuration right, but education and certification have given us far more accurate and fair racetracks and, therefore, significantly happier sailors. We now have the ability to meet our competitors’ expectations, so before we abandon windward/leeward courses, there are some considerations at hand.”
Following is Reggio’s advice for his fellow race officers. And, as always, be sure to thank them for their time.
1. Because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
To plan good races we must know our competitors, their desires, their limitations, their skill sets, and the capabilities of their boats. We shouldn’t challenge a fleet too far beyond its ability. Yes, everyone loves a challenge, but running races is partially about preserving smiles. If sailors aren’t having fun, they’re not coming back. Unless asked to do so, we must not force them into overly complicated maneuvers, such as jibe peels from a running to a reaching chute, or dramatic button hooks in courses that result in unnecessary collisions.
2. No one wants to miss the party.
In the days of instant gratification, the trend is to have races long enough to establish a winner, but not so long that it gets boring. Today’s competitors tend to prefer multiple shorter races instead of one long race. Finding the sweet spot is a challenge, and while there will never be a race where everyone is thrilled, if our course makes people miss the party ashore, they’ll never forgive us. Warm beer is always remembered, but never fondly.
3. Pursuit races are fun, but should be used sparingly.
Ratings can become an issue because our competitors are always looking for ways to make their boats appear slower on paper. Usually this will be sorted out after the starting sequence, but pursuit races are far different because we must calculate beforehand the likely finishing time for all competitors, and start them accordingly using anticipated deltas. Reliable VPPs for everyone on a given course are close to impossible to get, but if we do go this route, research is a requirement. Sailors can get over doing poorly, but if they sail great and still don’t have a chance to win because of the timing we set for their start, we’ll quickly find ourselves off their Christmas card lists.
4. Don’t provoke the next arms race.
If local fleets want more variety in their courses, let’s by all means give them what they want. However, we must consider that random-leg races may encourage the proliferation of specialized equipment. Too much reaching too often, for example, could lead to more staysails, the return of the reaching chute, and a renewed focus on potentially expensive outboard lead systems. Inevitably, those with deeper pockets will spend. Every decision we make must account for the collective interest of the fleet.
5. It all starts with the start.
A fair starting line for a windward/leeward course is relatively easy to set. Square it to the breeze, and you’re generally good to go. With random-leg courses, a reaching or downwind start is often required. Ultimately, our goal should be a line that spreads the competition out evenly, which can lead to a dramatically skewed line. The best advice I have ever been given on how to judge a good starting line is to measure it against how uncomfortable I feel. If I put myself in the role of a competitor and struggle to figure out the end at which I would want to start, that gives me confidence in my line. We must look at more than just the wind direction and the angle to the first leg—we need to think about where most competitors would want to go off the line. Favor the line accordingly so that boats starting at opposite ends will get to that point at a similar time.
6. Use technology to make it better.
For random-leg races, we must invest in quality navigational software and learn how to use its routing functions, which greatly enhance our ability to pick the right course at the right time. We should become familiar with using polar diagrams and incorporating weather forecasts into a computer. My platform of choice is Expedition, which I load each morning with multiple weather models and the polars of the fastest, slowest, and median boat (or closest equivalents) of the fleet for which I’m running races. This, and AIS, can help us share the water safely and run efficient races. The smoother those races are run and the more acutely aware we are of our surroundings at all times, the better we will be at our job of making sure everyone can enjoy their hobby.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Sailing World. Click here to read more from editor Dave Reed.