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Learning to Work Under Pressure

Second in a Four-Part Series

October 18, 2002
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John Burnham

John Burnham trimmed headsails for Dave Irish on a J/105 at the International Masters Regatta on San Francisco Bay recently. If you missed the first installment of what he learned in the process click here.

The racing began on Friday, and after all of our practice, we still botched two or three maneuvers and sailed a poor first race. On reflection, it all boiled down to another “P” word–pressure. It’s one thing to practice hard and work out all of the kinks; it’s another to remember to do it all exactly the same way when you approach the weather mark on port tack, duck another boat, and then slam into a tack. That was the situation at one rounding, when Bill had to ease the mainsheet big time for the duck. I pulled the winch handle for him and something told me he wasn’t going to leave his mainsheet in time to release the jib. But I essentially closed my eyes and left the rail anyway to trim the new jib, hoping I was wrong–sure enough, he was busy retrimming his main while Dave tacked the boat. We didn’t tip over or hit the mark, but it wasn’t fast to round the weather mark with the jib backed and then, once released, flogging.

On the first run we headed down the wrong side of the run, inshore, in a pack of boats, but then cut our losses and made a good gain with a jibe away from the City Front. On the second lap, after a good quick jibe to the outside, we arrived at the leeward gate with a pack of boats snapping at our heels. Once again, pressure reared its ugly head in the form of a debate between the skipper, tactician, bowman, and spinnaker trimmer (me) on the rounding plan. And once we decided which way to round, we rushed our spinnaker takedown, letting another boat overlap us on the inside. Another effect of the takedown style was that a jib sheet got sucked down the forward hatch under the chute and even though Dave M. on the bow shouted, “We can’t tack,” the brain trust in the cockpit didn’t notice the problem and rolled into a tack. I reached to trim the new jib sheet–and it was gone! Dave had pulled it forward to sort out the rat’s nest. Then, to compound the problem, I went forward to retrieve and re-lead it rather than simply advising the skipper to tack back, which we eventually had to do anyway. We dropped 4 boats in the melee and had a quiet last beat, finishing 10th, two from last.

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We were determined to avoid that fate in the second race, and our Dave-and-Dave combo nailed the start, not far from the leeward end. Looking over his shoulder, Bill realized we could tack and cross the fleet, heading offshore for the better ebb current. One quick tack later and we were in the lead and extending in the right direction. The pressure from then on was simply to do our jobs with precision and manage the course so we didn’t overstand the weather mark in the ebb. Our boatspeed was good, although we never felt we could point very well, and we held it together for a satisfying win. This time the pressure was on others. One boat close behind us dropped their spinnaker in the water on the second set. Another lost a man overboard when the jib filled and swept him off the foredeck during a spinnaker takedown (he was quickly recovered, fortunately.)

For the day, Bruce Munro, a Bay area big-boat sailor and past St. Francis YC commodore, was the only one to put together two top finishes, so he led the regatta with 4 points. John Jennings, the defending champ from St. Petersburg, Fla., scored a 6-2. We ended the day virtually tied for third with six other boats at 11 points.

Burnham’s Part III:, “All About Mistakes and Opportunities,” will be posted next week at sailingworld.com

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