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Lessons From On High

Gary Jobson observes some key racing tactics from above the race course. From the "Jobson Report" in our May 2008 issue

March 17, 2009
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From above, sailboat racing looks easy. The action moves much slower, you can see the wind, waves, and the strategies of the entire fleet. You can immediately see which team is making the most gains on the favored side of the racecourse, and which teams are sailing themselves deeper into holes. It sure would be helpful to have this bird’s-eye view available during a race, but of course, we have to work with our sea-level view.

This year while covering both the Acura Miami Grand Prix and Acura Key West Race Week, I spent five days aloft filming the action. Let the record reflect that I would rather have been on the water racing, but there were many valuable lessons that I observed from on high, and from reviewing the onboard footage and audio files. You can be sure I’ll be thinking about a few of the things I learned come my next regatta. I’ll let you in on a few of them.

Speed at the starts: Most classes we observed started well, especially at the Acura Miami Grand Prix where the majority of boats are manned with top-shelf amateur talent. In classes such as the Farr 40 and Melges 32, boats are usually right up on the line, sailing at full speed. The boats that drop back right away are the ones making radical maneuvers during the last 20 seconds. The front-runners are sailing at full speed with crews hiking hard before the starting gun sounds. The obvious take-away here is to concentrate on your timing and placement at 20 seconds-from there it should be full speed to the line.

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Intramural racing: Every class always has a few match races being played out within the race, but I assure you (and the video is proof) that one-on-one lock ups never work. I saw boats engage in tacking duels, tacking several extra times within a short time frame, and they’d drop back with every tack. Some tacticians apparently feel they need to attack the boat closest to them, but ultimately both teams suffer. The take-away? Sail your own race as best you can, and only enter a battle you’re confident you can win.

The power of wind shadows: It’s very difficult to sail fast in disturbed wind on crowded courses, and you’d be surprised how many teams suffer without realizing how disturbed their wind really is. On smooth water days I could see wind shadows in the ripples trailing far to leeward of the larger boats as they sailed upwind. The worst blanketing effect seemed to extend from the stern to about five boatlengths to leeward.

Teams that gained the most found clear lanes and held them at length. In particular I noticed how Jim Richardson’s Farr 40, Barking Mad, with Terry Hutchinson calling the shots, was always in the clear [Ed.’s note: They won Boat of the Week in both Key West and Miami]. Barking Mad would set up another boat to leeward and ahead to serve as a blocker. In one race, Barking Mad only tacked twice on each windward leg. Nice.

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Obstructions: Several times I noticed individual boats getting tangled with other classes. The best policy is to stay away from packs of boats. And while we’re on the topic of obstructions, a growing trend is the number of coach boats hovering around the starting box and at turning marks. Coach boats tend to squeeze in close to see the action. Their wakes definitely affect the racing fleet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sailing Instructions deal with coach boat placement and traffic, particularly support boats that speed from one mark to the next.

Close encounters: On short, windward-leeward courses, one-design fleets stick together. Boats are constantly approaching each other, and the most disciplined helmsmen always accelerate when a rival is within several boatlengths. Upwind, this means bearing off a few degrees while easing the sails, and downwind this means steering a few degrees higher. With more speed it’s easier to maneuver, tack, or jibe. When one boat is sailing faster than another during an encounter, the faster boat always comes out with a better position.

At marks: We all know how much we can gain or lose at the turning marks and gates. From the air, these losses are even more dramatic-I’m talking instant boatlengths. From onboard audio, we could hear how the best teams kept the helmsman focused on steering only. Some boats tried to pull off dramatic maneuvers within a few lengths off the leeward gate, catching their crews off guard. Quick turns and late douses would visibly slow the boat, with considerable distance lost. When you’re onboard in the midst of such chaos you don’t realize how much you’re losing; the bird’s eye view shows how bad it can be (and how good it can be).

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Picking a gate is never easy, but the better boats regularly headed for a specific side early, which seemed to dictate early on which gate they wanted (Last-minute guessing rarely results in better roundings). Boats that would jibe for a leeward mark, with the spinnaker halfway down, would inevitably round in a mess; sliding sideways and providing more material for Dr. Crash. Jud Smith, crewing on the Melges 32, Lake Effect, would verbally walk through the rounding plan about 90 seconds before the turn. His boat was quiet during the actual maneuver.

At the windward mark, hurried spinnaker sets were problematic. The leaders in IRC 1 and the Farr 40 always looked patient and purposeful with their sets. The bigger the boat the slower the turn, so as to keep the apparent windspeed high and help fill the spinnaker quickly. One Swan 42 attempted a jibe right in front of the race committee boat on a downwind finish. The boat stalled, broached, and the spinnaker draped over the race committee boat’s pulpit. Ouch! The lesson here is to avoid dramatic maneuvers close to marks, and especially near the race committee boat.

Sailing in big waves: Two of the race days off Miami featured big waves and 20-knot winds. From the air, the rollers looked spectacular. Onboard was another matter as spray kept the crews awash and helmsmen blinded. (It was tough on our cameras too.) I liked how the leading boats kept their helmsmen standing. They seemed to steer better while facing the elements and gripping the wheel with two hands. The main trimmer worked the sail on every wave and puff. Boats that suddenly heeled could be seen sliding to leeward while a nearby boat depowered its sails and kept on track. A quick ease of the mainsheet or traveler was all it took.

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The bird’s-eye view is particularly effective in seeing how tactical situations play out, but the audio we get off our boats is a fascinating study of sailing styles. Champion professional sailors Paul Cayard, Terry Hutchinson, and Jud Smith use effective but different styles. Aboard the Farr 40, Warpath, we heard Cayard exude leadership with clear direction. He verbalizes what he would be doing as a helmsman. This stream of consciousness keeps the crew informed of every action of the wheel. He is always encouraging.

Etchells World Champion Jud Smith is the teacher. He talks through why he is doing something, always with an explanation. “Ease off the backstay, we need a rounder luff on the jib to work through these waves,” is one example.

Terry Hutchinson, who is sailing at the top of his game, is the strategist. Hutchinson talks in short sentences constantly in advance of the next maneuver. “After the rounding we are going to sail 15 lengths and tack . . . keep the jib eased for acceleration and trim in as we turn to help the boat around.” How’s that for clear direction.

But direction can go too far. There is the one I refer to as the “drill sergeant.” The drill sergeant, who’ll I’ll keep anonymous, controlled every action in a critical way. No task was ever achieved correctly. For example, this pro yelled about the way lines are coiled, how to walk to the foredeck, how to hoist the halyard. It was an annoying tape to listen to. I hear this pro received a pink slip at the end of the regatta, and I’m not surprised.

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