Put Variety in Your Courses

Are the sailors in your fleet tired of sailing around the same old racecourses year after year? If so, inject some excitement into your races with a few easy ideas. From the "Jobson Report" from our June 2010 issue

Gary Jobson 368

I’ll never forget my very first sailboat race. I was six years old at the time, and my responsibilities on the 15-foot, gaff-rigged Sneakbox included bailing out the leaky boat and holding on to our paper chart, which had the racecourse outlined on it. At the first mark we led the fleet, and I had the boat completely dry. But when the skipper asked what the next mark of the course was, I couldn’t say. The chart had fallen out of my pocket and was now floating on New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay. We eventually lost our lead, and the race, and since then I’ve made it a point to know the correct course to sail.

As I reflect on those early days, I fondly remember how the racecourses were always set around a collection of buoys scattered around the Bay. The race committee usually tried to set a course that featured all points of sail. It was unpredictable and always great fun.

It’s much different nowadays, because we’ve come to expect perfectly aligned windward-leeward courses, but it seems sailors are growing tired of the same-old, and it’s time for race committees and sailors to branch out and try new course configurations, or, in some cases, revive a few old traditions.

The first step is to bring back the reach leg. Reaching is the fastest point of sail, so why is it we rarely put the wind to our beam? Reach legs have the unfortunate reputation of being “parades,” especially with symmetric-spinnaker boats, but that’s not always the case: gains can be had, and passes can be made with good physical boathandling and attentive sail trimming. This is especially true for crews of dinghies and sportboats.

To take this one step further, why don’t we start more races with a reach leg, or a run? We favor traditional windward starts for buoy races, yet many distance races start with the true-wind angle well aft. These starts are often exciting because we’re not accustomed to them: there are many decisions to make in the final harried seconds: When should the spinnaker be set and how far from the line? How do you get clear air? Can a smaller boat catch a tow from the stern wave of a larger boat? Is it better to start with a jib for maneuverability? All these decisions contribute to the fun and challenge of setting the spinnaker in close quarters, and if race committees tried one every so often, we’d all be better at it.

The Olympic Games have trapezoid courses, bringing back the need for sailors to excel on reach legs, just like any other leg of the course. Sailors practice these legs and become better, well-rounded competitors. Team races regularly include reach legs, too, and there are all sorts of tactical maneuvers that take place at reach marks. The team-race routines I’ve witnessed have the sophistication of a professional football play.

The America’s Cup has gotten itself in a rut in its recent matches. There is very little passing on windward-leeward courses, despite the trailing boat having the supposed advantage. I’d like to see the Cup holder, the Golden Gate YC, experiment with a few difference course configurations, to see what makes for a more exciting race, where the lead changes frequently, or at least the trailing boat has a greater chance to catch up and pass.

Here’s one concept I think would add to the intrigue of an America’s Cup race: Have the first leg be a one-mile beam reach. Then, have the boats bear away on a one-mile downwind leg. After choosing one of two gate marks, the boats head upwind for 3 miles. At this point, assuming the boats are closely matched in speed, they’ll likely be within a boatlength of each other, and out of phase, prompting a good-old-fashioned tacking duel. After the windward mark, the boats sail downwind to the first turning mark, and then reach to the finish. Imagine the excitement of a tooth-and-nail, high-speed drag race to the line.

Our racecourses are typically held far enough from shore that they’re free of geographical influences, but why not embrace the geography from time to time as part of the challenge? We all might find the racing more interesting while sailing from point to point, where unexpected things can happen. Unpredictable elements of the racecourse would make for great after-race discussions. Plus, keeping the racing close to shore allows us to take advantage of the scenery that makes coastal racing so special: if there’s an island on your body of water, include it as a mark of the course. Racing around islands is great fun. Who knows? People relaxing on the shore might enjoy the show and be inspired to do some sailing or racing of their own.

You can also experiment with different courses in the same regatta. Try hosting one day with two long races of, say, 5 to 8 miles, and a second day with three to five races that are less than 2 miles in length. The mixture will provide a nice contrast, and skills will improve as a result.

One complaint I often hear is that having multiple fleets on the same racecourse creates problems of overcrowding. It can be frustrating to spend time sailing around smaller boats not in your fleet (or with boats that sail widely different angles). It can be challenging for race committees to set courses so that different fleets do not affect each other, so here again, reach legs can help by spreading out fleets. Even shallow-angle reaches can work. Another idea is to set a longer windward mark so the faster boats sail a greater distance and don’t affect the races of smaller boats.

An interesting racecourse I sailed some years ago in college was named in honor of the legendary Harry Anderson. It’s still hugely popular among the dinghy crowd. The first leg is sailed to windward, followed by a reach to an offset mark adjacent to the starting line. The third leg brings the fleet on a beam reach to the starting mark, often the race committee boat, followed by a direct run to the leeward mark, and a final beat to the finish. It was always a challenge to determine whether to be the inside or outside boat at the third turning mark. (I’ll leave the solution to you to figure out.) Your sailing organization might consider coming up with and naming a specific racecourse after an individual to give it a more personal connection and start a little tradition in the fleet.

I suspect you’re like me, in that there are many times you end up well behind in a race with little chance of catching up. This situation, if it recurs too often, can drive sailors away. Finding a racecourse that helps the trailing boats catch up in some way gives everyone hope. Perhaps a zigzag leg, or a gate, in the middle of the racecourse will tighten up a fleet. Or going behind an island might slow the leaders.

I like specific names of racecourses. The Gold Cup Course was a favorite of mine. It sounded important. This is simply a triangle followed by a windward-leeward. As a young tactician during the 1977 America’s Cup summer, I remember referring to the racecourse as “The Gold Cup” course configuration, (which was very similar to the America’s Cup). The late New York YC Commodore George Hinman reminded me, in a stern voice, that the club referred to it as “The America’s Cup Course.” Oops. I did not make that mistake again.

The length of a racecourse depends on the strength of the wind and the speed of a boat. Medal races at the Olympics are designed to take 40 minutes. Collegiate races last 20 minutes or less. I like a variety, and as far as I’m concerned, variety will keep everyone interested week after week, and year after year. So have some courage and politely ask your race committees to try some different course configurations. I bet these will be the races everyone’s talking about at the end of the season.