Triangle on Trial

At the J/105 North Americans, Dave Reed loses sight of the reach mark and reflects on the trouble with triangle courses. Editor's Letter from our October 2011 issue.

Sailing World

Sailing World: October 2011

In August, I hustled up to Marblehead, Mass., to observe a few days of the J/105 North Americans, catching the tail end of the skipper’s meeting, where PRO Ken Legler addressed competitors and casually mentioned his intention to use a triangle course or two during the regatta.

Gasp! The crowd was electrified.

“Yes. It is my intention to set a couple of triangle courses for you,” he said. “We need to bring reaching back into sailing. The tactical and boathandling skills of the reach are now a lost art.”

He then explained from the podium, as if lecturing, the geometry of the equilateral triangle: 60-60-60. If the first beat is a mile and a half, he explained more than once, then the reach leg would be three miles, and then, of course three miles back to the leeward mark, which was set to leeward of the finish line.

With the conclusion of the skipper’s meeting, the crowd dispersed, and there was no more talk of triangles . . . until the following day, when Legler posted “T” on the course board.

Overnight, a team that was one man short had drafted me, so I was able to experience for myself a reach leg in a lead-laden sprit boat.

We had an excellent start and rounded the weather mark sixth in the 42-boat fleet. We had a five-length gap or so on the boats behind us, and we were looking good. We set the chute, and then stared off into the clear horizon looking for a 4-foot tetrahedon three miles away.

“I don’t see it,” one of us said.

Of course we couldn’t see it.

Oblivious to where we were supposed to be pointing our bow, we soaked three lengths below the boats ahead of us, taking the low road while we had pressure.

“Why are those guys going so high behind us,” came the question a few minutes later. “Are they luffing each other?”

The boats ahead, as well, were soon pointing off in a direction we deemed far too high to be correct. It turns out they were sailing to the mark, and once we realized the error of our low-road ways, we found ourselves fighting upwind as boats on the high road eased their sheets and streamed past. After three miles of tight-reaching, which is not the J/105’s fastest point of sail, we had to shoot the mark in a crowd, hitting it, and well . . . you can guess how it went from there.

Boy, did we feel stupid. But not as stupid as we did later, when Legler addressed the triangle race in his daily debrief. What he saw was an utter lack of navigational skill. Who in the fleet had actually calculated the angle of the first reach leg, and then compensated for the current set? The winners did, but not many others.

Guilty as charged.

But the outcome of our race wasn’t entirely our fault. During the leg, the wind had unexpectedly shifted 30 degrees forward, making it impossible for us and a few others to recover from a slight tactical move early in the leg. The shift had eliminated any passing lanes, turning it into a parade.

The result of an informal tent poll was 50-50, Legler admitted. Teams that did the math liked it. Those that didn’t . . . didn’t. But the mere mention of another triangle course attempt later in the regatta brought more jeers than cheers. I give him credit for trying, but long reaches with heavy-displacement sprit boats isn’t exciting or challenging. Sorry, Ken. Let’s leave the reaches to the planers and pinners. Big boys like their sausages.