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What We Learned in Practice at the Masters

First in a Four-Part Series

October 11, 2002
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John Burnham

You can learn a lot in practice, which is something I did as a crewmember for Dave Irish at the St. Francis YC International Masters regatta recently. The regatta was raced in J/105s, a very popular class nationwide, but not a boat I’ve raced on before. We were also sailing with a team that had never sailed together before, although Bill Babel, the mainsheet trimmer, and Dave McVicker, bowman, qualified as regulars on Irish’s Mumm 30 team. Vickie Sodaro, who had raced with Dave a couple of times, practiced with us in place of her friend Linda Lockwood, who would be joining us on race day. I drew an assignment as jib and spinnaker trimmer, and practice time was obviously going to be important if I were going to fit in and perform well. (For a short report on the regatta, see http://www.sailingworld.com/sw_article.php?articleID=1372 and for pictures and results: http://www.stfyc.com.)

What I didn’t think about in advance was that two afternoons of practice would give me a chance to try some different trim techniques and decide which I liked. Mainly, we experimented with three ways to trim the jib: first on the leeward-side primaries, then on the windward-side cabintop winches, and finally on the windward-side primaries. If we’d gone straight into racing, no doubt we’d have settled on the traditional approach: Tom, the mainsheet guy, would’ve had to go to the low side to release every time, and I’d have ended up on the low side grinding out of each tack. Instead, we began cross-sheeting, which meant Tom could hand me the handle and then release the sheet without moving. I’d drop to leeward as the tack began, pop the handle in, then tail quickly and hit the rail for the final trim.

The other thing we had time to do was mark every control line from the tack and sprit lines to the jib and spinnaker sheets. On our first trip upwind on Thursday, we sailed a few miles, right out through the Golden Gate, marking all of our settings. I put two pieces of yellow tape on my sheets, about 5 inches apart, with another strip of tape as a reference mark on the cockpit edge, just inboard of the winch. As the day went on, I began to realize that as I was grinding, I’d see my first mark come toward the winch and know the jib was 95% trimmed so I could hit the rail and get the rest from there. Cool!

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Vickie (who was about to race in–and win–US SAILING’s Adams Cup) marked the sheets for the asymmetric spinnaker near the turning block, so I could have a quick visual check of whether I was at or near the maximum ease position for running downwind. This was a much less precise mark than on the jib sheets, and I found that coming out of jibes, it had its limits; if I blindly eased it to the mark, I would likely start to collapse the chute. The key lesson, in other words, is that the sail trimmer still has to look at the sail sometimes.

Learning to jibe the chute was fun. Both sheets were on cabin-top winches, usually with only one or two wraps even though we had 18 to 20 knots of wind. Vickie would have pre-loaded the new sheet on its cabin-top winch, so to prep for a jibe, I’d just move in off the rail, take the slack out of the windward sheet, and on command, cast off the loaded sheet. Dave M. would pull the new sheet around the headstay from the weather deck at the shrouds (for some reason this is called “tractoring”) and I’d tail like crazy. As the clew came inside the chute and aft, he’d pull down hard on the leech to fill it and as soon as the majority of it filled, I’d ease several feet of sheet. Sometimes this would be completed well before the main came over, which was no problem. The key things I learned practicing this were making sure there was no friction to slow the old sheet from going out and making sure I kept up with or even got ahead of Dave on the new trim.

Basic trim on a run with the asymmetric isn’t altogether different than with a symmetric chute, but I was glad to have some time to get used to the different warning signs of a collapse and practice my dialogue with Dave on the helm. With a traditional kite, on a run with plenty of wind you can pull the pole aft to the shrouds and trim the sheet accordingly, and then the question is only whether the helmsman is steering too deep and the spinnaker is either getting soft because the wind’s getting lighter or it’s getting soft because the main is starting to blanket it. On an asymmetric, you have to heel farther to windward and ease the sheet to project the luff of the sail to windward of the sprit, and if you run too deep the leeward half of the sail begins to get nervous or soft, especially in the upper half. It simply takes a while to get used to what this looks like and what to say to the helmsman (“Heat it up” seemed to work just fine). After six or seven runs, I began to get a visual memory of how the sail looks when it’s soft (we’re too low) or powered up (we’re reaching up too much), so that hopefully I can fit my observations for best speed in with Tom’s tactical calls for where we should be positioned within the fleet.

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Making mistakes is less stressful on a practice day. The worst thing that can happen is that your teammates will have a good laugh; then again, you can have a laugh too. One time on a tack, as I took the handle from Bill, I forgot to put my thumb on the locking mechanism, which meant I fumbled getting it into the winch and was way late on the trim. (If you’re the jib trimmer and you hear the jib luff for more than about 1.5 seconds, you’re too slow.) Another time I got mixed up and picked up the wrong part of the sheet, something that’s possible when you’re cross sheeting but is easy to avoid if you remember that a sheet comes off the winch’s right side. My favorite mistake was after our first spinnaker set, without thinking, I leaned forward and tripped the rope clutch holding the jib halyard. Then I realized that J/105s are equipped with roller furling jibs, so you don’t drop the jib when sailing downwind–you roll it up!

The other good thing about mistakes is that you may find out it wasn’t a mistake after all. On spinnaker sets, my job was to take out and stow the jib winch handle, pull the sprit all the way out as we reached the weather mark, and then begin to trim the chute as it went up. On one of our sets I couldn’t get the sprit to go out for several seconds and thought I must be getting weak. After we got squared away and talked it over, Dave realized that the tack line, which connects the spinnaker to the end of the pole, had to be led straight forward through the gap in the middle of the bow pulpit and not over the side of the pulpit as it had been that time.

Certainly the best thing about practice is getting to know your teammates, learning to work together, and also developing a camaraderie. Every crew has its inside jokes as well as its ways of supporting each other. You learn who will give you energy and who will keep you calm; that is, who’s wired (Dave M.) and who’s mellow (Bill). You hit the dock and put the boat away carefully. You have a beer and a nice dinner together, and you can relax, knowing that you’ve got your mechanics more or less in place, and more important, your skipper can relax knowing the same thing. You’re going to get the boat around the course at reasonable speed tomorrow, so you can begin to focus on the competitive aspects of the game.

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Editor’s Note: Burnham’s Part II, “Learning to Work Under Pressure” will be posted next week at sailingworld.com.

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