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WTF? I’m On Race Committee?

After helping with RC duties for the Potomac River Sailing Association Laser fleet, I have a newfound respect for those who run races.

February 15, 2012
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What would you rather do? Race or do race committee? Well, the answer is pretty easy. We go to the trouble of buying boats, maintaining them, practicing with them, and spending down marital credits to disappear for a day—the price varies according to season, mood, and the behavior of children—because we want to sail and compete against other sailors.

So lots of sailors moan about, bitch about, and even actively shirk their race committee duty, even though it’s glaringly obvious that if there is no race committee, there is no racing.

I never really mind doing race committee, though it often seems a shame when you have to pull the members of the race committee from the fleet that is racing, thereby reducing the fleet by one or more boats. But it is what it is, and so I recently pulled my shift in the Potomac River Sailing Association Laser fleet, turning out—along with a fellow fleet member, Eric Petersen, who took the pictures you see below—to run an early February frostbite series on the Potomac River, just south of Reagan National Airport.

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It was a partly sunny but cold Sunday, which nevertheless once again proved the axiom that any day on the water beats a day inside (likely doing chores). And I love the venue—a friendly sailing marina, with views of the Capitol building and the Washington Monument when you’re out on the water, and big-ass jets landing close enough overhead to send tightly spinning vortexes down to the water (though I haven’t figured out how to play them, yet). The fleet is great, too, regularly putting 15-20 boats on the line for some of the most enjoyable Laser racing I do all year.

Eric Petersen

I’ve met sailors who always seem quick to complain about a race committee. That seems unduly ungrateful, and most sailors endure whatever mysterious trials the race committee puts them through because they’re racing, instead of stuck doing, well, race committee. But all of us, even if we try to be patient and keep our mouths shut, sometimes find ourselves wondering, “WTF are they up to?”

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The best antidote for race committee grousing is, of course, to do race committee. It’s refreshing to see the fleet and the racing from the anchored perspective. It’s also a fun and interesting challenge to try and deliver lots of good racing—especially from a single small skiff, using marks that are by now almost perfectly camouflaged when placed in the muddy water of the Potomac—and to make decisions over the course of a series that leave no one thinking “WTF are they up to?”

Setting up the course was pretty straightforward. The wind was blowing out of the north, almost straight down the river. PRSA frostbiting goes for short courses and usually gets off six or seven races, giving everyone lots of starts and keeping the fleet sailing almost non-stop. Eric and I dropped a windward mark, a wing mark (to give us some course choices), and a leeward mark. We set the start/finish line up one-third of the way between the leeward and windward marks, to give the 13 boats that showed up a little room to spread out on the way to the first mark, and started banging off races.

The first thing I noticed was that it’s not that easy—even with just 13 boats on a pretty short line—to be 100-percent certain of catching every boat that is OCS. Twice, packs of boats were over—the tide started to flood as we raced—and Eric and I went to a general recall. But since it was casual Sunday frostbiting, a boat or two—I wasn’t absolutely sure—may have gotten away with a fast start because I didn’t want to make a general recall and slow everything up. If I’d been sailing and next to a boat that I thought was over early, I might’ve been thinking “WTF?” But now I have a good reminder that calling starts involves some subjective judgment, and sometimes it’s better to just race than be 100-percent certain you’ve nailed every early starter.

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Here’s one I recalled:

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And here’s the re-start where I wasn’t 100-percent sure I got every OCS but let ‘em race instead of calling another general.

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I’m sure some people will disagree with that decision—especially Len, who was sailing No. 708 and got nabbed! But I’m also sure that some would say better to race (and keep the races rolling) than restart AGAIN.

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Course bias is also something racers often complain about. Eric and I tried to run lots of different courses—Olympic, windward-leeward, even a windward-leeward finishing downwind. But over the course of the day, the breeze pumped up a bit and backed slightly left. It wasn’t so egregious that you could lay the windward mark off the start. But it was enough that boats would spend a lot more time on port tack than starboard tack, and I know that I’ve sometimes been out racing and thought the course could be more square.

This time, though, I was on the race committee boat, so the perspective was different. Eric and I could’ve paused the racing for 15 minutes and reset the course. Or we could square the start line and keep the races rolling. If you’re frostbiting Lasers and you have to sit around, you get cold. And grumpy. So I decided to keep everyone warm, and get more races in, using a less-than-perfect course set. I don’t know if anyone was thinking “WTF are they doing?” But at least I had my reasons.

Eric Petersen

By the end of the day, Eric and I had ripped off seven races. If I’d been out sailing, I would’ve been pretty happy with the day. And since no one assaulted us in the parking lot, I think we did okay.

And next time I’m racing, I will not be thinking “WTF?” Instead, I will try and think “They must have their reasons.” Up to a point, at least.

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