Christmas came a few days early for Rob Butler as his new McConaghy 38 arrived on a ship from China on December 22. I guess you could say it came early for me, as well, since I was part of the team tasked with prepping a new boat never before seen in the United States to debut at Quantum Key West Race Week, where new grand-prix boats are often put on trial.
We set out with two distinct goals. First: work on the rig tune and get the sail plan balanced over the foils. Second: get the crew organized so everyone knew their positions and what they needed to do during all of the key maneuvers.
Simple, right? In theory, maybe.
When you’re among the first to dial in a new boat, you don’t have the luxury of relying on a tested tuning guide. So we put the rig in the boat and went sailing with the aim of balancing the force generated by the sail plan with the resistance created by the keel and the rudder. If the sail plan is too far back, too much pressure is put on the rudder. If the sail plan is to far forward too much pressure is put on the keel. The goal is to find the right amount of pressure on the rudder that allows the rudder to provide lift, but not so much that the rudder must be kept at a drastic angle, relative to the centerline, and causes too much drag.
Unfortunately there is not an easy way to find the sweet spot. On our first trip upwind, we realized there was too much weather helm, which caused us to have to pull the tiller too much to windward to keep the boat going in a straight line. Most boats like weather helm, but too much can be as big a problem as too little.
The best measure of the amount of weather helm a boat is generating is the tiller angle required to keep it going in a straight line. We were not sure how much rudder angle there should be on the McConaghy 38, so we called designer Harry Dunning and asked him for the theoretical optimal rudder angle. He said 3 to 4 degrees of weather helm was optimal. So we marked the rudder head with a center line and then put two marks 4 degrees off centerline on each side of the rudder. Now we had a visual mark to provide us with a sense of how much weather helm we were having. After a few more adjustments on the forestay we were comfortable that we had the rig close to where we wanted it in the boat. Now it was time to move to our second goal of sailing the boat.
Sailing a new boat for the first time, putting it through its paces, is always exciting. Learning how to tack, jibe, and turn the corners is always the challenge. Luckily for the team on Carbonado we had three days of practice before the big event. The McConaghy 38 has an extremely large spinnaker for its size. Right away we identified that getting this sail up, and then down, without getting it too wet, was going to be our biggest hurdle.
To help out the crew, the boat comes with a takedown line system, which is a line that attaches to the center of the spinnaker and runs down the forward hatch and back to a block on the interior transom of the boat. In theory all you need to do is blow the sheet, tack line, and halyard; pull hard on the takedown line; and the chute disappears down the hatch. Our first attempt at a douse showed us just how difficult it is to make any sailing maneuver go according to plan the first time. Through the practice days and the event the takedown remained one of our most difficult maneuvers. Most of the problems came when we approached the leeward gate on starboard. On a port-jibe approach, the takedown system works great, pulling the chute over the forestay and then down the hatch. On starboard, the chute comes straight in over the rail, which puts it closer to the water. What we learned was that on the douse, the helmsmen had to make an aggressive turn toward dead downwind—a swaggle in some parlance—to put the boat under the chute before it could be dropped. When we started doing this, more of the chute fell on to the deck as it came down and less in the water. Of all the things that combined to allow us to win our division at Key West Race Week, this may have been the biggest. We avoided shrimping the spinnaker on the takedowns.
Racing a brand new boat for the first time can be tricky. Every boat has its quirks and learning them takes time. We tackled the possibly overwhelming learning curve by identifying a few key areas and focusing the team’s efforts on them. It’s hard to get the very best out of a boat all of the time. This is especially true when the boat is fresh off the ship and there’s little in the way of tuning or boathandling guides. Keep good notes and build a tuning guide to help retain the knowledge and avoid re-learning solutions to problems a second of third time.