Wicked Good

Forrest Williams checks in from the J/111 circle.

Friday, Jan. 23

WICKED WRAP UP

Three times in the last 14 years, I have missed sailing on Friday at Key West Race Week. Twice has been for the good reason: we had an insurmountable lead and didn’t have to (I know this will open a can of worms about whether it’s a lame move, which disrespects your opponents or shows them enough respect that you aren’t interfering with the battle for second.

Whatever.

That’s why restaurants have menus.

Today, on the other hand, I caught an early flight out of town to meet my family, already skiing in Vermont. I had a fairly unrealistic flight out to begin with (3 p.m.), but a meticulous plan to make it happen.

The generous lads on Spaceman Spiff had their Protector teed up to snatch me off the raceboat as we crossed the line and run me up to the airport for a beach landing, which would have been epic (not Jerry Kirby jumping off the Newport Bridge epic, but pretty cool nonetheless). After taking a hard look at our lot on Thursday evening, and with the full knowledge that Marlow Ropes’ Paul Honess was in town and a free agent, I approached crew boss Gary LeDuc with plan B and he gave it the OK.

The team took the news as an opportunity to mix up crew roles on Friday in an attempt to change individual perspectives. Rodney Johnstone moved to mainsheet, owner Doug Curtiss took the con, Vela Sailing lead singer Rod Favela moved from Frontierland all the way back to Fantasyland to call the plays, and former Oakcliff Acorn Sarah Raigle commandeered the bow. The cockpit/pit/mast area was handled by LeDuc, Honess, fire enthusiast Tim Greves and mast man John Schnauck.

I got enough texts from the boat throughout the day to know that the musical chairs experiment wasn’t a silver bullet (I don’t think they meant it to be) but accomplished the goal of helping everyone understand what others on the boat had been dealing with on a daily basis throughout the week. One of the enjoyable challenges has been bridging the generation gap before the end of the week, and I will claim victory in that regard. Young Sarah now knows more about Briggs Cunningham than most sailors her age do, and Rod now knows what “making it rain” and “cougar” mean in early 21st century parlance…a true learning experience for all, and seeing the social references find their water level has been fun…best illustrated, perhaps, in our new-meets-old psych-up phrase - “It’s on like Pong”.

It’s been an interesting exercise downloading these thoughts each day. I hope I conveyed that this is a special regatta, a special place to sail, and you’re guaranteed to make memories outside of what the scoreline says that will last a long time. One last thing I would’ve missed if I stayed home and worked all week: when I showed up at the boat this morning, Gary was teaching Rod Favela, who speaks with a beautiful Venezuelan accent, how to “talk right”…please find something you need for your boat, call Vela Sailing to order it, and tell Rod he’s got the sale if he can say “Clahk the Aadvahk drank Cutty Sahk in the pahk with Mahkie Mahk after dahk.” You’ll be glad you did! See you next year and, if you’re towing your boat out of the Conch Republic, remembah to use yah blinkah!

Thursday, Jan. 22nd

Wicked Mixed Bag

We have an unofficial slogan on the Wicked: "In Rod we Trust". It began as a funny play on words a few years ago at a New York Yacht Club Annual Regatta and has sort of stuck. What it means in literal terms is that, in the configuration in which we are sailing this week, we don't really have a traditional strategist calling tactics and trimming the mainsail, which is pretty much the only way to do it in a fleet as level as the J/111s are down here. Owner Doug Curtiss trims the mainsail very well, and is adding skills and techniques to his bag every time we leave the dock, but doesn't have the big fleet reps to take the ball on the tactical front yet. To that end, I will stand behind Rodney until our final approach to the line, and sort out with him the breeze pattern we expect, our birds eye view of where we want to position ourselves on the racecourse, and make sure the boat is set up in a position to accomplish what we want to at the start. When we dial up and pull the trigger though, I am plopped down on the rail and it's pretty much Rod's ballgame after that. In short, I wear the hockey puck but Rod wears the pants. We can make that fly in our backyard most of the time, but at the big show it can catch up with us fast and make us pay dearly. Welcome to Key West.

The Race Committee sent us out an hour early this morning to get us back on the rails after yesterday’s one race. That they did, hoisting our class flag at 1030 and getting us in a building easterly. We started about a third of the way down the line and worked our way up the left hand side of the course with a pack of three boats. We rounded the top weather mark in second, had a good run in which Utah, us and Spaceman Spiff extended on the chasing pack a bit. We managed to hang on for another lap and just pipped the Spacemen to card a respectable second.

We started leaking oil at the second start and followed the fleet around the course a click off pace for the second and third races. A few moments of brilliance, a few exciting crosses but by the final beat in both heats we ended up short stick city. Crew morale is a bit shaken but often we find rough days or even regattas galvanize our desire to improve, and remind us how much there is to learn. Hey, it could’ve been worse – we could’ve hit a submerged wreck! (In all seriousness, we could have…a J/111 bounced off the same one on Sunday when they picked the wrong random red mark to use as a leeward mark…). Shakeup coming tomorrow – I am out on an early flight and will be replaced by my mate Paul Honess, Mr. Marlow Ropes for the finale. The gang is going to use the day to try a few personnel assignment changes and see if walking a mile in each others’ Sperrys suggests any alternate routes forward. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, Jan. 21

Wicked Wednesday

Today dawned light and bright and the buzz on the docks while rigs were being backed off was how long we’d be under AP ashore. The quote of the day came from Will Harris, of US Watercraft. Sailing on a very strong C&C 30 team from Newport, Harris was showing off the boat and fielding questions from passersby when someone asked him what he thought the chances of getting a race off would be. “I don’t know man,’” he said with his trademark grin, “kinda lookin’ like we might have a snow day.” Fortunately for the fleets, the AP was lowered soon after and we trudged out to the course and got a solid heat in before the bottom dropped out and they sent us in.

It was an up and down day on the Wicked. We continued our string of good starts and came off the line with the pack. Keeping in mind the fact that yesterday's winner credited their success in the lighter air race of the two to only having tacked twice on the beat, I told Rodney not to turn it too much and headed below to ride the keel for the beat with our guest squirrel for the week, Colorado EMT Sarah Raigle. In the deathly still air below, we sat silently and watched the occasional boat go by the windows outside. And sweated. It was so hot that I felt like we should be sewing Nikes or assembling iPhones. When we finally poked our heads up at the weather mark, we were rounding in close succession with the pack, but on the wrong end of it. We gained some ground on the run and, with a clean douse, headed up the final beat in phase but with very few passing lanes available. We kept it together and finished within a respectable distance of the winners, but still clearly a bit off the pace. The able crew on My Sharona took another well-deserved win, running their string to three. They are now six points clear of the Spacemen, who have one point on Utah, who have one point on Lake Effect. Wooton, from Chicago, us and Heat Wave, a former 109 program out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, sit on the other side of a four point gap and are spaced out by a few points.

After finishing the race in near drifting conditions, it was pretty apparent that the breeze had done it’s thing and wasn’t coming back. We employed a tactic learned years ago in Newport J/24 fleet – in a dying breeze, stay between your competition and the hoist – and had a good jump on the fleet when the RC succumbed to the inevitable and hoisted AP over A.

Two more days remain, and we’ve got our fingers crossed for the Chamber of Commerce conditions the Notice of Race promised. At the very least, we’re going to enjoy the banter on the boat, try to get better tomorrow than we were today, and just send it and hope for the best. Hard not to keep a sunny outlook down here…

Tuesday, Jan. 20

Wicked Wild

Key West Race Week is the ultimate bar karate dojo and the sailors bring it Cobra Kai style all week. Bar karate, for the uninitiated, is the sport in which drunk sailors lie to each other at the post-race watering hole doing animated karate chop motions to illustrate where the boats in the story are positioned (“We were on starboard (CHOP!) and this guy comes out of nowhere on port (CHOP!) so we lee bow him (CHOP!) and send him back to the left (CHOP!) never to be seen again”).

Scientists have placed the percentage of bar karate stories that begin with the phrase: “We won the start and were leading the whole fleet up the beat when…” at somewhere between 85 and 90 percent.

I know this, trust me. But 35 seconds before the second start on the J/111 circle today the breeze went hard left by 25 degrees. We were halfway down the line and, mercifully, above it, the perfect spot to make a quick duck into oncoming port tack traffic and watched in amazement as all four of the boats in our headlights ducked us and left us an empty runway to the pin. We won the start and were beyond launched two minutes after the gun when…I’m sure you can guess the rest. The RC wisely abandoned the race and brought us all back. Tough sledding when your high point on the day was winning the start in an abandoned race, but sometimes you take what you can get.

George Gamble and his longtime crew on My Sharona sailed a flawless day, with two firsts in as many races. The team has been together for many years, through a gaggle of PHRF boats, Melges 32s, and now the J/111. Joining them for the first time this week is Quantum Sails ace Scott Nixon.

Race 1, Gamble and crew started mid-line, stayed left of the pack and sailed toward an approaching cloud line with two other boats. As their competitors tacked away, they committed to the cloud and sailed into the most pressure on the course and extended from there.

In Race 2, they again started in the middle, ran for a while, tacked back and were able to cross the boats coming out of the right. They sailed all the way to layline and tacked a second time, avoiding at least two costly down speed tacks, rounded first, and were the first to react to a big lift, jibing quickly onto what ended up being a good layline, with the other boats on their heels pressing 200 yards or more further right on the run and overstanding the gate. With good wheels, they sailed conservatively and covered from there.

All in all, it was a pretty great day on the water. Lots of laughs, some sunshine, a little rain, a bit of breeze, and, perhaps most importantly, lots of bar karate to go before the crews wander out of the race village for late dinners. Sweep the leg Johnny…

Monday, Jan. 19th

Wicked Wakeup Call

There's an old saying that sometimes you're the hammer and sometimes you're the nail. Today aboard Wicked, we were the thumb. The division three race committee started on time and launched us on a four-legger into a frisky northerly. Our strategy was to get off the line cleanly, stay with the group and (hopefully) tack last on the hip of the pack and protect the left side of the course. Seemed simple enough, but we quickly found ourselves in the third row of a two row start and it kind of fell apart from there. I'm not saying we were slow, but the Twitter feed after race 1 had us in third place in PHRF 1…

By the time we were able to get our legs under us, we were just out of the breeze the pack to weather was in, and we were never in phase upwind after that. And we missed a doozy, with the highly talented Spaceman Spiff team holding off the hard charging My Sharona on the final run to take the gun.

According to Nick Turney, tactician aboard Spiff, "Our game plan was get a conservative start, stretch our legs with the group and see where we shook out. At the top mark, we rounded third, which we would have been happy with. At the gates, we saw pressure course side right, split gates with Lake Effect, My Sharonah and Utah, and managed to leverage the right side of the course. Halfway up the beat we exchanged tacks with My Sharonah and had a small lead. My Sharonah tactician, Scott Nixon, found a good knock to come back at us on about two thirds up and crossed us. We came back on the port layline and managed to squeak by at the last weather mark." The two J/111s rounded trunk-to-tail and the Spacemen were able to hang on for the first win of the week, with My Sharonah second and Utah third.

The second race started in about 8 knots of breeze about 20 degrees further right than the first, and it belonged to Robert Hesse and his team aboard Lake Effect. Crewmember Gary Tisdale summed up race two as such: "It was really, really shifty so we focused on staying in pressure, trying to stay out of the middle of the course. We felt fast upwind and rounded the weather mark in first. Utah got by us on the run – we didn't feel as fast off the breeze as we did upwind – but they seemed to get caught in the middle on the first two beats and we were hard right on one and hard left on the other and it worked out both times." It also helped that the race ended to windward. Wicked's lot improved slightly in the second heat – our start wasn't so hot but we stayed with the group and had our moments. The pack finished within 45 seconds or so of each other, with us at the back of le peleton in fifth. Debrief drone footage and commentary courtesy of Quantum featured Ed Adams and Ed Baird showing some differences in sail trim between us and the leaders, and we're hoping the changes will put us right back in the mix. First world problems….

Sunday, Jan. 18th

Wicked Ready

I awoke this morning to the sound of a rooster just outside my window, loud and agitated. In my suburban world, this can only mean one thing. It’s January in Key West, and it’s about to get real.

I'll be trimming the spinnaker on Doug Curtiss' J/111 Wicked 2.0, with a great mix of teammates new and old. Wicked hails from the village of Padanaram, on southeastern Massachusetts' Buzzards Bay. The core of the team has been together for about seven years, having worked up and raced a J/124 of the same name and distinctive black-fading-to-emerald green livery for several seasons before moving into the J/111.

Curtiss trims the mainsail for helmsman Rod Johnstone, who certainly needs no introduction here. Rod has been sailing with us since the J/124 years and one Key West three years ago Doug told him we were looking for a 111. He pointed out that the wait was through the following summer, at which point Doug shook his head and said, “Aw, that’s too bad. We were hoping we could have one before Block Island [Race Week]—thought it would’ve been fun to have you do some more regattas with us…”

Long story short, we made it to Block Island that June with a hot new ride and Rodney has been with us more or less ever since.

The boat arrived earlier this month courtesy of our longtime bowman Ed Bahen, who takes care of the boat, moves it around, and terminates with extreme prejudice any bananas that make it aboard.

When the crew began arriving this past Friday, we had a very short punch list: new in-haulers to replace the ratty ones that the nonskid eats when the crew slides through on the tacks, a few bits and bobs here and there, and a good onceover with McLube, electrical tape and a Sharpie. We were a bit late off the dock, but managed to sail for two hours or so, knocking the rust off and making that punch list a bit longer.

We traditionally replace sails and running rigging at this regatta, and this year is no different, with four new Quantum working sails in the quiver, and each one had to go up and down and battens loaded and halyards marked. Our speed yesterday was encouraging; in the dying northerly we seemed quick and high enough to accomplish what we hoped to. We cut practice short and headed back to the compound to set up for a J/111 party we hosted, which brought about 50 J/111 sailors together to have a couple of pops, maybe size each other up a bit, and make tuning session dates.

Today saw the fleet out on the water around noon, tuning in groups of two or three. We felt good early on: We knew we had less pre-bend than the others, and the headstay sag felt fast—until the breeze started to build, at which point we had to pull on more and more backstay until we finally ended up flirting closer to inverting the main than we liked, so it was back in to make some rig adjustments which we hope will bring us through the range a little easier this week.

The fleet here is good, with seven talented crews, six with very similar sail inventories, and a great weather forecast for the week (if a bit on the light side). We’ll take a look at some of these guys over the course of the week but for now, it’s safe to say it’s anybody’s game, and with a forecast predicting breeze in the high teens tomorrow, it game on!

Forrest Williams J111 Key West Race Week
Forrest Williams J111 Key West Race Week