8/5/2004

Bill Johnsen's Question

After the last Friday Night Race, Bill and I were talking about the format for a clinic we want to put on before the Labor Day Regatta.

Bill said, "What I want out of the clinic is to know how you and John House always get a quarter mile ahead of everyone ten minutes after the start."

His question contains some hyperbole but it raises a point worth pondering. How does any boat consistently make big jumps to get out in front of the fleet?

I think the answer lies in the way something very small can act as a catalyst to result in something very big.

Three rows at the start. Two thirds of the boats are already toast.
Of the front row boats, those who squeeze off their neighbors on either side will emerge in front.
That leaves one ninth of the fleet out front in clear air shortly after the start.

At the start, theoretically, everyone is lined up evenly coming off the line.

A boat that is going one hundredth of a knot faster than the neighboring boat is going to send that neighbor out the back.

The neighbor then is forced to tack, take sterns, and if he is now in a header will probably find himself a quarter mile behind when he comes back.

If the neighbor hangs in there on the lifted tack he will be dropping behind in bad air and the fast boat will have freedom to tack first in the next shift.

Freedom to tack when a shift arrives is a huge advantage.

Further into the race, the same situation arises when two boats converge.

One side is always advantaged and one tack is always toward the next header.

The boat that can force the other to the wrong side or tack will make the big gain.

John House, on port just before he start, prepares to leave the rest
of the fleet in the dust. Because of the skewed line, he is ahead of 185
by the distance between them. Although 185 is closing with him,
the USA 3 is sailing away, increasing House's lead.

Putting boat speed aside for a moment, there are other factors which can result in big gains on the fleet. Often, these gains result from one boat recognizing a change or opportunity missed by the others.

Last Friday night, a left shift arrived shortly before the start. This shift made an already pin favored line, super duper way favored.

John House's crew recognized this change, crossed the whole fleet on the lifted port tack while all the others were sailing on the headed starboard tack, and quickly found himself "a quarter mile ahead of everyone ten minutes after the start."

Shifts, wind lines, course changes are all opportunities that can result in big gains if a crew recognizes and is ready to take advantage of them.

A comment often heard at big fleet regattas is, "It is so much easier to see the shifts when you are out in front." This is not as noticable but is also true in small fleet racing.

So if big gains can be triggered by minute speed advantages, how do you gain a minute speed advantage?

The answer to this has filled volumes but basic techniques we should practice include:

1. Playing the main and jib sheets as conditions change. Small changes in mainsheet and jib trim make large speed and pointing differences.
2. Correct weight placement. Sitting too far aft is a common mistake. Hiking hard makes a big difference. At times, heeling to windward downwind is fast.
3. Driving the boat so that you acquire and then burn off speed to maximize VMG.
4. Spinnaker sets and drops. In one design racing, the ability to perform these manuevers smoothly can gain many boats at one rounding.
5. Jibes. Being on the correct jibe downwind is as important as being on the correct tack upwind.
6. Roll tacks. In light air, this is critical. Good roll tacks won us the 2003 Sarasota One Design Midwinters.