How many times have you heard veterans of a distance race say things like: "If it's blowing out of that quadrant, you have to go right," or "If there's that much left shift in the breeze, then you have to favor the other shore," that sort of thing. This kind of advice may be true after years of distilled observations, but it's just as likely that there are more exceptions than rules, and in order to have a better chance at winning, it's better to develop the skills needed to devise, adopt, and execute a coherent race strategy.
Developing a successful strategy for distance races involves many different aspects of pre-race planning, along with the discipline and skill to execute that plan during the race. This year's 93rd running of the Chicago to Mackinac Race revealed some interesting examples of how differing strategies led to success, with the differences depending largely on the size and speed of the boat.
Because this race is only 333 miles in length, participants are typically dealing with only one portion of one weather system and not the passing of multiple systems, which is the case in many longer offshore contests. This makes analysis of the prevalent system for the race critically important, as well as the need to develop an understanding of how local effects may override the effects of the general system.
For this year's Chicago to Mackinac Race, there was a zone of high pressure dominating the area, with its center north and a bit west of the northeast-southwest-oriented rhumb line. This phenomenon produced a moderate, 12 to 18-knot northerly breeze that persisted throughout the first night of the race. The forecast called for this high to move east and consequently rotate the gradient breeze toward the east and eventually southeast, but not without diminishing first. Sychronizing the timing of this rotation relative to the boat's performance potential was the key to success in this year's race. It's interesting that the paths of the overall PHRF winner and the runner-up were quite different. On board Larry Ellison's race-winning Farr-designed ILC maxi Sayonara, navigator Ed Adams said that prior to the start of the race there was no doubt as to where to go; the challenge was in determining just how far they'd have to go to get to that spot. "Chris Bedford helped us in evaluating the weather patterns prior to the race as well as the forecasted changes, and we agreed that either shore of the lake would be OK, since there'd likely be no breeze in the middle on Sunday," said Adams. A veteran navigator and strategist, and the current coach for the US Olympic Sailing Team, Adams explained that "The southerly breeze wouldn't fill in until Sunday night, so the Wisconsin shore didn't look like a good option since we knew we'd be fast enough to have to start across the lake before then."
Even though Sayonara was among the last boats to start, the brisk upwind conditions certainly helped give this 78-footer (the biggest boat in the fleet) an initial jump on her lighter rivalsBob McNeil's 75-foot Zephyrus and Doug Baker's turbo-sled Magnitudetoward the Michigan shore well before dawn. Upon approaching that shore, the breeze veered from northerly to more northeast, and rather than tack on the shift to steer wide of Little Sable Point, where Adams claims they knew the breeze would be light, "we wanted to make sure we were on the inside position on the beach. The thermal onshore breeze the next day would be strongest along shore, and its directionwesterlywould mean that it would be difficult for anyone outside to get to us." As that thermal filled in along the beach at eight to 10 knots, Sayonara made spectacular gains against her rivals just a few miles farther out on the lake, where the breeze was lighter and more toward the south, making the progress north that much harder. "We flew the Code Zero and were just flying," said Adams.
While they didn't know exactly were Zephyrus was on the outside, Adams claims they were reluctant to sail off the beach to find out. "If we got into the same light air as they were in, they'd likely be faster, so we made sure to stick to the inside position, which we knew would have better breeze and better angle."
One key element of Adams' confidence in the thermal build on that eastern shore was the large difference in water and air temperature. "The breeze had been blowing out of the east for several days prior to the race, so the thermal imagery data showed that the warm surface water had moved off to the west side of the lake, allowing the cooler water to upwell in the east."
After launching out to a large lead, Sayonara went on to earn first-to-finish honors, beating Zephyrus across the line by nearly four hours, giving her enough of a cushion despite a negative-120-seconds-per-mile PHRF rating to preserve overall corrected time honors as well.
For the crew on board Steve Pfeifer's 1D35 Northern Bear, it was the Wisconsin side of the lake that provided the right opportunity for them to get across in the southerly on Sunday night, with most of the previous day spent playing the shifts along the shore. Whereas most of the competitors who sped across the lake right after the start spent much of their time on port tack, the heat of the Illinois and Wisconsin shore bent the breeze close to shore to the right, resulting in the more favored tack up the lake being starboard.
|"We knew that side of the lake would be favorable for us, so we vowed to stick to the plan no matter what"|
Much of Northern Bear's success lies in the execution of its team's strategy, developed by navigator Russ Forkert with help from Commander's Weather (a weather-rating and forecasting service based in New Hampshire). "We knew that side of the lake [the west] would be favorable for us, so we vowed to stick to the plan no matter what," claimed Pfeifer. "While near other boats in our class, instead of trying to point with them, we simply footed off for speed." Pfeifer also sailed with six crew, two less than normal, reducing weight and making life easier for all aboard once the breeze went light. "We spent all night on the rail, but that's what we would have done with eight, so the effort was worth it."
The 35-foot Northern Bear was just the 23rd boat across the finish, 13 hours after Sayonara and hours ahead of its next class rival. With a PHRF rating of 33 seconds/mile, she turned in a time worthy of second place overall. Other successful Wisconsin-shore followers included Richard Grunsten's Farr 40 Voodoo and Ronald DeBruin's Frers 38 Fourth of July, whose crew seems to have a handle on this race as they earned their third consecutive class win. For the many boats that didn't get it right this year, well, there's always next year.