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Dan Dickison
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Championship Lessons

This article was originally published on SailNet in October, 2000.

Earlier this month,as the J/22 North American Championship regatta wound to a close on Lake Ray Hubbard near Dallas, TX, a moment transpired that must have caused the one-design gods great elation. Events in the first five races had unfolded in such a fashion that the outcome of the 63-boat regatta came down to the sixth and final race. In fact, the competition was so close that a new North American Champion for the class would be decided on the final portion of the final beat. It was a Hollywood docu-drama script in the making.

Known for its balmy winds and little chop, Lake Ray Hubbard provided a rude surprise with 20-knot winds and steep chop./B>

In the overall standings, Texan Glen Darden was leading the event with 17 points, followed closely by Buddy Wainwright and local sailor Rob Johnston with 18 apiece, and another Texan, Kelson Elam, with 19 points. One-design wizard Greg Fisher of Ohio, was not far astern with 23 points.

Under overcast skies with 15 to 18-knot breezes creating an uncharacteristic windchill factor of 35 degrees, Elam established control and maintained it over the final minutes of the last beat to take the gun, while Johnston finished second. Both sailors ended up with 20 cumulative points, but Johnston was able to throw out a seventh while Elam could only discard a sixth, thus giving the win and the title to Johnston and his crew, John Skiles and Steve Andre.

But this isn’t a story about the winnersyou’ll have to read that elsewhere. It’s a tale about the would-be champions. Among the 63 entries in this year’s event was a team from Minneapolis, MN, led by Lars Hansen, a 13-year veteran of the J/22 Class. Hansen, an avid racer and a professional photographer, was competing with a relatively new crew, but an experienced group nonetheless. He, Rod Komis, and David Wagner had big plans for this event and so they arrived in Dallas over a week early to participate in a tune-up regatta. What follows is Hansen’s account of how things went wrong initially, and then took a turn for the better, delivering a few important lessons along the way.

The 63-boat fleet of top-flite J/22 sailors made for close competition.

"We sailed well in the practice regatta; finishing second, one point behind Rob [Johnston], so we knew we were moving OK in the light-to-medium stuff. Then, we practiced on Monday and Tuesday, and we really felt that we were dialed-in. It blew 15 out of the south for five days before the NAs, so we felt we had a handle on those conditions. In the first practice race of the regatta, on Wednesday, we were second, just behind Greg Fisher, so we were feeling pretty confident. And in the first qualifying race, on Thursday, we nailed a second also, so we thought we were right where we needed to be. And then we had two mediocre races to finish the qualifying series.

"By the time the regatta actually began, the wind had switched around almost 180 degrees and it got really cold. That day started out with about 20 to 30 knots of wind and the air temperature was about 40 degrees. Ten minutes to go before the start, Farley Fontenot’s boat blew over and sank [see sidebar], so the race committee postponed the action, and we didn’t start racing until a few hours later. When we did get going, the breeze had backed off to about 18 knots, but with the wind out of the north, coming all the way down the lake, the waves were in the two to three-foot range, stacking up about 12 feet apart. It’s a different kind of sailing condition for me, and I felt like the boat never fit into the waves. After all that practice, we just couldn’t get it going well.

"We scored an 11, then a 16, and followed that up with a 14. After the end of the first two races of the series, we were getting a little frustrated. I think that mindset really held us back. But we knew we should have done better. We’re normally very comfortable in heavy air, I mean, that’s what we do well. The last two events that we’ve been to as a team we’ve raced in big waves and big winds—those were the Mid Winters in New Orleans last year where we finished third and the World Championships in Cleveland in ’99, where we finished second. So we said, ‘All right, what’s going on here? This just isn’t us.’

The downwind action in heavy air required local knowledge to hit the best lanes.

"When we went ashore that day, we started talking to other sailors, mostly the locals, and we started to learn a little bit of what was going on tactically out there. It became clear that we were relearning an old lesson—we hadn’t done enough research to figure out the course. What we learned was that a point of land near the weather mark was having a significant effect on the wind, and getting to the right side of the course on the second half of the beat had been key in the first three races.

"So on the second day, we went out and used that local knowledge and we worked the boat 10 times harder. It’s just part of the sport; you’ve got to relearn those old lessons over and over again. That second day was colder than the day before, but not quite as windy. We managed a third in the first race that day, mostly because we let two other boats that were close get to the right of us late in the first beat, and they ended up rounding the weather mark ahead of us. But we were back in the groove. Well, almost. We went on to score a sixth and then a 16th, so we wound up 10th overall. I was disappointed. Going into the regatta, I thought we could win this event, and I was definitely expecting to finish top-five. I mean our team has won races at national events, so we’re pretty used to this caliber. We’ve had some great success in this class, and we’ve finished ahead of Rob in regattas before. I’m not taking anything away from him, mind you. He was sailing on his home lake, and he was in excellent form. In fact, those Texas boys are awfully strong. They’ve got a great fleet, and they travel to events and sail together a lot. I think that helps them enormously."

So Hansen and his team headed north, back to Minneapolis, humbled, but wiser. They’ll regroup, he said. "We’ll go to the midwinters this year; that’s our next event. We’re going to have to come back and reestablish the pecking order."

Sink, Sank, Sunk

An unexpected prelude to the racing ocurred on day one when a competitor's boat deep-sixed itself.
Don’t believe everything you read, goes the old maxim, and it was doubly true this year for visiting sailors who congregated at the Rush Creek Yacht Club for the J/22 NAs. According to the verbage posted on the event’s website: "October is one of the nicest months in North Texas. Although waves can build up if we have high winds…our lake is not an especially choppy sailing venue. For sailing gear... we can just about guarantee that you can leave your wool socks and hats at home!"

Well, tell that to Farley Fontenot, who suffered the misfortune of having his boat sink before the first race of the regatta. According to witnesses, a miscommunication on board put part of Fontenot’s crew to leeward just before a vicious puff slammed the boat on its ear. With the boat’s mast tip close to the water, Lake Ray Hubbard’s "not especially choppy" waves washed over the sails, pushing them under. Eventually, the combination of wind and waves turtled the boat, its interior filled with water, and it sank.

Though this kind of incident is rare, boats do occasionally sink in our sport. And it can happen to the best sailors. Fontenot is no stranger to the racecourse. Speculation regarding what happened on Lake Ray Hubbard maintains that the inspection port on the boat's forward flotation tank failed, and though the aft tank appears to have been sound (see photograph), the boat did sink. Exercising good judgement, the yacht club’s race committee had plenty of support boats on hand to rescue the sailors. The organizers wisely postponed the racing activity and sent the sailors ashore. Then they marked the boat so that it could be recovered later.

"The whole thing was kind of scary," said Lars Hansen of the incident afterward. "We don’t normally put our hatch boards in [during heavy weather], but we’re going to think about that in the future."

Suggested Reading List

  1. Team-Building Basics by Betsy Alison
  2. Good Lanes and Bad Lanes by Brad Reed
  3. Executing a Sucessful Duck by Dan Dickison

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