Picture this: it's the first day of the 2002 Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta—one of the big events for would-be Olympians and a mandatory affair for sailors intent on making the US Sailing Team. Needless to say, all of the serious players in the Yngling class are on hand. So, with my crew of Liz Filter and Kate Fears, we get off to a great start in the event with finishes of 2-1 on the first day. But Jody Swanson and her talented crew (two Rolex Yachtswomen of the Year—Cory Sertl and Pease Glaser) end up tied with us with a 1-2.
In Race No. three, we round the first weather mark in the lead with Jody nowhere in sight and I start to think that we might be able to gain a few points on her. So we set the spinnaker, settle in, and I take a drink of water. Suddenly, there's Jody, heading upwind at us on starboard. She may be way behind us, but she still has the right of way. Somehow we need to bear off enough to take her transom without running her boat through or locking the rigs up. Since I've only just realized that she’s there, the turn we make is pretty drastic. My blood pressure goes up even more when I realize that a Canadian boat sailing upwind on port is attempting to duck Jody and then duck us as well. For a split second that feels like a lifetime, that boat is headed right at our chain plates.
Thanks to good boathandling on everyone’s part (and perhaps a small miracle), we all escape unscathed. But given another 10 seconds of anticipation that whole situation could have been avoided. If I had been looking ahead just that much earlier, I would have had a lot more room to plan my path through the traffic. So what’s the lesson here? Planning ahead. Almost everywhere on the racecourse a little prudent anticipation can help you prevent many close calls, and it’s also a good way to reduce the odds that you’ll end up spending much of your evening in the protest room.
The first place where planning and anticipation can really improve your results is on the starting line. For me, pre-start planning has three aspects: line homework, the big picture of where you want to start, and the more detailed, close-up view of finding the hole that will get you off the line. Line sights are very helpful, but sometimes you just can't get one. I try to run the line a few times on starboard to get a feel for the angle of the wind, the current, and the waves before the starting sequence gets underway.
Your big picture plan should be in place before the sequence starts, unless the conditions are very volatile. The detailed close-up begins when the warning gun goes off, and intensifies in the last one or two minutes before the actual start. Anticipating how the other boats are setting up is somewhat like a chess game, and some sailors are better at it than others. The longer you sail one particular boat or in one particular fleet, the easier this chessboard will be to read. With enough experience, you will be able to anticipate the boat speeds the sailing angles, and the habits of your competition.
Once you’re on that first beat, anticipating crossings and predicting their outcome will help you execute your game plan. If I'm holding a tight lane on port and need to duck a starboard-tack competitor, I sometimes will slow up by pinching instead of losing a lot of height with a big turn around the starboard tacker's transom. By doing that I should be able to hold the same lane after we cross paths.
As you get close to the windward mark, there is less time to think ahead. The crew is usually busy setting up for the rounding and the intensity on board is at its peak. If it is crowded, my middle crew Liz always says: "Remember, risk vs. reward." Loosely translated, that means: "Don't stuff it in where you don't belong." I try to anticipate where boats are going to end up once they tack onto the layline, and whether there will be room for us. If there is any doubt, I will duck them and run the risk of overstanding. Having good speed around the mark usually sets us up for a better spinnaker set and consequently a better start to the next leg of the course than rounding inside and getting slowed down by the windshadows of other boats. And rounding outside of those boats usually helps you reduce the risk of a foul.
Even though my crew union card was recently revoked—I only drive boats these days—I still try to keep my teammates informed of my intentions. Going into a crowded weather mark rounding, I'll say something like "I'm looking at a hole between sail No. 551 and 645" or "we'll duck Wally and tack on Sally." Even if the situation doesn't pan out quite the way I’m suggesting, everyone knows the plan. It also gives them a chance to voice their opinions if they strongly agree or disagree.
If we’re approaching a situation and I don't know what's going to happen, I share that too. Then at least we all can take a deep breath, plunge into the unknown as a team, and see how it all turns out. Communication is the glue that holds a team together, and sometimes simply saying ‘I don't know what's going to happen next’ can help to keep you all working toward the best outcome of any mess. Remember, skippers don't have to be right all the time, and honesty goes a long way.
|"Sometimes simply saying ‘I don't know what's going to happen next’ can help keep the whole team working toward the best outcome of any mess."|
Planning ahead for the downwind leg means knowing which side of the run you want to be on, and that should be decided before you round the windward mark. Once on the run, there are two ways anticipation can help: keeping your apparent wind clear and avoiding interaction with other boats. In the Yngling it seems to work best to have the forward crew looking back at traffic astern, while the skipper concentrates on the traffic ahead.
Leeward mark roundings—especially those involving gate marks—truly reward sailors who plan ahead. I can't count the number of times we've been going really fast, catching a few waves, and then I start to get a bit cocky. When I consider the next move (the leeward mark), I suddenly realize that by gaining on the boat in front we've locked ourselves outside for the rounding. Deciding when to switch your focus from the tactics of the run to the strategy of the mark rounding is always a moving target, but the earlier you consider what your options are, the less surprised you will be by the outcome.
Again, I try to keep my crew informed about which gate I intend to round and whether I think we will be jibing before we get there, as we round, or not at all. I also make a habit of asking my forward crew to look at the mark ahead when it is about two minutes away. A quick glance and assessment from their perspective usually provides a lot better information than me offering a hackneyed description of boatlengths, angle, or time to the mark.
Planning ahead can definitely keep you out of trouble on the racecourse, but anyone who has raced at competitive levels knows that you shouldn’t get too locked into a plan because situations change all the time on the water. Therefore, try not to put your team in positions that they can't get out of. If you see a tight leeward mark rounding situation setting up, particularly if a jibe is involved, get the spinnaker down early. In the seventh race of the 2002 OCR in Miami, the Spanish team did a fantastic job of pressing hard on the downwind leg to get an inside overlap on us. We resigned ourselves to rounding behind them, so we doused early, and were ready to take evasive action when they dropped their kite over the bow, stopped dead, and started screaming at each other. They didn't finish that race, and they freed us up to go on and finish third.
One final, often overlooked benefit of planning ahead is that you will remember better what you did, and why, if that action wasn't simply a knee-jerk reaction. And whether it works out or not, it is always easier to learn from a situation that you remember!
Getting Back to Basics by Betsy Alison
Consolidating Gains on the Racecourse by Dean Brenner
The Crewmembers' Manifesto by Dan Dickison
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