As one of the world's premier inshore regattas, Yachting Key West Race Week always offers some important lessons to be gleaned on the racecourse. In general, participants at this year's eventwhich saw a record 327 entries in 18 classesacknowledged the weather was very unlike "normal" Key West conditions, with light and shifty breezes rarely topping 12 knots except on the final day. These unusual conditions put an emphasis on course management, particularly on keeping your boat in clear air, and that required a head-out-of the-boat attitude.
For most of the week in mid January, a persistent high-pressure ridge to the north kept the wind oriented out of the northeast-to-east quadrant, with a gradual shift toward the southeast as the week wore on. Of course, what defines "normal" is certainly subject to debate, but most race weeks over the14-year history of this event have had at least a few days of solid breeze, generated by either an approaching or passing midwinter frontal system.
Participants at this event traditionally gear-up and prepare for a breezy week of sailing, optimizing their crew weights, sail inventories, deck gear, and even ballasting for such conditions. Stephan Kandler of the French IMS 50-footer Krazy K-Yote was one such competitor, saying "I have been here before, and we all understood that this is typically a windy regatta, so we set the boat up for that." Kandlers boat struggled in the light air, while Makoto Uematsu's Farr 50 Esmeralda, which excelled in Hawaiis breezy Kenwood Cup last summer, was actually set up with less righting moment and purposely configured for more all-around performance. Under direction from skipper Ken Read, the green machine won the IMS class despite its sail plan with smaller headsails.
Apart from basic boat set-up, another important factor for success in Key West came into play on the water. With light air, big fleets, and some sizeable shifts, much of the racing became a tactician's game to decide where to start, what sides to play, and how to keep clear air in lanes of traffic.
Here are some observations from competitors on different course areas at the event. Some were winners, some were not, but the spectrum of views expressed here illustrates how each of the four course areas had a unique flavor.
Division I (IMS, 1D35, & PHRF Classes 1-5) In light-air regattas, there is a tremendous effort to try to evaluate the weather, since each little puff or shift can translate to significant losses or gains on the racecourse. As an Olympic coach, Rolex Award-winner, and self-trained weather guru, Ed Adams, sailing on board Fred and Steve Howe's San Diego-based 1D35 Kaizen, has seen many different big-fleet competitions in a variety of venues, including Key West. Throughout the week he arose well before dawn to provide detailed weather analyses for a variety of boats on the various course areas, and each morning issued a forecast based on his assessment of the big picture, as well as what he knew of the micro-climates around Key West. In these forecasts, he also evaluated and explained the previous day's weather and how or why it may have deviated from his forecast.
His Wednesday morning forecast read: "The computer models are calling for a softer breeze today, and a veering trend until mid-afternoon . Yesterday, the Gulf Stream trough persisted longer than expected. In the showers, the wind was right-shifted and windier, and after the passing of the showers it was left-shifted and lighter. Those fluctuations were dramatic because the showers passed nearly overhead, instead of brushing by to the south, as expected. When the sky opened for a short while on the right side of the course in the second race, a right shift with pressure filled as the open sky brought down gradient from aloft. All of the things you learned from yesterday should apply to today's racing right shifts in the showers, left shifts in their wake possible short-lived wind into the upper teens should a shower pass directly overhead and right pressure with the blue sky."
Division 2 (PHRF Classes 6-10 and J/80s ) As the racecourse situated farthest to the east, the classes on this circle were often described as competing in "Stock Island Race Week," after the berthing area for many of the competitors. This position relative to the other areas produced subtle changes in the breeze behavior and current, particularly early in the week when the wind was light and to the north of east.
Peter Blacklock, a highly-experienced competitor, sailed on the VanZee-Shaefer syndicate's Nelson/Marek 30 Carumba from Muskegon, MI, in PHRF Class 7. "As a MORC boat, we were a little heavier than a lot of our competition, so while we had good speed upwind, we had to be particularly attentive downwind. For some reason it seemed particularly hard to pick the shifts downwind, maybe because our competition was sailing at such varied angles.
|"We took Tom Whidden's advice and and went left ... but we saw the breeze inching to the right, so we favored that side for the next several legs."|
"In general we saw very little current, and really paid attention to our instruments, and let those observations dictate our strategy, rather than just going on gut feel or instinct. One exception was when we decided to punch over to one side to get near a cloud, and that paid off well."
Division 3 (Melges 24s, J/105s, and J/29s) Paul Murphy is another highly-experienced competitor, and this week he sailed on Neil Sullivan's Annapolis-based Melges 24 M-Fatic. With 59 entries, this was the largest class attending, and one of the toughest. M-Fatic had an incredible string of top-five finishes and was leading the pack mid-week, but fell to a 21st in Race 6 due to an error in identifying a mark.
"While going downwind in the race, we mistook a mark that was on the edge of the course as one of ours, and headed up under jib for a couple of minutes before realizing the mistake. This is what cost us the win in the regatta."
According to Murphy, that week's conditions were not so mysterious. "I learned a long time ago from Dave Ullman to sail toward weather shores, and from Robbie Haines to sail away from leeward shores, and basically that strategy worked well."
Murphy also claimed that, unlike many of the other crowded course areas, "we really never had a problem with traffic once we got off the start line and so didn't have to favor one side or the other. And being so light, the Melges isnt too expensive to tack, so we played the shifts and really worked hard at looking for pressure. This is usually more important than shifts, particularly downwind."
Division 4 (Farr 40s and Mumm 30s) Among the 37 Farr 40s competing at Key West, a race within a race was being contested as this event served as part of the selection trials for the US Admirals Cup Team. Jim Richardson's Newport-based Farr 40 Barking Mad was tied for the lead in that particular contest at the beginning of the week. You would have thought that situation figured into their game plan, but according to tactician Terry Hutchinson, their agenda was simple: win the regatta.
That would take no small effort given the fact that some of the world's top sailors were in the class. Nonetheless, Hutchinson pointed out some basic elements behind Barking Mads success and failures [they finished 10th overall], and what allowed the class and overall event winner George Andreadis to win on board Atalanti.
"Good starts are essential so that you can be in the front row with clear air and focused on going fast. We struggled a bit with that this week, while Atalanti seemed to always start at the committee end, tack, and then focus on going fast.
"With such a big class, finding lanes was essential. The middle of the course was too crowded, so you had to go to one side or the other. It was also important to know when to wave a port-tacker across and when you wanted to protect the right by forcing him to tack. Sometimes the advantage was from a shift, sometimes from more pressure, but always keeping your lane clear was important."
Hutchinson continued, "I'm not sure exactly why, but it seemed like there were also little current rivers and swirls out there. Sometimes you'd be right next to someone, and without any change, they'd either cave in or sheer off you." This may have been a peculiar aspect to one part on this shallow course area, since early in the week he thought that was the case. "It generally paid to be left on the beats, but then bear-away to set and stay on that same side on the runs." The effect was less pronounced later in the week as the course axis shifted with the breeze.
In the end, those that paid attention to wind speed and direction, current, and clouds while integrating that into big-fleet lane management came away from Key West with silver in their bags. Those that didn'twell, there's always next year.
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