That was the week that wasn’t...
Snow on the ground, no wind on the water – hope no repeat this week. I thought that there would be lots of people ready for the AGM, but it turned out that no-one really fancied battling through the snow for a sail with no wind. I used the opportunity to sort out how I will mount a camera on my transom. Just watching Earthflight as I write this – it’s fascinating watching the small changes and fine tuning that birds do to their wings all the time. We have a long way to go to make our sails that good.
All being well we have 24 March confirmed for Jim Hunt to come down and show us how it should be done. Hopefully we’ll be able to look at our different sails and Jim can explain what the differences in rig really mean and how we might best use the different choices the sail makers and masts give us. I also hope to video a few sessions so we can compare notes afterwards. The footage I’ve seen from the Fevas suggest that a mounted camera can give you a chance to see what you really do as opposed to what you think you do or what you planned to do. The dinghy instructor course has me thinking about exactly how I tack and gybe and how to make each slightly more efficient. To me racing breaks down into several elements:
· Basic boat speed (OK that is a large topic with lots of element)
· Manoeuvring (tacks, gybes, mark rounding)
· Tactics and strategy – which way to do up the beat etc
Sounds simple doesn’t it. In my opinion we don’t spend long enough practicing manoeuvring and starting. It’s a whole lot easier if you can get to the first mark ahead and that means making a good start and making good tacks up the first beat. Generally the first beat isn’t so much about pure speed because everyone is still very close so it is more about being at almost top speed really quickly and tacking efficiently when at close quarters with another boat. It’s funny really, but starting well usually means being able to sail really slowly, avoiding getting in irons and being able to accelerate quickly up to full speed. Instructing teaches you to break things down into small parts that you can practice. We actually practised stopping a lot on the course, but stopping almost still on the line (or just behind) while being able to still control everything take a lot of practice. It means being able to have the boat well balanced – all too easy to get into irons as you try to get moving. My usual settings to sail really slowly are light kicker and half plate. This does give a dilemma – when to put on the full settings for the beat – I usually lower the plate as I start to sheet in and power up, and then tighten the kicker once I’m fully sheeted in and powering. Too much kicker or plate right down at slow speed and the boat tends to luff and want to get in irons. Once we have good control it’s about getting into the right place. If you can sail slower than others you can get into position earlier and dominate the line.
If your only approach method is to come in at full throttle there will always be a boat in the way. So practice getting in position earlier and hanging on the line. Then the next trick is accelerating smoothly – that also takes practice – if you sheet in too much too soon you stall the sail. If you let the boat heel as you sheet in the boat will want to luff. If you can start with a bit of heel and pull the boat upright as you start you can accelerate. It becomes a game of ‘chicken’ with the boats around you. Sheet in too soon and you’ll be pushed over the line. Sheet in too late and they will roll over or under you and you will be in disturbed wind and going slowly. To a degree the more wind the longer you can leave it to power up. In very light weather don’t ever stop because it’s very hard to get going. So let’s think about a starboard end (committee boat) start. Our goal is to be near that end but as the gun goes we have to be moving well. Keys to watch out for is boats below us that could shut us out – no inside boat on the start mark – so don’t come in from too high. Don’t be afraid to come in really slowly say twenty seconds before the start if you know you can stop. There are several plausible routes in.
1. Get there early and stop.
2. Come in fractionally later hoping that a gap will open up if others look to be early (they will have to drop down the line a bit as they accelerate).
3. Drive up from below pushing the early boat close to the committee boat and stopping them accelerating.
Each has its merits and its drawbacks. Early and stop risks not being able to accelerate, and also risks someone getting under you pushing gently up forcing you to sheet in and go over the line (leeward boat has rights, you need to be able to keep clear but once someone overlaps they can start to gently push you. (If you are right against the committee boat though they can’t make you hit the boat). Late risks there being no gap or making you start in the second rank. Driving up close hauled has to be done through disturbed air so often you just can’t get there. The key is to have a plan but to be able to switch from plan A to B to C. It might go something like this:
About a minute out start the approach – line up like a plane lining up for the runway. Sailing slowly on a reach (not too broad – close reach is best) need to be slightly below the line or we’ll get caught with no rights by people below us. Looking out for boats tacking under us because they will be able to push us up. Is anyone going to shut us out – be prepared to bear away to drive below them or slow down if they look early. Watching the timing, half plate and slack kicker so we can slow down. If we are early we can slow down. If we look early and a bit high (too far to windward) we can drop down by raising the plate and side slipping rather than bearing away because that would make us go too fast. Watch for anyone coming late from above – hail them to remind them that windward keeps clear. Check timing, don’t want to accelerate too soon. Bother, it looks like some else has the prime spot - change plan – we have to go down the line a bit. Accelerate hard to get speed and punch through the lee of the boat in prime spot, aim to start a couple on lengths down but travelling really fast. Can we push up a bit to give us a space to accelerate into – 10 seconds – plate down – 5 seconds - must be sheeted in and driving – pull power on – sheet tension on, tighten kicker as we settle into the beat. Have we got a gap below – yes go for speed. No – need to point – can we get a lee bow on the boat above us? Defend our lane to keep clear wind. Don’t pinch – we need boat-speed. OK – decent start...
What do we do if we don’t look like getting a decent start? With no race to comment on I’ll have to make one up... - Looks like our timings out we’re going to be late – look for a way to get clear air. Starting second but in the clear isn‘t bad – can we start right behind the pole position and tack for clear air? No - we didn’t make the front rank and we weren’t at the end we’ll just have to fight to find a lane – we need clear air more than anything else, then we want to head to whichever side of the course we prefer. Sailing in disturbed air just isn’t going to help us. We might have to wriggle and make a few tacks to find a clear lane with no-one ahead and to windward. Being able to tack well could really help. If we can find some clear lanes we’ll still be OK – we won’t be ahead but we can hopefully keep in touch. Now we have the final approach to the windward mark – again those last two tacks can gain us a lot – can we sneak inside anyone who has over stood? Ok - we’re in touch but there are several boats ahead. We probably can’t do much on the reach, can we ride some stern waves to pull closer? Downwind, can we ride a gust from behind or blanket the boats in front a bit – yes - but not enough we all go at the almost the same speed. Leeward mark, now here’s a chance - the boats ahead are a bit grouped, someone will have to go wide. Let’s we come in behind the group but exit really close to the mark. Now we’ve got a clear wind lane and the guys who went wide are being blanketed. We might have got ourselves within strike of at second place. The leader rounded on the inside of course, but even he was pushed closer to the mark than he wanted on entry to the turn so he couldn’t do a smooth turn with a narrow exit. We were able to round the mark ending close to it with full speed so we gained a bit even on the leader. Now we can tack when we want still in clear air (unless the leader tacks) – by good manoeuvres we’re back in touch and fighting for the lead.... You can see how much there is to gain by practicing starting, tacking and mark rounding.
On that happy note I’ll sign off for this week
See you Sunday