Sunday, September 25, 2011

2011 Laser Master New England Championship

Just got home from the 2011 Laser NEs at Third Beach in Newport, RI. 45 hardy souls braved rain, fog and atypically light breeze to compete in this year's event. It was nice to see many familiar faces, as well as a number of smiling new ones! I was excited to be attending my first Laser regatta since Spring frostbiting and anxious to get out there.

Saturday started out overcast and light. On the run to the racecourse, I checked tide at a mooring to get a data point before sailing out with fellow Cedar Point frostbiter Britt Hughes. The breeze was going pretty much straight from the beach up the river, at a slight angle to the flood tide and the large rollers coming in from the ocean. I observed that the wind seemed to be blowing right along the surface of the water without much vertical component to it, which made wind shadows on the run out very painful. Britt confirmed my observation and we both agreed that keeping clear lanes on the runs would be especially vital here. Two important data points amassed on the way out.

Once we got to the start area Britt and I did a 3-minute split (start together, one boat tacks away, both sail 3 minutes on opposite tacks before tacking back to the middle). Our split showed the right to have a decided advantage, which made sense given the adverse tide. Another data point.

On the way back downwind to the start area we discussed strategy and basic wind impressions. I also noted which angles and sail trim seemed to work best downwind (data point). Once the start pin was set I quickly did another tide check and discovered 3/4 of a boatlength tide over 30 seconds, moving downwind perpendicular to the start line--significant data point!

In the starting area I sailed downwind briefly, lining up roughly on the rhumb line between the weather offset and leeward gate to get a general idea of the course and feel of the waves. More on this data point later...

The RC posted a W5 (windward/leeward/windward/leeward/finish) course with the weather mark at 220 degrees. I thought the line was boat-end favored, and given the tide situation, nailing a good start up there and tacking over ASAP was the game plan. The tide research really helped me nail *the* weather end boat position, but I wasn't moving particularly well when the gun went off. Boats slightly to leeward accelerated a smidge better and were off like rockets, while I had to contend with the sizable wind shadow made by the huge committee boat. One more data point!

Fortunately, this first attempt at a start resulted in a general recall. Many people either stop or go right back to the start line after a general is sounded, but I like to sail a little bit further to see how the fleet is looking. It's not a perfect guide because (obviously) some boats are poked out an unfair amount, but it is another data point to reference when setting up for the next start.

I tacked too soon to port, and because of the adverse tide, had to tack again to clear the committee's anchor line, then tack back AGAIN to go right--not fast. Surprisingly, things still looked pretty good on the boats that went left. Before it became too obvious to others how nice the right was, I headed back to the start area, another handy data point acquired.

With the I-Flag up for the restart, the fleet was a little better behaved but more intent than ever on crowding the boat end. Armed with my detailed tide data, I felt very confident manuvering in the crowd then waiting, waiting, WAITING for a hole to appear at the boat before pulling the trigger at 7 seconds to the gun. About 3 boats down from me, Peter Shope got away clean and fast and legged out a bit. Anxious to get right, I tacked over and *just* cleared the RC boat's anchor line--whew!

The adverse current meant that down-speed moments would be punished especially hard, so I concentrated on keeping the angle of heel constant and speed maximized. Sitting at the front of the cockpit with my butt about half-way between the weather rail and the outside corner of the cockpit, I leaned my upper body progressively further out as the big rollers raised the boat up-up-UP into clearer wind, then eased the upper body as far down as face to the boom when in the troughs. Keeping the angle of heel constant also helped maximize pointing in these conditions.

While I went pretty hard right, I didn't just two-tack the beat. I kept in mind prior regattas sailed here, watching Scott Ferguson exploit subtle shifts upwind to great effect. Armed with that memory, I tacked over when boats to windward were pointing down toward my transom, even though it felt uncomfortable tacking away from the current-favored right side of the course. Per the textbook though, every time I did I'd consolidate on the boats to the left, and boats that just banged the right sometimes looked headed, sometimes overstood since they had to accept whatever hit them way out there near the layline. Sailing the favored tack the whole beat with little in the way of dirty air, I overstood slightly myself and powered over Dave Frazier just before the weather mark to round first!

After settling down on the short reach to the offset, I took a quick look to leeward to make sure the leeward mark hadn't been shifted by the race committee. I rounded the offset with a three- or four-boatlength lead and sailed a very broad reach to get away from dirty air at the mark before turning down to my desired course (which had already been determined by my research before the start).

Others behind bore off immediately around the offset and sailed by the lee, at least 20 degrees off rhumb line. This made me happy for two reasons: they were sailing down into the dirty air and waves made by the boats on the offset leg, AND they were sailing extra distance without a commensurate increase in boatspeed. In spinnaker boats we know that "what goes up must come back down," but in the Laser it's the opposite: what goes down (by-the-lee), must eventually come back up. Better to save those by-the-lee moments for light air spots than waste them so early in the leg!

Paid very close attention to the wind as it hit my neck, bearing off to by-the-lee in the lulls to maintain speed, then turning back up in the puffs to consolidate back to rhumb line. With solid knowledge of the course and nice clean air well away from the fleet I managed to pull away, rounding the favored left (looking downwind) gate mark about 20 boatlengths ahead.

Definitely favored the right side but worked a few shifts back left to stay in touch with the fleet and pulled further ahead on the next beat. On the second run in slightly less breeze I again sailed more on the rhumb line, while a right shift/puff allowed boats who went left downwind gain some. Rounded the gate and almost immediately tacked onto starboard on the short beat to the finish, prevailing by about 45 seconds over the second place boat. Ominously, the fog began to roll in as the remainder of the fleet finished, and the breeze got lighter.

By the time the RC started Race 2, it was impossible to see the weather mark. When asked the course to the next mark, the RC said "we THINK it's at 240"--pretty sketchy! I couldn't believe the committee was starting a race in such conditions. The breeze felt a bit left, so I, being without a compass, made an incredibly dumb mistake: I just assumed the weather mark was to the left to adjust for the lefty, not 20 degrees further RIGHT (as any simpleton who knows how a compass works would be able to tell you).

So..., I got another decent start at the boat but boats that started more middle tacked over in the lefty, crossed and headed right. I tacked right in an OK lane but armed with my erroneous game plan came back left a few painful times and lost boats.

The fleet navi-groped its way around another W5 course. It was increasingly frustrating not knowing where the hell the marks were, and the mark boats weren't making any sound signals to help us out. In retrospect, if I: 1) had a compass; 2) realized that 240 is RIGHT of 220 not left; 3) had dead reckoned by noting minutes sailed on each tack; and 4) stayed in better touch with the fleet instead of taking those painful tacks left, I might have pulled out a Top 10 finish. As it was, i limped in at 21st.

The RC sent us in after that, so of course the fog lifted and the wind built. Pizza, however, was ashore waiting to be devoured, and we partook! It was so nice to have the results posted right away--apparently, the scorekeeper on the boat entered finishes into her iPad, with results available online in real time--amazing!

After two races it was Great Great Grandmaster Lindsay Hewitt topping the leaderboard with a 10, 2 (pre-handicap), while 2011 Apprentice World Champ Ben Richardson nipped at his heels with a 6, 1. (Apprentice Master Ben spots GGMs like Lindsey 3 points per race in Masters events!). With a 1, 21 scorecard, I was in 9th place. Some of the guys went to a bar for drinks but I was in a more quiet mood and went to see a movie, then checked emails and the weather forecast before getting to bed at a reasonable hour.

Got up early and rechecked emails and the weather--it didn't look promising, with less than 5 knots predicted all day. Sure enough, the water was like glass, which no-doubt made surfers happy if not the Laser sailors!

A postponement ashore allowed people to catch up and check out each others' setups. There were some creative trailers in the boat park too, and one that had a missing lug nut and three loose ones! Tools quickly materialized to set things straight, the sun made an appearance, and a light nor'easterly began filling across the river. Postponement flag down, sails up, and now a beat out across the river to the start area!

I went right initially, figuring the flood tide out in the middle of the river would push me upwind on Port, then be on my stern when on Starboard. One boat near me tacked off to the left and gained, so I flipped over for a short while before flicking back onto Port. Sure enough, Dave Frazier, who had been well behind me before I tacked left, was pointing like a bandit to leeward and ahead. Eventually, he tacked onto Starboard and crossed easily--at least a 10 boatlength gain.

Taking this as a sign, I dug in hard right on Port, but got progressively lifted as I went. With no righty in sight, I tacked back to the left on the layline to the now-anchored RC boat, with Dave a little speck ahead of me coming out of the left side. That was one CRAPPY beat out, but lessons learned!

Once again I hooked up with Britt for an abbreviated 2-minute split before the start. This time I came out of the left ahead by about 4 boatlengths. Britt mentioned that he was in light wind while sailing right, and felt the breeze progressively increased after tacking back toward the middle. On the left, I had pretty good height on starboard, and tacked back to the middle on a decent heading as well. Given Britt's account of light wind to start on the right, I had some doubt about the left being strategically favored.

We then sailed downwind toward a nearby mark, where a tide check indicated that instead of flooding as I thought, the tide was EBBING at a rate of 2/3 boatlength per 30 seconds. With the left being closer to shore and therefore more shallow, it made sense why this side made out during the split (and the sail out). With corroborating data points gathered, Britt and I agreed on a strategy of going LEFT on the first beat.

The RC set a very short, pin-favored line and was rewarded with a general recall. Retaining the short line but raising the I-flag resulted in a clean start. I started about 3 boatlengths up from the pin, happy to be away from the boats wadded up going for THE pin-end start.

Dunno how he did it being so heavy and all, but Andy Pimental below me was pointing like crazy. I thought a slightly lower course would be faster and said so, but he was undeterred. Fortunately I was high enough to not be affected by him until a wee header allowed me to tack back to the middle just shy of the layline. In nice pressure and working every single roller, I sailed fast back to the middle, moving forward but retaining height relative to the boats to leeward. Tacked onto starboard about 6 boatlengths from the mark and just managed to force Pimental to duck instead of tacking inside me at the mark--in first again!

The run was very interesting strategically, with a dying breeze, ebb tide behind but big rollers coming from in front and at a slight angle. I initially stayed just a little bit high on the run to line up with the current and get away from the offset mark, while Pimental dove hard down, eventually gybing over to port. The rest of the nearby boats sailed a more moderate course directly upwind of me, forcing me to sail a bit by-the-lee to maintain a thin lane between their wind shadow and Pimental's. Lucky for me, Pimental was on the wrong gybe and heavy, while the nearby boats slowed each other down. I managed to extend a bit before the boats behind figured it out and spread out. It was a bit unnerving having so much lateral separation between me and nearly 10 boats, but I was moving well on a good heading so I just got down to the business of working my boat over each oncoming roller, taking advantage of the increased breeze near the tops to head up a bit, then bearing off to slightly by-the-lee in the lulls to maintain speed.

Had a sloppy rounding of the left (looking downwind) gate, which was further upwind but not taking me to the advantaged left. However, this was a case of tactics overriding strategy, as the fleet was coming downwind and I didn't want to have to deal with the resulting dirty air. A few boats took the risk though, and when I had a clear lane I tacked back left to loose cover.

Pimental, who rounded the left gate behind me, presented a conundrum by continuing right. He's a local so I wondered if he knew something I didn't, or perhaps the current had already changed, or was it just a desperate move? After a quick assessment, I decided to let him go--he was the only one near me going right, while the bulk of the fleet was going left. It was the percentage thing to do.

The boats well to leeward were looking stronger and stronger, and I was happy to have covered them when I did. As it was, I barely managed to tack in front of hard charging Philippe Dormoy from Canada, forcing him back left and taking his nice lane back to the middle.

The breeze was dying, and Ben Richardson was zooming up directly behind me. I checked for weed on my blades and seemed to do a little better, but then he tacked over for some more left. Up ahead on the right saw what I thought was a bit more breeze so I toughed it out to the layline. When Ben tacked back onto port in breeze he seemed to be FLYING. Turned out I was a bit shy of the layline and fortunate to able to tack on Ben and slow him down a bit. Pimental's gamble on the right didn't pay and he was way back.

Rounded the top mark in first, about 3 boatlengths ahead of Richardson, who like Pimental before him dove down hard around the upwind mark. I pulled out a bit as a result, but Ben kept up the pressure with a few astute gybes to close the gap. I got a little out of phase on the bottom quarter of the leg, going low and slow on the approach and letting Richardson close to within 5 boatlengths in a further deteriorating breeze.

The final beat was marked by a protracted tacking duel with Richardson, who closed to within a boatlength but was unable to break free of my cover. I shot the starboard side of the line on port, while Ben finished moments later in a well-deserved 2nd position. I was relieved to have finished when we did, as the rest of the fleet struggled to complete the course in nearly non-existent breeze.

Ben and I had a nice chat before the RC hoisted the postponement ashore flags, effectively ending the regatta. After 30 minutes of continuous flapping of the rig I made landfall, derigged the boat, then enjoyed more pizza at the award ceremony. The raffle after featured the broadest set of valuable prizes I've ever seen: a rolled Hyde sail, new fiberglass daggerboard, new fiberglass rudder, a killer life jacket, deck cover, spar bag, a beautiful Zhik jacket, gloves, Seitech goodies--you name it! Almost everyone got something.

Overall, I feel good with how things went at this regatta. Did enough pre-race research to formulate winning first-leg strategies. Showed discipline when challenged and didn't bang corners. Had competitive upwind speed, was very quick downwind and boathandling was reasonably solid. Made plenty of mistakes too, but learned from them.

Know this has been a long read, but hope someone might find the point-of-view account of the event beneficial. As a sailing journal of sorts, it certainly helps me.

Finally, many thanks to Peter Seidenberg, the organizers, race committee and sponsors for another terrific Master NEs!

Happy Sailing!

2011 Laser NE results: