Now , I have opened there with a very long sentence or statement, but the art of sailing well consistently goes into volumes and volumes, book after book, video upon video, and last but not least, years of practical sailing experience, for which no amount of reading can compensate.
How therefore - I hear you ask can I now become a proficient, competitive racing sailor, before I am simultaneously too old and worn out to be physically and mentally able?
Well, we are all on this learning curve, as indeed we always shall be, and it would be folly if not pretentious to believe at some point we had mastered it all, but by sharing knowledge and experiences with others, helps to reinforce principles and shorten the journey to success along the way, in whatever subject we may be studying.
In my own experience of the learning curve over the last 20 something years, and doing the open circuits and National events, I have noticed that there is one fundamental thing that many sailors often fail to do, including myself. When you think about it, you would probably all say you do it all the time automatically or subconsciously, and that it would be impossible to sail without doing it, or most other things, come to think of it, but in reality it is not put into practice nearly enough.
So what is it - I hear you cry in frustration and desperation? Well the clue is in the title of this article, hence the question mark, and the answer is LOOK. A very short and simple word after such a long introduction, but a very important one, and one that encompasses other words in it's application, such as judgement, strategy, assessment, calculation and analysis, resulting in decision making that will hopefully be put to best advantage in your cunning plan to win a race.
Pure boat speed is fundamentally very difficult to counter, until you have discovered how it is achieved, and I often hear people almost writing themselves out of contention before a race has even started, with comments like - he's got a faster boat or a newer boat or a newer sail he's better upwind, he's faster downwind, he's fitter than me, he's younger than me , he's lighter than me so I've no chance... The list goes on, but if you would only turn your thoughts from negative to positive, there are just as many counter measures that will more than make up for any perceived disadvantages, and exercising just a few of these should make a world of difference to your subsequent performance, and give you every chance of being first over the finish line.
So there now follows a partly critical broadcast, on behalf of the sailor party, for those who wish to join the leaders of the opposition, rather than remain an easy rider on the back benches, and is intended to raise awareness of all the things you should be LOOKING out for, from the beginning to the end of a race.
F A C T: Nearly all Dart 15 cats, whether new or old have potentially the same performance upwind or downwind when rigged identically, and with equal mast rake, rig tension and batten tension, as you would expect from a one-design boat. The only fundamental difference I have ever observed is that some of the very old sails (generally all blue or orange) are more suited to very strong winds (force 5+), as they seem to set flatter, and have much more stretch in them, thereby being much more forgiving to both boat and helm, and allowing a much more controllable and survivable ride in extreme conditions. The downside to this is that below a force 4, there is a definite power disadvantage that is very difficult to counter, compared to the new sail material.
Having got that out of the way, you will see that it is therefore down to you, not the boat, whether you have the capacity to win (a poor workman etc.,etc.), so facing the harsh realities of life, I will now take you through a short race scenario, consisting of a beat, a run, and a final beat, finishing at the windward mark. I have left out the reaching leg, since apart from maintaining clear air at all times, this is largely a follow-my-leader leg, or point and dash.
OK so you have just launched (having LOOKED at your watch to ensure you have plenty of time Nick), and are making your way to the start line. Before the race starts, if the course is not too large, it is often a good idea to sail the first beat to LOOK for any wind patterns or shifts that might influence the route you take. You should also LOOK for the point where your lay line is likely to commence after your last tack for the mark. Any inside informationí you can gather like this can only improve your chances of taking the right route up the first beat (the most important leg of the course). Always bear in mind that on this leg, all boats are likely to be much closer together than on subsequent legs, so a starboard approach to the mark is the safest, whichever way you round it.
So, having obtained a good idea of your probable route up the beat (if other boats allow you), you should now concentrate on your starting technique and consider the following options :-
1. LOOK for any definite line bias. Again this is all very simple and logical if it wasn't for the fact that most (hopefully all) of the other boats should be discovering the same thing. Just to spell it out, this means that whichever end of the line is favoured, it is unlikely that you will be the only one to notice it , and consequently that area will become pretty crowded during the last 15 seconds before the start, so some of you will have the wind taken out of your sails, so to speak, just when you needed it most.
2. SAFE OPTION. Hover mid-way down the line if it is starboard biased, so that you are less likely to get luffed over the line and more likely to retain clear air so you can haul in the slack and power off in the last 10 seconds. This position is also fairly safe even if the line is port biased, because you will be sailing towards the favoured end, and can accelerate as necessary until the gun goes. You can also LOOK for port tack flyers approaching, and aim to force them under your transom as you close the door on their escape route. Another hazard to LOOK out for is the boat who attempts to sail through your lee, then squeezes you up to force you over the line early, or at the very least slow you down, whilst creating space for himself and clear air to power off ahead - not very sportsman-like you may think, but alas all quite legal. Obviously there are many more situations that can arise, and every race is different, but the message is all about constantly LOOKING and assessing your position to give yourself the best opportunity of a good start.
3. LOOK at the length of the start line in relation to the number of boats starting. If it looks short, then don't risk a port start, but simply start at that end if it is favoured. If the line is very generous, then any option you choose is likely to have more success.
So, having established your position on the line, the gun goes and the race is on. LOOK for clear air, and LOOK for boats just to leeward that may be pointing slightly higher. Then, assuming no side of the course has an advantage due to different wind direction or strength, your aim should be to maintain clear air, keep your options open and make as few tacks as possible. You should therefore LOOK carefully before timing your tack onto port, to ensure you are not forced back onto starboard shortly after by other boats further to windward and still on starboard. LOOK for darker patches of water that indicate stronger wind and be ready to re-trim the boat accordingly when you sail into them to take maximum advantage. Also, always LOOK at your sailing angle relative to the windward mark, and in general, stay longest on the tack that takes you more directly to it.
When approaching the point where you will make your final tack onto starboard, aim to keep your lay line on the short side, for accuracy (say not more than 50 yds), unless you are sure the right hand side of the course has a definite lift on it or more wind, and also ensure you have gone far enough before initiating the tack. Tacking too early would leave you pinching to round the mark anti-clockwise, causing you to slow up, or even worse, having to put another short tack onto port. This really adds 2 tacks to your manoeuvres and is fraught with danger and disappointment, as you are likely to meet other boats coming up fast on starboard who have correctly judged the approach line, forcing you either to let your main out to kill your speed until they have passed, or bear away sharply behind their transoms. Either way, you are instantly down the pan big-time. Even if you are rounding the mark clockwise, it is always better to have overstood slightly before tacking onto the starboard lay-line, as this will ensure you arrive at the mark at speed, and are unlikely to have any other boats above you trying to gain an inside overlap.
If another boat is directly behind you, then providing you are more than 2 boat lengths ahead, you should have the speed to tack quickly round the mark without infringing the tacking in someone's water rule. Less than 2 boat lengths and you are in danger of being sailed on, allowing the boat behind to tack round before you. This mistake is more commonly made with cats as opposed to monohulls, since the boat almost comes to a stop, even with a well executed tack, before accelerating away again, and is momentarily a sitting duck for this trap. LOOK out and beware, or be prepared to do penance!
Thus having successfully navigated your way up the beat, you now approach the windward mark on starboard. LOOK for other boats closing in on port and be ready to call them or prevent them tacking inside you at the last moment and claiming water. You round the mark anti-clockwise and bear off onto a broad reach, whilst letting off the traveller, then mainsheet, then downhaul to maintain the correct sail angle and shape. Again LOOK for boats still coming up the beat, since you are now no longer last, and remember even if you have full rights on other boats, you do not win races by sailing into them, accidentally or otherwise, so always keep your options open. Now you are on an off-wind leg, it is equally important to LOOK backwards as well as forwards, as following boats are more able to take your wind and slow you down, so again keep clear air.
When ultimately closing on the leeward mark, there are 2 main things you should consider: -
1. If there are several boats in close proximity, try to ensure you are the inside one if there is an overlap situation developing, so you can claim water and sail the shortest distance round the mark whilst maintaining clear air.
2. If there are no boats close to you, approach the mark wide on the tack you wish to start the next leg (tight turns scrub off more speed), then all you have left to do is progressively put the power back on in a methodical and controlled manner, by tightening the downhaul, setting the traveller and hauling in the mainsheet as you turn back towards the wind (never leave everything to the last second before rounding the mark).
From here on, the only tactical difference in sailing the final beat from the first is that you need to LOOK to see if there is any possibility of gaining a place over the boat in front (assuming there still is one). If the answer is yes, all you can do is try to sail higher but no slower, or simply take the opposite tack, on the gamble that you will benefit from more favourable winds. There is no point in following if you are no quicker, as all you will do is sail in dirty air and be easily controlled or manipulated by the boat in front. Conversely, if there are no boats that you could hope to catch in one beat, then LOOK behind to see whether a following boat has a chance of catching you. If that answer is yes, then you must cover him by tacking when he tacks, so that you always stay above him, and benefit from any wind-shifts before he does. If there are more boats chasing, then keep your nerve, think positive, sail fast, and try a loose cover on all of them as much as possible, and don't gamble too much on one side of the course unless it has been constantly favoured on previous laps.
Oh, and did I mention one other thing you should have been LOOKING at throughout the whole of the race - TELL-TALES - Keep 'em flowing and you'll keep going! Now get out there and take some scalps!
May I wish you all a happy new millennium and an even more successful 2000-racing season.
Dartful Codger II