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N12 Handy hints - Light wind championships

Looking at the contents of the tuning booklet, it struck me that there were heaps of articles about going fast in strong winds, and none about light winds. I have for many years tried to get someone to tell me just how to go fast in light winds, but all light wind gurus seem to guard their secrets and hang on to their advantage, leaving you and me to marvel at their skill and pray for wind. So I thought I'd write their article for them. Only mine is subtitled "How to hang on in championship races without having boat speed"
So this article focusses on race day, from waking up to arriving at the first mark up with the leaders. Thereafter, if it' s light weather, I can't help you. For the moment just do what I do, which is to hang on and wait for a real guru to write.


First, things to do before the championships. Make sure the boat is simple and reliable. On simplicity, there is clearly no point in having an adjustable fitting if you just don't adjust it. Take it off. Perhaps less obvious is that there is no point in it. So I always start by sailing with non-adjustable controls, and only make them adjustable if this lack of adjustment clearly slows me down. On reliability, make sure the fittings work and are easy to use in both light and heavy weather. The danger is that on control lines such as the boom outhaul you put in so many pulleys to make it easy to adjust in a gale that in light weather it won't free off on its own.


On race day, make sure you arrive at the dinghy park and launch at times you feel most comfortable with. You will tend to see the same boats launch early each day and the same late. I like to get to the course around 25 minutes before the start; this gives me enough time to check on tactics and the tune of the boat, but not so much time I start worrying or get fed up with waiting.
Now comes the most important time for getting to the first mark first. You have to do two things; decide where to start and approximate tactics and check that the boat is properly set up for wind and sea conditions. Approximate tactics equates to which route you'll do up the beat, whether you'll tack on all shifts or just big ones, etc.. The worst sort of plan is the one that has no flexibility - "Go left, hit the lay line and tack" is rarely good enough for first place (except in Plymouth Sound), more likely last.
These tactics will then help you decide where to start. For instance, if you, decide to go right initially, an early start will make it less likely you can tack and could therefore mean y0ou spend the first five minutes wishing you were going the other way. And while you're wishing that, you certainly will be going slowly. Thinking through your plan for the first beat thoroughly will also help you come to the right decision quickly when you find you are not where you planned to be. How different things turn out from what you expected will help you plan the next beat. What that worked up one beat will rarely work again up the next. So often people base their route up the second beat solely on what happened up the first.


Now comes the other pre-start activity - checking the tune of the boat. I tend first to sail a bit on each tack on my own to get a feel for wind direction, wave angle, size and steepness, and frequency and size of windshifts. This practice is especially helpful to your crew who can get a feel for jib sheet tension, where to sit, how far to move back in waves, etc. Then I try to team up with another boat and again sail on both tacks to make sure that kicker tension, shroud / jib halyard tension, and jib and main sheet tensions are optimal. Pick someone of about your standard with whom you are happy to share information, and then you'll learn why you or he is going faster before the race instead of afterwards.


Other things to do before you pass the start; if you pass the windward mark, do a bit of beating close to it and check the tide. A lot of places can be won and lost there, and if you know what to expect, it will be you that is winning them. Discuss with your crew your tactics for the race.If he knows what to expect, even better. And if you're like me, drink a can of ginger beer. Pulling ring tops on a reach in a force four is bad news.


At last the waiting is over, the path-finder is coming across and you are in your chosen starting position, sitting with your sails flapping a little way behind the line. The pathfinder is now 30 seconds away and you are 15 seconds behind the line. DO NOT BEAR AWAY. The important thing is to create a gap to leeward and by bearing away you lose that gap. You put yourself in the backwind of the boat to leeward and give that gap to the boat to windward, who therefore will be able to sail fast and unincumbered until she is ahead, to windward, and blanketing you. Therefore keep moving foward slowly in a close hauled direction until the final few seconds when it is possible you bear away slightly to accelerate, clip the gate launch's stern, and sail away into first place .... orchestra playing, boats fading into the distant sunset, waves breaking against rocks - Wake up! Wake up! The race has only just begun, the music will come later.


Now whilst you're concentrating on sailing fast, your crew is keeping a look out for where boats seem to be going fast and where slow. Your crew knows what to look for, because you've already discussed tactics, and will be able to say how good your pre-race plan looks in practise. And if you're on a loser don't just hang on and hope that the almightly will come up with one of his great windshifts and propel you into first place - that's orchestra fantasy-land again. Instead give it some thought and a little time - but not too much. Why are they doing better over there? Is it going to stay that way, or is it going to be your turn next? Often this is more luck than judgement, but do give skill and thought a chance! Factors to consider are: is it a wind shift, or a bend caused by the land? Is it because of a cloud overhead or the sea breeze coming in, is the tide more favourable, or the sea flatter, over there? Or are they just quicker than me ..... in which case why have all the "quick" boats gone one route and I'm going another?


OK, you decide it is a shift. Because you decide that, you do not tack and do not go slower for being depressed. Instead you carry on sailing, concentrating on the waves and wind. You are proved right; the wind shifts back the other way after five minutes (you'd spotted pre-start that shifts come about every five minutes), you tack for the mark, and you're right up there with the leaders . . . turn that music off! This is for real. The key thing when getting close to the mark is to forget it is a championship course. At the local club your longest beats are 200 yards, and you would never dream of doing them in two tacks. Same goes for the last 200 yards of a chamionship beat. Don't hit the lay line early, don't ignore the wind shifts because you're tired and nearly there, and do consider whether you want to risk a port tack approach or play safe and join the queque on staboard.


And you get it right this time. You were lying third when you spotted a small wind-shift. Two quick tacks, and you just catch the other two port-starboard and squeeze around the mark in the lead, let the outhaul off - plate up, put the needle on the record, lean back in your arm-chair, and wait for the next article on how to go fast on reaches!

Chris Atkins, 1990

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