6 Feb 2011
Well they do say careful what you wish for. Last week I commented about the lack of decent SW winds after all the shifty northerlies. Sunday was a blast. Winds varying from strong to gale force - just what I like! In the back to back races the gusts were so strong that the committee boat was dragging its anchor.
Those conditions are not for everyone, the senior fleet sensibly took one look at the gusts and with the tops blowing off the waves wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Many thanks to those who have lent me their boats over the last couple of weeks, but it was nice to be back in 4859 in those conditions. Apart from not wanting to risk damaging someone else’s boat it is critical in survival conditions that you really know your boat and exactly how she behaves. You HAVE to be able to react almost instinctively – it has to be a conditioned reflex so you don’t THINK you just REACT. In those conditions I feel so at one with the boat that it is almost as if we are one organism, reacting to changes in the conditions, feeling each gust and sift and lull (in my imagination like a bird flying) . The only way to get to that state though is practice. It’s a bit like a golfer – if you start thinking about the swing and the grip and when your wrist break and the backlift it all goes wrong. The best shots are when you stop thinking and let it flow. You can see it in Dancing on Ice or Strictly – some people get so in the zone that they are no longer thinking about the steps, they are flowing with the dance. Sailing can be like that, but especially so in strong winds. In light winds there is time to think, but in really strong winds there is no time you react. The big BUT is that you only get to that place by practicing and not just idle practice but critical practice. You start doing it by thinking, by working out where the kinks are and learning what to do but probably being a shade late (which makes it harder) then as you practice more it becomes automatic, then you start fine tuning so that you can tune your personal autopilot to sail high or fast. Upwind in a blow I seem to gain height (as if I’m pointing higher), but that is not what I’m aiming at. My mantra is flat is fast, fast is high. Keeping the boat really flat makes it go faster – if you are heeling you are also struggling to hold the boat straight and the rudder is a brake so you go slowly. Going slower makes the centreboard less efficient so you make more leeway. Going fast and flat ends up gaining ground to windward.
So, boat setup for the really strong winds. Mast heel fully forward, as much rake as still possible to still be able to tack – I feel the boom on my back every tack! I’ve tried to analyse how I tack in really strong winds. I ease about a foot of mainsheet and start the turn. As the power comes off I lean in and across the boat so my chest is down and my head gets well under the boom but my feet have not moved – my weight is pretty central by this time. Tiller extension goes across and as soon as I feel the boom cross my back then I vault the plate case. The mainsheet hand goes on the back of the plat case and I literally jump the case – I say vault because I have a hand down. It’s critical to get over really fast because the power will come back on fast and the boat mustn’t stop. As I complete the vault with my feet landing on the new windward I continue to rotate sitting down grabbing the sheet out of the jammer and starting to power up (or spill as required). Then change hands. Having the elastic on my tiller means there is no risk changing hands even if I release the tiller for a moment. More important to play the sheet to get power on with a flat boat. So, back to boat setup, we have maximum rake with shrouds still slack – I have the mast chocked so that when I sheet in hard and de-poser with the Cunningham the top of the mast bends more that the bottom. Traveller is out – fine tune that to degree of overpower – kicker is on to match fully sheeted in, but not pulling down. If the wind drops a bit lighter I pull the traveller back up a bit, ease kicker a bit and use a shade less sheet tension. Centreboard is raked back – in really strong conditions rakes significantly back – maybe only 2/3 – 3/4 down. The result is a boat that is driving fast, the sail is flattened (outhaul and inhaul both tight) with the top falling away due to the Cunningham and sheet tension bending the mast.
Now, a gust hits – instantly ease a little sheet to keep flat – the key is to REACT instantly then it is only a very little sheet eased – in fact by watching the water you should know in advance that the gust is coming. React late and you have to overcorrect. Once you have eased a bit with the boat flat head up slightly and sheet back in. If you are getting tired you can just luff slightly to work the edge of the wind but you lose a lot of boat-speed. You need the sail shape held (lots of kicker) so that as you ease sheet the shape stays similar. The combination of playing the sheet and working the edge of the wind is fastest. On Sunday I could see that in each gust my boat punched forwards while others near me seemed to dig in and slow down. On a fetch from 2 to 4 – was varying between not quite able to make the mark and able to get just above I was just behind the topaz. We hit a huge gust and I could hear see them struggling to hold the boat, heeling significantly. I eased sheets and kept flat driving through their lee. When the gust eased a fraction I was alongside in clear air. In each gust I kept a shade flatter and went a bit quicker until by the time I got close to mark 4 I was clear ahead. Flat is fast!
That illustrates a rule that a lot of people don’t fully understand. There is no rule that says ‘overtaking boat keeps clear’. There is a rule that says if you establish an overlap to leeward from clear astern you may not sail above your proper course. The leeward boat still has right of way but she may not sail above her proper course – that is the course she would reasonably sail to get to the mark as fast as possible in the absence of other boats. That might be higher than the windward boat would like – for example on the fetch from 2 to 4 sometimes we couldn’t lay the mark so the best method at that time was to sail high when you could. When the headers came we were beating and barely laying so once I has got almost through the Topaz and we were in a header I was now pointing as high as I could to lay the mark which was higher than he wanted to sail – I was in his lee bow and he had to luff slightly higher than he wanted to keep clear because I was definitely sailing MY proper course - he did keep clear but a lot of people think the overtaking boat always keeps clear – not true. Another illustration is port/starboard. That rule takes precedence – you can come up behind someone who’s on port and you have right of way. Another illustration is you come alongside while on opposite gybes and then gybe – now you have not gained an overlap from astern because when you gybe it is a new overlap – now you can luff it you want.
Oh – the results – Pursuit race in the morning – small entry given the conditions. Gareth drove off in clouds of spray, Paul followed coping well with difficult conditions. By the end Gareth finished the hour long pursuit several legs clear of the chasers lapping a few boats. Not sure the order behind.
In the first back to back we all started very close together with Gareth pulling out from Paul and Mike Storey in the EPS creeping away from Gareth. Paul capsized between races and found it really hard righting with the cold water sapping strength and fingers. I’m planning to have righting lines on my new boat. You can pull the plate on down so far but then you need to reach up and grab something on the boat. If you can get a hand over the gunwale it’s OK but as you get tired it’s hard to reach. Lines under the gunwale give you something to pull on. The second B2B was in even stronger winds – Gareth was first at the windward mark just ahead of the EPS who overtook on the reach but fell over on the run. According to Mike Storey a gust literally tore the mainsheet out of his hand. I guess that gets us to running in those conditions... Fancy a Solo being first boat on the water – so much for Solo being a light weather boat!
The principle of running is strong winds is keeping the boat under the rig. The sounds obvious but it is a mind set –you don’t move you weight as much as literally steering the hull under what the rig is doing. Boat heels a shade to leeward - you bear away putting the hull back under the rig. Boat rolls slightly to windward you luff to put the hull back under the rig. The second key is the boat must be balanced. You ease the main until the boat is balanced – in theory that would be exactly square to the wind, but we know the shrouds stop that – however the sail twists a bit so the top is probably slightly beyond square when the bottom is just under square. Let the top twist too far and the boat rolls to windward. Sheet in too far and the boat heels to leeward. You balance the boat with the sheet and kicker. In Sundays wind I was easing only a shade of kicker – compared with light weather when I’m easing as much kicker as I can. Then I’m very careful about easing the sheet right to the shrouds – key point is a blow is that the sheet still takes the load – gybe without that and you will probably break the boom (I’ve also seen shrouds tirn out in a gybe) – after that it is about easing sheet until the boat is neutral, sheeting in and luffing if she want to roll to windward (must do both), easing and bearing away if she heels to windward. I found it helpful to wedge my feet against the side tanks almost kneeling in the bottom – a long way back holding the tiller itself rather than the extension. The firm footing needed to concentrate on steering.
Gybing – if possible gybe at the end of a gust when the boat is going very fast – never at the start of a gust when there is maximum pressure. Pull in a foot of mainsheet as you start a smoothly turn from a balanced boat on the way in, pull the boom over and stop the turn as it goes over. Regain balance with the sheet. I like a little sheet in before the gybe so the boat doesn’t weather roll as the boom goes over when the top of the sail may twist more on the snatch. Then use the sheet to gain balance on the new gybe.
Next week is a Solo Open week – let’s see how many boats we can put on the line.
Oh, and 4859 is now officially for sail – details on the club or class association web site. I’ve love to see her stay in the club but I will have to take the first good offer. New boat due mid April.
Final word – a plug for the class association – the association web site is a great resource as is the yearbook etc. I’ve put a copy of ‘Sailing the solo’ on the notice board. That’s a class association publication and it has lots of good advice.
(for now) 4859