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thoughts On Courses

  • The other night I was mulling over the effect of course selection on handicaps... This is all completely personal opinion of course and you're all welcome to disagree violently and tell me I'm talking rubbish. You will probably be right.


    We all know that different boats perform better or worse on given points of sailing, and we all try to set courses that will give a reasonable balance, but it occurred to me that the actual type of course makes a difference because they all have different proportions of reaching and running. 


    The first thing that became immediately obvious once I started thinking about it, which of course I should have known anyway, is that the modern p or q course has exactly the same balance of upwind and down wind sailing as the traditional triangle/sausage: its just that the legs (with the partial exception of the beat) are half the size. You can also tune the relative sizes. The typical/traditional round the cans Island Barn Courses are, when you think about them, usually an Olympic course with the second beat to a different windward mark than the first, and maybe an extra reach to get back to the starting point. So a P/Q/D is what we're used to, but halved in size, which makes it easy to get a sensible number of laps in for shorter races and evenings.


    For those who aren't familiar with the terminology, by the way, these are what q, p and d courses look like. You can ring the changes of course, there's no need for the start to be in the middle, the angles of the reaches can vary, and there need not be a gate in the middle of the beat as shown. The mark setting can also be simple or complicated, depending on how much of a need there is to keep boats apart. With the very high performance classes (which of course we don't have here) its normally considered undesirable to have boats going both upwind and downwind through the same gate: conventionally one would have a gate each side of the committee boat as is shown on the p diagram.




    Anyway this table shows the balance of upwind, cross wind and downwind legs on different types of courses. This is yet half the story of course, because of the vast difference between a reach the spinnaker boats can hoist on and one were they can't (or shouldn't!), which in turn is enormously influenced by wind strength... The biggest suprise for me is how big a bias rectangular courses set on downwind speed. I shall definitely think twice about using these again outside special circumstances... For there to be a reasonable amount of upwind sailing the reaches have to be very short, and then there's not much reaching, so goodbye to the most fun legs.










    Olympic/P 90Degree Gybe




    Square with reaches 20% of

    the length of the beat.




    Olympic/P Equilateral (60 degree Gybe)




    P (beam reach to top mark which is the same length as the run.





    Square 40%




    Square 60%




    Square 80%




    Square 100%





    So what's best. Well, of course there's no correct answer, but a P course with the shy reach somewhat shorter than the run and on the beam or closer looks pretty good to me.  Better yet, bearing in mind the problem of no wind under the bank, a d course, with the run at the top and reaches at the bottom.


    My personal conclusion from all of this, I think, is that next time I am running a handicap race I shall, circumstances permitting, try a d course with the start/finish about one third of the way up the reservoir, so the run is about the same length as both the reaches put together. The other thing about that course is that it would be relatively easy, in the event of a major windshift, to move the windward mark in a radius round the start line so that the beat and run could remain true. Provided you keep the length the same it ought even to be possible to do this in a race without disadvantaging anyone, although I have my doubts as to whether a couse change mid race is really wise in our environment. Marks wise: Well, I think I'd have the windward mark as a yellow stick and use X as the run to reach turning mark and have the outer distance about half a dozen boat lengths inside it doubling as a the port end of both an upwind and downwind gate. The commitee boat would be the other end of the upwind gate, and wouldn't need to move for finishes. I'd set X and the OD at the first opportunity and use the safety boat to tune the position of the windward mark stick and reckon to move the commitee boat to change the line. Unless there was a windshift of more than about 60 degrees I reckon I'd leave the bottom triangle static - its unlikely to be that much of a disaster even if there's a 45 degree shift. Here are some sketches to show what I mean...


    Obviously these two aren't ideal courses, but I think you could still have a reasonable race around them...


    Anyway, going back to the balance between different points of sailing, if you figure the shy reach to be 1/4 the length of the full beat then you get a course that is 43% beating, 22% running, 24% spinnaker reach and 11% white sail reach. Lets think: Laser versus RS I would reckon (finger in air) that the Laser is probably favoured on beats (relative to handicap), RS on  broad reaches and to a lesser extent runs, and they are even on shy reaches, so that would give a course in which Lasers are favoured on 43% and RS on 46%, but 22% of it rather less so. That feels quite good to me. To do this thoroughly of course one would need polar diagrams of every boats performance on every point of sailing in every wind, which is clearly silly unless we have a lot more members than I think with GPS instruments. Its the sort of research that this computer geek finds to be quite an exciting idea, but then discovers everyone else has totally failed to catch his vision...


    These more complex courses feel like a lot of mark laying though, especially on Wednesday evening. It would need good planning, which is why I'm figuring fix the triangle and move only the windward mark. The width of a downwind gate can be an issue for some classes too. I ran into this in my Cherub days when WPNSA set us the same width gate at our Champs that they used for 49ers. Trouble is the 49ers gybe through about 45 degrees and the Cherubs through about 90, and what was a generous width for them seemed awfully narrow when looked at at our much shallower angles, and we weren't getting much of a chance to pick the wave/gust for the gybe so there was a lot of swimming on day one. I think though 29ers are the only class we are likely to see much of that will have trouble with narrowish gates - RS200s and 400s gybe both deeper and sail slower so shouldn't present that much of a problem. More space for more breeze though!


    One downside of the d is that there wouldn't be a great deal of space to bear away in a big gust if you fancied a go with the kite on the shy reach. It is, I think, essential to have the shyest reach first or last though. Having it first means its likely to be under the windward bank in less wind which rather defeats the object of having a fun blast leg. Having it in the middle would be good for purposes of course setting, but on the other hand two hoists and drops on every lap is unfair to more mature crews: if you have't sailed these boats you need to understand that with asymettrics the hoists and drops really take it out of the crew for energy, (his/her Lordship with the steering stick just sits at the back of course) whilst with pole kites there's that much more faffing round with the pole.


    Another disadvantage of having the start in the middle is that there would be a definite risk of the first starters coming down the run to greet the last starters starting. From that point of view starting at the leeward mark would be better, but it means you have no gate for the beat and and/or even more marks to lay. I keep meaning to make a Q mark or something - another fixed mark that can live in the lake along with X, or is using the stick more convenient do you think? Perhaps we should keep one of then on the committee boat to use as an outer distance, then the committee boat can drop that whilst the safety boat deals with any others... On the other hand a beat to the finish provides that extra bit of spice, especially racing boat for boat in your class. If you've managed to catch that so and so ahead by acing the last reach you now have a last chance to grab a place.

     I also wonder about setting traditional triangle/sausage/triangle Olympic courses, but there's endless potential for confusion on which lap perople are on, how to shorten, and issues with grand prix finishing. I reckon it could be confusing, and people are far less used to them than they used to be...


    Maybe we should create  a second set of fixed club marks, say a hundred yards or so in from the main ones, that could be used to have windward marks short of the bank and more tuning of angles etc. I don't know that we really want to have twice as many marks to maintain or twice as many marks to confuse visitors though... Maybe that's a silly idea?


    Compromise... I wonder what's the best compromise? Its obviously good to mix courses up a bit anyway for variety anyway: if every dog has its day then its good to have as many different days as possible:-)


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