Saturday, March 10, 2007

THE BACK OF THE BUS CHRONICLES: Report on days 4 to 6 of the 2007 Bacardi Cup

By Alain Vranderick

DAY 4 – Forecast 10-15 knots E (turns out it was more like 12 NE at the start and shifting later to 6-8 E. Who the hell do they hire at the weather channel to come up with these forecast anyways?)

Photo by Fried Elliot. Hmm, maybe Alain is too light to work the front of the boat. Another 3 seconds and we'd probably see the keel! - editor :)

Ok, so maybe calling this report the –Midfleet perspective- might have been a little optimistic. Out of the 6 years here, the best we’ve done is 51st percentile, just off mid fleet. So from today until the end of the regatta, this report will now be called –The back of the bus chronicles-.

The club crowd was pretty quiet on this Wednesday morning. The pecking order is shaping up, and the crews are waking up to the dire reality of racing against the best in the world. I meet my skipper at the US sailing center. No tape measure in sight, no tuning guide in hand, I could hardly believe it, but this might turn out to be a tuningless morning.

We headed off to the race course at our usual time, Got there well ahead of time to scout the wind and race course. After our daily check in, my skip told me to hold the tiller, because the butt was out of whack again. Who would have thunk it? Whenever the mast butt is in the wrong place (or feels in the wrong place), one must take action immediately! So down below he goes to adjust the mast butt. He resurfaces 3 minutes later, and off we go to figure out the wind. Scouting the course we had it ALL figured out. The right should pay, and will pay. No questions, this is the plan. The main reason being, in this wind direction, as you work your way up the right side you eventually clear the point of Key Biscayne and hit more pressure. So there, pretty simple, just get a good start and work yourself to the right.

At the starting sequence, you can imagine that we were not the only crew who had figured out the strategy. The boat end was packed. We sailed a little bit down the line (about halfway) and set up for the start. Jostling for position, we wind up with Brian and Tyler to leeward, and Harry Walker to weather. Harry started a couple of seconds off the pace, so we wound up with a clean air start (with no Argentinians in sight!!). Off we go. In the middle of the starting line (not quite to the right), and we’re trucking. We’re stoked! Finally, a clean air start in this fleet. We were there in the company of some heavy hitters (Vince Brun, Brian Cramer, etc.) and we were doing everything we were supposed to. I’m feeding info to Willy about other boats, we’re keeping track of the compass readings. Man this felt pretty good. Except we were going LEFT!! When we realized this we flip unto port, and crossed the racing course towards the right. Approaching the starboard layline, the big picture started to unfold. We were in the cheap seats. And I mean, Molson fan section at the Bell Center kind of cheap seats. Where the front pack of the race is, is only a rumour. Then, to make matters worse, the wind started to crap out on us. We then proceeded to drag our sorry assess around the race course to finally finish 58th. But we did beat the Argentinians. So the day was not a total waste.

Back on shore, we settled down and blew some steam over the complimentary mid-week awards buffet, and all you can drink Bacardi cocktails. After a couple of double Bacardi Coco on the rocks (hey don’t laugh, a lot of guys were drinking Bacardi Coco…), everything fell into perspective. This is Coconut Grove, it’s the first week of March, and we are having drinks at an outside bar, in the company of some of the best sailors in the world. All in all, it’s not that bad. Tomorrow is another day.

LESSON OF THE DAY: EXECUTION IS KEY. Repeat after me EXECUTION IS KEY. To explain my point here’s a little synopsis of what we went through. You plan this 6 months ahead of time, you make the condo reservations, you drive 30 hours to get there, you make it out to the race course an hour in advance to figure out the wind, you figure out a great strategy, and once the gun goes off you forget everything and get sucked into riding the clean air train. Come on guys, get with the program.

DAY 5 – Forecast 10-15 knots NE

Made it to the club early pumped after yelling after a few cars on my way down to the club (I get to the club on a 22 km bike ride through the downtown of Miami). Got breakfast at the club, and met with Willy. He greeted me with one of those tension gauges saying: I’ve figured out our problem. We’ve got rig tension issues. The main is ugly he said, and I’m going to fix it. Off he went to the boat, tension gauge in hand, to fix the problem. At his point, these preoccupations were way over my head. I stuck close to the pool, concentrating on finishing my Starbucks coffee, and ignored all the action in the background. It’s hard to argue with Willy when it comes to tuning a Star. The man has a stranglehold on the fleet championship (5 years in a row) in the Quebec fleet. So when the man says the rig tension is off, you just acquiesce, stay out of the way, and go on with your daily chores.

Again, we were on the race course early, and proceeded to scout the wind. You will not fool these astute sailors again. Sailing up the right side of the course, we suddenly got a knock, in pressure. This is it we thought! This is the magic corner. We tacked and hit some pretty decent numbers on starboard, cracked off and headed towards the start line with a clear vision on how this is going to unfold. At the start, in order to obtain proper room to head right, we decided to adopt the HIDE behind the RC starting strategy. This strategy consists on hiding to windward of the RC until the last 30 seconds, where you proceed, a few seconds after the gun, to sneak into the hole left by all the pros fighting for the RC end start. And it worked! We felt pretty sexy I must say. We were in the same group as Loof, Cramer and Dane. The big master plan was finally coming together. Wednesday was just a bad memory, a race to be dropped. We’re trucking towards the right, doing a couple of clearing tacks, and eventually tacked back on starboard, about 20 boat lengths below the layline. I trim the jib, settle in the mini hike position, and proceed to look in the main window to take a glimpse at all the suckers who went left. But, after a short glimpse, something was wrong. I was only seeing about 10 boats in our window. “Say it ain’t so” Willy, I enquired. “It be”, he responded, It be. We rounded in the high 50s low 60s. Grasped for dear life down wind, and proceeded on the second beat working the shifts. Working the shifts is usually our mantra that brings us back to the basics. The fleet is usually a little bit more spread out on the second beat, and you have more freedom to establish and execute your strategy. Well, working the shifts sent us to the right again. And, you guessed it, we took another bath. Man that hurts…Worked our way around the course to the final beat where we finally got with the program and went left. This is when we noticed that the numbers on the left were 10-15 degrees higher than on the right. F**K!!! That really stung! Finished the race 53, courtesy of the wagonload of OCS.

LESSON OF THE DAY : The great thing about the Star is that it’s tweakable in every which way you can imagine. The bad thing about the Star, is that it’s tweakable every which way you can imagine. This ability to tune the boat can sometimes mess with your mind. You rationalize it by thinking, It must be the boat. It can’t be us sailing poorly, we’re the f-ing fleet champions. But never underestimate your own capacity to sail badly. So, Willy, LEAVE THE GOD DAMN BOAT ALONE ALREADY!!! It’s not the boat, it’s the dummies in the hiking straps. There, I said it. I feel better now.

DAY 6 – Forecast 10-15 knots ENE (I swear I’m not making this up. The wind was that consistent all week. Turned out to be more like 8-10 knots)

Last day of the regatta. At least 3 boats in contention of winning the Big trophy, and bragging rights that comes with it. Same routine for me, leave the condo at 8, get to the club around 8:50. One thing was different this morning, a lot more hustle and bustle than usual at this time. It then dawned on me. The last day of the regatta, the warning is given an hour earlier (10:55 instead than 11:55). We rushed a little bit compared to our usual schedule, and made it to the course on time to make a few tacks upwind to figure out any patterns. Oh, I forgot to mention that we did adjust the rig tension again.This time to put it back where it was on Wednesday. Yesterday’s adjustments proved to be a little off for the conditions of Biscayne Bay. We had lost our pointing ability. So back we went to the original setting. Hey, it wouldn’t be a day of Star racing, if some tuning wasn’t involved.

The race started on the first try. We applied the same starting strategy as yesterday, and took off for the first beat. Today was a little different, though. The crowd ahead of us did not have a clear preference for the right or left, and therefore created a more difficult situation for us in terms of finding proper lanes. The first 2 thirds of the beat were just brutal, as we wound up working the right side of the course. Bounced back from one side to the other, to finally make it around 50th at the windward mark. We managed to catch a few boats on the run, and were approaching mid-fleet. On the second beat we worked the right side again, working on shifts all the way up the beat. We closed in the on the front of the fleet, in what seemed like low thirties. It looked for a while that we would redeem ourselves, and leave the regatta with a sense of a job well done. On the last beat, with the fleet pretty spread out, we again concentrated on the shifts ,but wound up working more the middle of the course, as the wind had shifted by about 20 degrees to the left. The shift occurred too late for the RC to do anything, so the marks stood at the same place as the previous beat, but we would now have to sail more distance on starboard than port. We played it conservatively, and did pretty well holding off the competition, until we hit a dead zone. We struggled through this zone while boats on the left and right were passing us. IT finally worked out that the left paid good all day. We lost about 10 boats in the last third of the beat to finish 43rd. When looking at the results, it seemed that a few heavy hitters got also caught by surprise, and suffered a little bit. If with all the on/off the water coaching they get, plus the pre-race weather reports on/off the water, they still miss some of what is going out there, we can’t feel too bad about our finishes.

LESSON OF THE DAY : There is none. Time to pack up the boat and head to Disney World with the kids.

Final words

Hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures at Bacardi. We’ll certainly be back next year, for what will be a very exciting regatta. The Bacardi of an Olympic year always brings out a big crowd, with tons of stories. Last time around, there were stories of tender boats with spare masts on board and the British team arriving in Miami with 32 sets of sails. All the excesses that Olympic campaigns bring to this sport. There are already rumours, that a Star boat builder is preparing a new boat specially designed for the conditions in China. We’ve got to see that.

In the meantime, if you want to see Phillippe’s new ride (the one he graciously allowed us to sail on this week), drop by CNDM this spring. He’ll be racing her on Wednesday and Fridays. Maybe you can convince him to let you crew for him. Be careful though. Once you’ve sailed a Star, it’s hard to look back. And if you feel the urge to buy one, there is coincidentally a boat for sale at CNDM. André Marcotte has hull 7044 for sale. This is a good opportunity to join the fleet in a race ready boat, that’s already in Montreal.

Salutations, and see you on the water.