Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Season's Last is a Blast!

Toby Jennings at left, and me still smiling post-race


The Lac St. Louis season closer, the Pas De Deux, is a fun race. That is dictated several times by the various documents for the race For example, written prominently under the map, "As this is October not July, there will be NO PROTEST HEARINGS arising from this fun race!" There you go, that is clear enough. Well, we aimed to comply, and sure enough, did these two kids ever have fun!

The breeze was strong, the race long. We would go the distance of Lac St. Louis, starting by Pointe Claire, going west to Baie D'Urfé, back across diagonally, southeast to the middle of the lake, then turning north towards Pointe Claire again, and finally east again to the finish. Wind at the airport measured 20 to 32 kph, and I estimate high teens to mid 20's in knots with more severe gusts for the wide part of the lake. Only two persons are allowed to operate the boat, but I did see quite a few more people doing a good job as rail-meat. Hmmmm... With the breeze piping, the waves hurling, Toby and I were definitely the over-powered flyweights of the competition. But what a blast! We were dressed well and it was a good thing. The water was cold, and any work at the mast made the fingers numb in short order. Fortunately, this fun race made spinnakers strictly verboten, so it wasn't too much of an issue. We were both wearing layers of sailing gear, nicely dry and breathable, and that was important for this was genuinely a frosty race in a wet boat.

The other aspect of the race is that it is a Pursuit format. Slow boats first, followed by faster boats with start times based on PHRF handicap. We are then all expected to finish at the same time, given no other variables. Well, of course the performance and finish are altered by other variables Some that come into play are related to skill, some to handicap-weather variations. The Shark has a handicap as the slowest keelboat, making us and Sudden Eclipse (the two Sharks from BYC) the first starters. Right on our heels are the Tanzers and such from PCYC, and on up to the Laser 28s and Etchells, along with some towering sails that are part of the RStLYC big boat Armada.

Toby driving home
Our Shark and Sudden Eclipse both got good starts, right on the line at the gun. Sudden Eclipse was to windward, but we both were moving well. We went with our largest genoa, figuring we would struggle upwind, and yield an advantage for the longer legs off the wind. Tough call because the wind had not peaked just prior to the start, probably up and down between 15 to 18 knots. Well, Sudden Eclipse chose the small jib, and they smoothly accelerated away, flatter and higher. While they made good gains, they would not be impossible to catch later we hoped. Certainly, as the wind strengthened we were way overpowered, but it was manageable. That is definitely a safe, strong point of the Shark.

Peter Vatcher's T22 seemed to get a bit of a late start. Vatcher tacked into the middle a couple of times, but then switched course. They, and many of the bigger boats appeared to choose going way, way out to the south open area. Sudden Eclipse chose to play the shifts of the north shore, and we pretty much conservatively played the middle.

I must admit, heavy air and waves are my downfall. I am much more content in the flat lake water and light winds we get in the more typical hot season. Summer squalls, and frosty fall honkers are not my experience and forte. The long upwind leg taught me why. If I don't anticipate a gust is coming, and get knocked over, it is too late. The mainsheet loads up, and I have my head down staring at it, yanking and yanking away on the jammed mainsheet. My steering goes to hell while I do this hip hop dance in the cockpit. The boat goes on its ear, slipsliding. Then, hull on its side, it moves closer to the wind, while I am pulling hard against the tiller to correct course. Both stages of this gust routine, the knockover, and the over-correction have an effect like hitting the brakes in a car. I did this, while with Nick Van Haeften, at the end of last year's Pas De Deux too, when the wind powerfully made the end very exciting. This year, the whole race had enough wind to continually expose my bad habits. Happily for me, the duration of sustained heavy air was a good thing! It was to be the long leg of practice I needed to finally improve. Well into the long upwind leg, we began developing a more appropriate  racing technique. Toby starts calling the puffs and gusts before they are coming in. Usually by an estimate of how many boat lengths before the slam. Some are just puffs, but that is fine. As he calls it, my finger grips the traveler line, not the mainsheet. I pull the line out of the cleat, before the gust slams us. Then, when the boat slices into the pressure, I start releasing the traveler line and sliding the car and sail to leeward. The boat hardly heels more, the sail flaps less, and the boat stays powered up (not overly) and on course. Holy mother @#$%?! This is working! It is two thirds up the long windward leg, but hey that is okay, because this lesson is huge, and I finally get it. Why has it taken me so long to get it? Ya, I am slow, but after the race I realize there is another reason. This season I had a brand new Harken traveler set up installed. Everything new and smooth: track, windward sheeting car, bearings, line, all of it. Before, the traveler was always a laborious struggle. So, I used the mainsheet, which works, but as said above, is tough and jams with pressure when you need it most.

Another lesson for next season. Even if I don't understand why initially, every aspect of gear should work flawlessly, effortlessly. It isn't just a matter of being a gear-head, or compulsive where it isn't absolutely necessary. To race better, it is compulsory.


Now, about those other PHRF variables. First, the wind. While the Shark is handicapped as the slowest boat, it comes alive with the higher breeze, so today played in our favour against the other small boats. However, we did expect to be passed pretty quickly by the boats with longer waterlines that would be hitting their much faster max hull speeds. While we did stay ahead of other small boats for the whole windward leg, one of the Laser 28s, and one Etchells were closing in. Our sister Shark Sudden Eclipse rounded well ahead, us in 2nd, and the Etchells and Laser 28 hot on our heels, about 30 seconds back and reigning us in.

Then, two surprises, First, right after rounding the windward mark, senior Rahn sends young Rahn to the bow of the Shark, dragging the big whomper 180% sail with him. They manage a sail change pretty quick on the flat downwind course, as we are closing in. Before we can get close enough for our voices to carry over the wind and curse them, their new big sail is set, and they are pulling away again. I dunno how! Obviously there are other variables at play, and I suspect my helming is again part of the answer.

Still, my helming is not so bad as the other big, fast boats that should clean our clocks, don't! It is the next big surprise. The Laser 28 and the Etchells are not making much progress on us downwind. We butterfly our sails, as does the Etchells, and the Laser 28 does a broad reach. The Etchells with the tiny jib has trouble keeping it full, and the Laser 28 is reaching broadly enough, that they also have difficulty keeping the jib full. The butterfly run on the Shark was much more effective, and being watchful on shifts allowed me to keep working a bit of a higher course to make it most of the way to the next mark before jibing. Superman crew-mate Nick woulda been proud!

Eventually, the Laser 28, skippered by Paul Lhotsky works his way by, coming up on a higher course. Luc's Gloutney's Etchells finally gets us at the mark as we come in tight and out broad, while he comes in broad, and exits tight on the inside.

The next leg is pretty wild as the wind is now hitting peak. This allows the big waterline boats to make a charge at us, and I see a T26 gaining, but being run down by a train of a long boat driven by David Wisenthal. We complete that wild windward ride still ahead of them, and then turn for the final run to the finish. The Rahn Shark gets passed somewhere here by Lhotsky's Laser 28 and Gloutney's Etchells. The Wisenthall TRAIN has passed the Tanzer 26 (Keith Grassie I think) behind us, and is now looming up on us like a skyscraper. We are approaching the next mark which appears like a shortened course finish line, and it is a bit confusing for me. I find out from RCO Madeleine Palfreeman much later that the RC boat has motor failure and so sets the finish line there.

Our butterfly course points right at the RC and we are making good headway. As we near them it becomes apparent the RC boat is not a finish line mark, as is common practice. A permanent race mark becomes visible more to the right and needs to be left to port, and another smaller mark boat is holding a pin flag farther off.  Oh no. I can feel the wind fading and I know David Wisenthaal's Tower-boat is shadowing us. Worse yet, Toby needs to flip the sail over from the butterly to broad reach as we alter course from RC boat to finish mark. This puts our starboard side crossing in front of the big boat's bow. From the corner of my eye, I can see a giant anchor rapidly approaching my head. I try not to freak and focus on coaxing more inches from the Shark, and we cross the finish line coasting with no wind, feet ahead of David's team. If not for the shortened course, he would have had us for lunch. Over the line and out of the wind shadow, I am somewhat aware of the Shark immediately surging back to top speed, as Toby and I are distractedly giving each other repeated high-fives.

PCYC served a great sausage chili and pumpkin pie. Hot food and a pint of cold draft go down so well after cold outdoor sports. Madeleine awarded the 1st place flag to Paul Lhotsky and the Pas De Deux trophy to his club, the RStLYC for its highest accumulation of points based on finishing positions as well as total number in fleet. A real participation trophy for a real fun race. And it was FUN!
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