Monday, 14 June 2010
Adventures in Middle Earth
After a three year absence from the scene I had my re-debut in the world of sailboat racing this weekend. The venue was Newport, RI, for a three day regatta. I joined a good team which made a last minute decision to do the event. They dragged my name up from the bottom of some junk drawer somewhere and I said yes. I'd missed it.
My job was to trim the jib upwind. The jib is the sail that's in front when you're going into the wind. There are three areas on a boat. Frontierland is up front. Those guys do the grunt work of putting sails up and down and generally executing maneuvers. Fantasyland is in the back. They steer and do tactics and navigation and such. Normally I am a committed denizen of fantasyland. Middle earth is where the trimmers live. We are the buffer between the two lands, spending time with each, allied to both, favoring neither. There are three trimmers on this boat - main, jib, and spinnaker. I hate trimming spinnakers and main is okay but jib is wicked fun. How fast the boat goes upwind is in large part in your hands.
When I left sailing a few years ago, I was really burned on doing tactics. It's really high stress and when you aren't sailing ALL the time, it's tough to do it well. On the great boats, the tactician has an easy job because the speed and maneuvers are there. But the hot boats get top pro tacticians (usually pretty well paid - the rate at the high end is around $2k/day - a situation that I never even got anywhere close to). It's kind of a virtuous cycle - when you get really good, your job becomes easier because you get on the best boats. When you're trying to break through, you have to slug it out on the middling boats, and get noticed through elevating a boat's level. Sometimes you get a real gravy situation, but mostly you just work hard and hope to move the chains forward. After such a long layoff, I would have been happy to be ballast and reacquaint myself with how things work. The boat I sailed on is a more established program and has really good people involved, so getting to trim jib was a bonus.
My friend Tim trims jib on this boat. A little bit more flash...
The team on board was solid. The class of boats we sailed (NYYC 42) are sort of weird. The boat captain and one other pro are the only pros allowed on board. The other 8 have to be bona fide amateurs. My pro status went away a long time ago. The rest of the cast were ex pros and good amateurs. We merged well and worked together with no conflicts. This team usually gets solid results, not quite at the top of the pile but definitely in the mix. With some thrown together elements, we'd have our challenges against some of the top boats which are really on their games.
Friday was a 25 or so mile trip around Conanicut Island. I've found more ways to screw up on this particular course than you could imagine. I think I've done really well on it three out of 20 times. Fortunately, my role in strategy was purely consulting and raw input, so while I had a chance to help, I couldn't screw us up too much. We got a bad start (a developing theme) but had really good pace and made some smart moves to spend most of the race in second. About 3/4 through it, we let a boat slip by, which we shouldn't have done. I have to fault myself for this, because when I changed my setup our speed improved a lot and we were right back on pace with them. I didn't adapt right away to the second jib (made for higher wind) we used for the last bit of the race. I initially set the sail up too powerfully, which made the boat a bit unsteady and lacking a touch of pace. There was some other stuff going on as well, but once I got the sail the way I should have had it all along, the other issues were minor enough not to hold us back.
Saturday was the first of two days of buoy racing - up and down sausages of around 1.5 miles in length. These races are generally tighter and have more action. Each has its place but you wind up doing buoy races more often. Saturdays first race was a shocker. We got a lame start and didn't recover. The second was quite good and the third was medium. We managed to lose a couple of boats at the end of the third race, which sucked. Throughout the day, I felt myself getting more and more into the game, and that moment of conscious thought before doing stuff became less and less necessary. It would take some part of a full season of sailing at a good level to get back to where I'd be comfortable, but at least I had the sensation of seeing that it wasn't all lost to the sands of time.
Today we waited forever for the wind, then it came in nicely. Another bad start and we never got fully in the game. We were going fast enough, which was good, but the passing lanes were few and far between. A bad end to an otherwise good event.
All told, a fun weekend. What training took place was on a beach cruiser (freaked people out a bit) but mostly it was about taking a visit back to the old scene. I must not have sailed like a complete gaboon because they've asked me to do some more events with them. They have two other boats (this one's actually being sold) and have a pretty serious international schedule. It's a fun program with good people, so I'll be happy to mix in some more sailing when the time is available.