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Saturday, February 17, 2018

February 17, 2018-Racing Intensity

alarife images
Racing upwind on Bandera Bay

The racing season is now on and we’ve been going hard at it since the 12th of December when we began racing every Wednesday. Also there was the "Blast", a three-day regatta one weekend in December. By January we were up to racing twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. This level of participation made the racing intense.

That intensity peaked on January 20 for the third race of the Vallarta Cup. We hadn’t won either of the first two races in that series and we wanted this one. We didn’t know if we could actually win based on the first two races where we sailed well but fell slightly short, but we knew we were going to try.

To win any competitive sailboat race you have to first get the boat handling down. There has to be a lot of close coordination and team work. Ten people working together like a machine. We’ve learned time and time again that when racing against top competitors there can be no boat handling mistakes, no foul-ups; nothing that can cost us even a few seconds. The other boats are ready to seize on any error we might make, as we are of theirs. For this, we practice. And practice. We treated Wednesdays as practice sessions and sailed hard in them and after each race we held debriefings to improve our boat handling. We prepared ourselves for the hard work and extreme mental focus it would take to win race three.

There is also the boat-speed requirement. Even if our boat handling is perfect we still need to sail the boat through the water as fast as is possible. That calls for perfect steering and perfect sail trimming. This is my job. I am the helmsman. I steer the boat and call the sail trim adjustments. Others on the boat, Judy or Richard, can relieve me for periods, but mostly it is my job as helmsman. In this role the demand for focus and attention is relentless. For a race like this it means three hours of intense concentration.

And on top of this there are the tactical decisions. Boat handling and speed isn’t enough; we need tactics too. We have to go the right way, position ourselves to catch the best wind shift, to counter our opponents’ tactics with our own, keep our air clean, and avoid traffic and congestion. These are the tactical decisions we must make, they are another layer on top of boat handling and boat speed. These decisions are required constantly. If you lose your situational awareness of the overall fleet and don’t make the critical move at exactly the right time, seconds or minutes can be lost. A lot of this tactical decision making also falls on me.
It shouldn’t. I’m not good at it and anyhow I should be keeping my focus on helming, but right or wrong it does. I have tactical help from Judy, Richard and John, but they all too often defer to me. Whether it is lack of self-confidence or lack of experience, or maybe my own opinions are just too strong for them to feel comfortable opposing. Whatever the reason they too often keep their tactical thoughts to themselves. I make a call, no one objects, and we do it, right or wrong. So I have to get it right.

All of this takes, for me, a lot of mental energy. I am determined to get to the level needed, to guide the crew through the maneuvers, to keep my attention on the steering, and to make good tactical calls. I need to do all these things for the whole race; for three hours.

To be at the level needed I put myself into a zone.

It happens before the start.

In the last minute before the start of the race, on the final approach to the start line, my mind and body seems to go somewhere else, into a zone. I am still there on the boat, but I’m not. I don’t feel aware of the deck on which I am sitting, of my hand on the helm, of the people around me. There is no thinking, Just intense focus. My intensity connects me with the boat, the sails, the wind. I stare at the tell tales, but I see the wind. My hand moves the tiller, but my mind is moving the boat. My crew talks to me, but they are just disembodied voices.

“Do you see the mark, Fred?”

“No, I can’t look for it. You watch it and guide me.” My answers are brief; my mind stays on the task.

Then I do have a glance around at the other boats, at the wind, where the mark is. I make a tactical call. We do it. As we turn the boat my line of sight to the sail tethers me to an orbit on the back of the boat. My feet find their own way around the back of the boat. Even while I move to the other side the connection with the sail and the wind is not lost.

Now a mark rounding is coming up. Some part of my mind splits off to maintain my steering while with another part I talk to the crew and describe the upcoming maneuver. The crew nods, or answer, or ask for a clarification. My focus shifts for the briefest time, I speak back to them, then I am again blocking out everything but my mental and physical control of the boat.

I have to keep that up for the whole race. Then, at the finish, I can throw down the tiller and walk away.

On that Saturday we did this and it all worked well for us.

We had a plan for the start but in the last few seconds the plan all fell apart and I had to improvise. By then my head was already in the zone and we were on my mental autopilot. Olas Lindas tried to take us up above the committee boat but I stalled and let them through. They were early and ran down the line and so we had a hole to leeward to accelerate into. There was no planning no logic, no reasoning, just doing, and somehow it came right and we won the start. We had boats underneath us but our air was clear and we were fast and sailing high and they could not tack and we drove them off to the left. When they were committed to that side we tacked and went up the right side, where we found more pressure.

We led at the top mark by two minutes.

Olas Lindas is faster than we are and we knew they would pass us but our plan was to hold them off as long as possible, and then stay close. If we did that, we could win.

And they did get by but they never really got away. We dogged them all the way on the long reaches. We stayed close at the second windward mark.

There was a tense moment for me, a long tense moment…several moments.

The decision on how to round the mark at the start of the first run made me nervous. Jibe set or bear away? To call it wrong would cost valuable minutes. I called for a jibe set, based on the wind direction I was seeing when we were still 15 minutes out. Then the wind gradually shifted, making the decision to jibe less definitive.

The nervousness I felt on those long minutes as we approached the mark was unusual. I don’t feel that way during a race. Once I get on the race course my nerves go away, I’m in my zone. But this time was different. We had a great race going at that point but I knew a lot was riding on the next leg. Call it wrong and we could throw it all away.

I stuck with my call; even with the wind shift I figured the jibe set was twenty degrees favored. But if the wind shifted more, well, anything could happen.

The Olas rounded. They did a jibe set and took off on a broad reach directly for the downwind mark. That confirmed my decision.Excellent! What a relief.

We ourselves rounded and completed the jibe set and took off powering down that next leg. Dick called that Olas had us by only two minutes. I knew they needed around eight minutes to beat us. Perfect, there was only 4.5 miles to go. We just had to follow them to the finish, not screw up, and we had them.

We went into conservative mode. Don’t push for that last second of advantage, don’t make any mistakes. Another windward leg, another jibe set, and coast to the finish; that’s all we had to do.
We won, by a good margin. We crossed 3:38 behind Olas Lindas, I knew we beat them. Bright Star was also back too far to be in the game but what about Mony? They were running forth but they could still win. We watched them come down to the finish. Their sails looked soft; light wind, good.

jldigital media-John Pounder
Finishing under kite

Dick called out their time: Nineteen minutes and five seconds. Yes, we had them.

Our hard work and extreme mental focus held up. We were jubilant.

I was exhausted.

“John, take the helm please.”

By the end of the race I am completely knackered. I give John the helm and wander around. I go below. I look at the computer screen and I see our track and I start to recap the race in my mind. On deck the crew is shooting Craken Rum and celebrating, but me. Well, I’m done. I put in the times of the other boats just to check and see that we have them by minutes to spare.

Slowly I come back to this world. I go up, I take a shot of rum myself, but funnily, I can’t savor it. My mind is still elsewhere.

In fact, I’ve lost the time for three hours, I don’t remember anything but the images which remain in my brain of tell-tales, of sail trim, of the race.

Each week, each race, we have to be ready to go through it again. It doesn’t always go was well as it did this Saturday.

The next Saturday for example, the fourth race, could have been the same as the third. A win in the fourth race would have sewed up the series for us, but it didn’t. We blew it. Or I blew it.

In fact we were doing exceptionally well. We had a better performance going right until the last run to the finish. We were ahead of everyone except, as usual, Olas Lindas, but we were even closer to them than before. Again, it was just hold on to win.

But I made the wrong tactical call. Like the previous week the wind had shifted south. The final run would be right-hand favored. Again I called for a jibe set.

Olas rounded and did a bear away. They looked right. My call was wrong. We were only seconds from the mark, too late to change the set-up.

Richard said, “It’s not a jibe set!”

“Too late, we can’t change now. We’ll jibe back as soon as we can.”

I could have, should have, held off on the jibe. I should have just borne away and held off on hoisting the chute until we could get it switched over. We were close to Olas, we had the time. But I didn’t see that option in the instant of time when we still could do it.

After the mark we jibed and swerved off on the wrong angle. The crew did it perfectly but I’d called it perfectly wrong. It cost us about 3 minutes and 17 seconds. Enough to lose the race. My zone wasn’t good enough. My calculation on the wind angle was wrong. Maybe I was too tired. Maybe the cold I was coming down with dulled my senses.

Whatever, we held up under pressure for almost three hours then lost it in the last three minutes, the three minutes that counted.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, La Cruz Hunacaxtle

We have a few more Wednesday races this year, then the big final in late March: Banderas Bay Regatta. After the Vallarta Cup Series, described above, was finished we’re taking a deep breath and we’ll re-set our focus on the BBR. It will be more tough racing, but we’ll prepare all over again, and go at it just as hard as we did this time.

wingssail images-fredrick roswold
Carbon MXL Main from China Sail Factory

The new mainsail finally arrived, after two months of flying air cargo around the world to the wrong destinations. It came Friday February 2. We put it on the boat, used it once on the Wednesday night race, and we’re happy. The race was a disaster but the sail looked great. Perhaps this will help us in BBR

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