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Sailing Short Stories

Racing Can Be Fun

My customers tell me they donít like to race. Most of them havenít raced yet, but they say they are looking for relaxation and a way to take it easy on the water and racing isnít going to do that. They are right, but racing is the best learning tool you can have on the journey to becoming an experienced sailor. And I can back up with facts what I just said. A scheduled race is scheduled and most sailors sail no matter what the weather. If you are not in a scheduled race, you would probability stay at home and not sail on some bad weather days. We need that bad weather experience for the times when you get caught where you shouldnít be. Where else can you find dozen of other boats all going in the same direction where you can estimate your boatís performance with all those other boats. All boats have their own character and capabilities and very few boats can do it all. You will never know your boatís real strengths and weaknesses unless you compare it to the other boats around you. The biggest comparison is to know where you are on your journey to becoming an experienced sailor. You can be a smart racer and become an excellent sailor without raising your voice or saying any bad words. One of our club members sailed his Com-Pac 16 up a creek with a failed motor. The wind was on the noise and we all wondered how he did it. He raced his 16 often and thatís how he did it.

A long time ago when I was young, I didnít know anything about sailboat racing. I knew I wanted to be faster than the guy next to me when I was out on the pond for an afternoon sail. I normally lost my imaginary races to the big boats and won against the little boats. I didnít learn very much, but I was having fun. My first real race was a military club race where we had marks, rules and competition. Before that, I had owned several sailboats that I cruised in the summer and sailed on weekends with friends. Boat dealers are suppose to know what they are doing and I though I was getting pretty good at sailing. My plan was to race a new Precision 18 with a genoa. If I remember correctly, I was going to race a boat that I had never sailed before. Most races start into the wind. The wind direction determines the layout of course and the marks. Our racing fleet was big and small boats and I may have been the smallest boat there. I knew the one basic racing rule that racers have to know. Boats on starboard tack have the right of way over boats on port tack. There are other rules, but the starboard tack rule was the most important one for me at that time. Remember, I said I had a genoa on that little boat and the wind was blowing about 15 knots or maybe more. We sailed away from the start and I noticed that we were pointing almost directly into the wind. The light little boat with the big headsail was in a continuous round up to weather. The start was positioned were the upwind leg was a long fetch and the wind was stronger in that area. I was out-pointing everyone and sailing towards the first mark. Is that dumb luck or what? The bigger boats behind me had some speed, but they were sailing 45 degrees to the mark and I was sailing almost dead on. I let the Precision sail to weather until the genoa started to shake and then I sailed off a little and let the boat do it all over again. We were the first boat around the first mark and then we beam reached to the second mark. Our speed dropped on that leg, but we were half way to the second mark before the first big boat rounded the first mark. After rounding the second mark, the big boats behind us were closing fast. I could tell that the downwind leg wasnít going to be a good point of sail for us. The big boats were going to use their size to catch me on that leg and then cover me with their sails and kill my speed. Thatís what one boat did and we came in second after he passed us just before the finish. Downwind sailing is a strategy game and it doesnít have a lot to do with sailing performance. I would have liked to know what the big boat sailors were saying about us on that first up-wind leg?

My first sailboat race didnít use handicaps. It was a get out on the racecourse and have fun and the big boats always win in that type of race. I think I would have won that race had we used handicaps. It was a race that we could talk about at the cook out after the race and it was fun. Since I was selling the Precision line of boats, I found what a Precision 18 could do in 20 knots of wind on the nose. I classified the boat in my mind as an active boat on my list of boats. It would be great for lakes, inland coastal sailing and younger sailors that wanted to go fast in light wind.

Class racing has to be done with the same type of boats and they donít use handicaps. Getting that many identical boats together at the same time can be difficult, but several clubs have done it successfully. A more popular racing system in this country is the Performance Handicap Rating Factor system or what we call PHRF. Boats that are different sizes and manufacture can race in the same race at the same time. Each boat is given a rating in seconds per mile. The ratings are determined by a local board and based on other boats of similar size and performance. Small slow boats have a big number and large fast boats have a small number. The factor part of PHRF is the race distance in miles multiplied by your rating. Your score is the difference between the figures above (miles X rating) and your actual time. The lowest number wins the race. Everyone is looking for a high rating to help the winning process.

Most PHRF races use two classes. One is spinnaker and the other cruising. The spinnaker class normally requires a dedicated crew that shows up for scheduled races. The cruising class is for the rest of us that race with our friends and the equipment that we currently have on our boats.

The Com-Pac Club in North Carolina used racing as a social and sailing event that could be completed on a weekend. Getting somewhere and doing something on Saturday and then spending the night on the boat and going home on Sunday is a full weekend for most sailors. We used PHRF ratings because we had a mix of boats. When we raced with other clubs in the area, they called us ďThe Nice PeopleĒ because we didnít yell or scream at each other while we were racing. We were having fun and we were also going to have dinner together that night after the race. We had to be nice to eat together.

The fun part of racing comes from the dumb things we do on sailboats and sometimes from the cool decisions we make that turns out well. Iím still talking about what happen on the racecourse 30 years ago. One of our members passed a mark on the Neuse River. Maybe he didnít really pass the mark, he might have touched the mark just a little and the mark broke off somewhere near the bottom of the river. The mark floated vertical next to his boat when he tried to move his boat. He ended up tying the telephone pole mark with the red number on top to his boat and motoring to the committee boat. He asked what he should do with the mark and we said maybe he should take it to shore and report the problem to the Coast Guard on VHF. The committee boat became the mark for the rest of the race. That problem turned out well for everyone except maybe the boat touched the mark. You canít hit a race mark or another boat in a race without receiving a penalty.

Each race starts with a Captainís meeting on shore before the race starts. A map of the racecourse helps explain the course to the racers. Watches are checked with the race committeeís watch and then everyone leaves for the start. Boats should have enough time before the start to analyze the best approach to the start line and the best tack after the start. With limited resources, the start line is normally at a mark with an imaginary line perpendicular to that mark. Most racecourses are a start line, upwind to the first mark, broad or beam reach to the second mark and then broad reach or downwind to the finish. The start and finish lines are normally the same spot.

Coastal or lake sailors donít really need a compass for navigation. If you can see the terrain around you and you have a map, you know where you are without using a compass. As a racer, you need a compass. You pull up to the start line, point your bow into the wind and identify the windís heading and the heading to the first mark with your compass. From that data, you can calculate the best and closest tack to the first mark. Some racers may start on the non-favored tack to avoid traffic on the favored tack. The idea is to sail as little as possible on a bad tack line and get back to the favored tack line at soon as possible. Some starters may be looking for better wind on the bad or the longer side of the course, but most racers will be taking the shortest distance to the first mark. The shortest distance between the start and the first mark is 2-45 degrees tacks. If the wind to the first mark is on the nose and you sail the first 45 degree tack longer than half way, you are sailing a greater distance than whatís required. Do I short tack or long tack, that is the question on the first up-wind leg.

The start is one of the most interesting parts of a sailboat race. Using the compass, you pick your best tack off the mark. You determine if the first leg is going to be a bunch of short tacks or fewer long tacks. Terrain obstructions or other boats may prevent you from sailing the long tack route. Short tacks always take longer unless the wind requires that type of technique. You have figured out the course, the wind and you have a plan. A Ĺ hour period before the start is practice time. You can verify the wind and do some good guessing on how the wind will change on that first leg. We use three flags to start a race. The white flag is the 10-minute flag, the blue flag is the 5-minute flag and the red flag is the start flag. No one can be over the start line before the red flag. The racer thatís closest to the windward starting mark on a starboard tack at the start is in the most favored position. No boat can sail between him or her and the mark and a leeward boat has to wait 2 boat lengths before normal passing rules apply. Normal passing rules say a leeward boatís bow has to be ahead of the starboard boatís mast before the leeward boat can head up and cause the windward boat to tack. All this sounds complicated and in some races, it is. The start is where everyone is equal and the traffic can be exciting. As Com-Pac racers, we were considered the ďNice PeopleĒ and we had some great starts. The funniest starts were the starts with no wind. One time we had one 27 pointing and drifting in the wrong direction at the start. Everyone else was going in the right direction and we were feeling bad for the 27.

You already know more about sailboat racing now than lots of sailors that race all the time do. Lots of people race so they can be on the water and also enjoy the good times before and after the race. Lots of racers hang back at the start and follow the pack around the racecourse. They donít want to get in anyoneís way, they just want to see the race up close and learn more about sailing at the same time. Looking is OK, but you will learn more by actually racing. If you do race, we will need to come up with a strategy for the first leg. You will have to think about wind direction changes, other racing sailboats and the obstructions on the course. Then when your strategy goes to pot, you will have to do the best you can with what you have. You are still going to have lots to talk about at the meal table that night

Itís nice to know the rules, but the physical impossibility of passing someone in their wind shadow is real. Sailboats operate in an environment that you canít see. The surface drag of the sails, hulls and other parts and pieces normally canít be seen. The little and big wind swirls created by other boats also canít be seen. If you are behind a bunch of racing sailboats and everyone is racing upwind, it is likely that you are going to stay behind everyone for that leg. Your crew will be saying, ďWhen can we tack for clean airĒ? Bad air caused by other boats ahead of you can reduce your boat speed by half. You can see that a good start is important. You need to be out in front at the start if possible. If you only have a few boats racing, then you can tack to get away from other boats, but your decision needs to be a good one if you plan on getting to the first mark first. You may tack and sail a greater distance or find bad air. The surrounding terrain normally causes wind shifts. Figuring out those shifts as part of our racing strategy is a wise move. Racecourse obstructions can include shallow bottoms. Many racers have gone aground while thinking about boat speed and the other traffic on the racecourse. I talk from experience.

Com-Pac Club racing was some of the best outings we ever had. We did around the marks, down and back and distance races. We found lots of good information about our sailboats over the years. Whatís the fastest boat between 2 points when the wind is 4 knots, a Com-Pac 16 or a Com-Pac 35? The answer is a Com-Pac 16. Big boats with lots of drag need more wind to move as designed. Hull speed comes up fast for the big boats with a small increase in wind speed. Whatís the fastest boat, a Com-Pac 23 or a Com-Pac 27? Both boats race about the same and the winner depends on the person sailing the boat. The 23s have won in both light and heavy air against 27s and the 27s have won against the 23s in different races. The 27 may like heavy air just a little more than a 23, but not by much. We found the Com-Pac 19 likes gales and if the racer can hang on, they might even win a race.

Our first club race was an outing at Fairfield Harbor on the Neuse River. A race was planned for the Neuse River on Saturday, but it was blowing a gale on the river and I decided we needed to do something else. Our plan ďBĒ was to race in Northwest Creek just outside the marina at Fairfield Harbor. We would start at the marina, go up the Creek as far as we could go, turn around and come back to the entrance to the housing development at Fairfield. Then we would sail through a cut to the finish and the Country Club. I got into trouble before doing last minute modifications to existing plans. This one turned out well because most the members had never raced before and most of them were sailing 16s. They tacked on the wind at the headwaters of Northeast Creek. Northwest Creek is a little small from side to side and the 16s did a great job of close tacking. The gibes were a little ragged, but not bad in all that wind. A man-made cut used by the housing development was narrow. It was never designed for sailing, but the wind was on the beam and we were looking good. We all made it to the Country Club and the finish mark. Fetching the finish mark required a little tacking and the early finishers waited and watched the slower boats arrive. Dinner that night had lots of talk about boats, boat handling and racing. Tall stories flew that night and the next day. Everyone liked racing and the Com-Pac Yacht Association of North Carolina was born.

There are several Com-Pac clubs and we communicated back and forth about outing and events. The Florida Club in Clearwater invited us down to race with them during one of their outings. The Factory purchased the hotdogs and maybe the beer and the members would show up for a general race on Saturday with the winners from the Saturday race racing again on Sunday. The Florida Club has a clubhouse on the water at a marina in Clearwater. Most of the local boats racing were slipped at that marina. I bought one 23 down from NC and we also had access to 3 new 16s that would be going home to NC after the race. Several NC club members made the trip to FL to race our boats. If you ever heard the saying the ďThe home field team has the advantageĒ then that was the case here. They had the racecourse and the weather down to a science. We learned what they knew after the fist day, but the learning was a little late to win a race. They picked me out as the hot sailor from up north and they assigned a volunteer to cover me during Saturdayís race. His job was to cover me so I couldnít win the race. He stayed on my bow from the start to the finish of the race. If I tacked behind him to go in a different direction, he would tack as I tacked staying in front of me and he was sailing as slow as he could. We didnít race that way in NC and we were surprised by their tactics Anyway, the hot sailors down there were really good and they all did a great job on Sunday. The 23 winner put his wife in the bow to balance his boat better. I was wondering if she read a book while she was up there in the bow. A sea breeze arrives every day at the same time and that makes a big difference. You could see the Sunday sailors change their strategy when the sea breeze arrived. They knew it was coming and they were ready. I think the FL racers were more sophisticated than we were. They planned ahead and made sure they kept their club trophy in FL.

We never raced at night before and we though we were getting pretty good at racing and the Neuse River would be a good place to do a distance race at night. Of course you never know when itís the first time. Racing or sailing at night is not a good idea in my opinion after having done it several times. You will see why as I talk about this race. My boat was a Com-Pac 23 Mark II with a 155 % genoa and had all the lights working. Our navigation equipment was an electronic chart potting LORAN coordinates and a compass. The LORAN acronym stands for long-range navigation and works off fixed transmitting stations. It preceded GPS and worked well but didnít have the global range that GPS has today. We left the start line in New Bern with 10 other boats and we stil had some daylight. It was dark by the time we reached Fairfield Harbor and we had about 10 knots of wind on the nose. We were sailing well and the moon and starlight gave us some idea of where the shore was. We took a compass bearing on a distant point of reference while we still had daylight and we were maintaining that course. Our problem going down river could be obstructions like marks or other boats. We saw a red-lighted mark on our port side and determined that it was the red #2 mark for Board Creek. After using that light as a navigation mark for some time, the red mark turned green and we knew it wasnít a mark, but another sailboat. Moving marks at night could be a problem. Our reference mark in the distance was Minnesott Beach mark #8. We anticipated getting there just before midnight and missing the State Ferry that crosses the river. Who operates a Ferry at Midnight? The people at the Cherry Point Rework Facility work a late shift and the Ferry was still running. We couldnít see their lights, but we could hear voices on the ferry and hear and smell the diesel the engines. They have radar on the ferries and maybe that could help them see us. The LORAN track was going straight for #8 and then when the LORAN said we were there, the marker appeared out the dark and we were only a few feet on the good side of the mark. We rounded #8 and headed for Neuse River #6 which was the halfway point in the race. It was very dark and we were running on a compass and a map course at that time. We didnít see anyone around us and we didnít know if we were in the lead or dead last. The moon came out as we approached #6 and it looked like we would have a good rounding were we could see what we were doing. We did our rounding and headed back up river following our down river track. We passed one 27 and one 23 that was going towards #6 and they were obviously behind us. Out of 10 boats racing, the one boat with the changing lights and these two boats were the only boats we saw that night. We were sailing well with a steady 10 to 15 knots of wind out of the southeast. Our next navigation mark was Minnesott Beach #8 and we were following the same LORAN track that we had just made coming down river. When we were close to #8, I noticed that we were a little inside the previous track. We had almost touched the mark coming down and going inside the mark would put us on the bottom. The mark appeared again and this time we were sailing between the shore and the mark and it was time to tack. We tacked and didnít hit the bottom, but it was a close call. It was a fast board reach to the finish line as the sun came up the next morning. We looked around for the other racers and found no one except for one 27 that was coming up river miles and miles from the finish line. We decided to take our win and go home. It had been a long night and the last night race the Com-Pac Club ever had. An unusual feature of our night race was the wind. Wind at night in NC is rare and this wind was steady and just right for a 23 to make miles. We scheduled one night race again, but the summer weather with the big thunderstorms canceled that race.

What did we learn from racing? Dick Wertz and I raced all the Com-Pac boats and as a Dealer, I got a good feel for the boats that I was selling. A 16 with a centerboard can out point a 16 without a centerboard by 5 degrees. The centerboard slot slows the centerboard boat going downwind so the total around the marks speed is about the same. The popular heavy weather boats were the 23 and the 27. We had one race with only 23s and 27s sailing in 40 to 50 knots of wind. The 23 that Dick and I were sailing had a double-reefed main and a standard jib and we won the race. After the race, we hove to with the double-reefed main and had lunch. We found it was easy to heave to in big winds and we know it's difficult to heave to in light to medium winds. We also found that the right sail selection for the conditions could and would win a race. Boats with limited sail selection will normally be slow boats. All the boats had their own best wind speed. I sailed through a whole fleet of boats in a 16 while the fleet was standing still waiting for more wind. The 16 has a sweet spot in slow wind. Now and then we would race PHRF with other brands of boats. A race in the cruising class of boats was normally a numbers game. Some boats have good rating and some donít. You can still compare boats and check out ďBrand XĒ boat performance. There are a few good brands of boats out there besides Com-Pac. Not many, but a few.

I think if we did more racing as a social activity, we would sail our boats more and enjoy sailing more. Racing is something that we can do with our family and friends and fits into our busy lifestyle. Getting good at sailing in light or no wind is a serious accomplishment that can be passed on to our children and maybe even their children. We just need someone to schedule an outing to get us out there where we can race our boats and have some fun.