I’m very fortunate to have Jim Watson who is a lifelong racing sailor as my team member. On the ride in from Gloucester we discuss the forecast, the tide, what conditions we expect to see that day, and most importantly what we learned the last time we sailed. This helps us both focus on what we want to do that day and get into a racing mindset. The wind forecast for the day was NNW backing to WNW and increasing from 9 to 14 knots with gusts increasing from 12 to 17 knots over the day. The forecast also showed the overcast sky clearing around midday with temperatures in the upper 30’s. High tide was mid-afternoon.
My experience said that a clearing northwester should shift right before backing into the west, and this turned out to be the case in the second and third races. My experience with tidal current in the harbor is that it flows out most of the time from shortly after high tide until 2 hours before the next high tide and that it runs hardest down the middle with significantly less up close to the shore. We tuned up the boat to get a nice comfortable feel on the helm before the start. I pulled on about 6” of backstay to blade out the top of the main in the puffs and to keep the headstay from sagging too much when I eased the mainsheet. We had to pull really hard on the main halyard to keep the draft forward and the wrinkles out. Finally we pulled just enough on the jib halyard to keep the sags out. We always remind ourselves that tightening the backstay will tighten the jib luff, and these jibs don’t like too much tension. The jib cars were mid-track and we sheeted fairly hard once we were moving. When we were fully hiked the boat had a nice easy weather helm and not too much heel. If the boat felt bound up, I eased the mainsheet just a bit and went for more speed. We were fast upwind all day. I know that my weakest point is getting good starts, partly as a result of spending most of my life sailing dinghies and not allowing enough time to get a heavy keel boat going. I know that I want to be “on the line, going fast, with clear air” and that it takes a good 20 seconds to get a Rhodes 19 up to speed.
Before racing, Jim counseled me through the approach that works the best and we used it in the first race to sail through the cluster at the line at 30 seconds, slightly luff the boat above us and bear away into the small gap to leeward for full speed, mid-line, at the start. We minimized our tacks and almost always sailed through the first header to get to the real shift. We rounded in the top 5 and set up for the left side of the run to get clear air downwind and around the leeward mark.
I’m almost 70 so I know I’m not as quick in the boat as most of the people we race. I get the first two big pulls on the main at the leeward mark while Jim pre-trims the jib about 6 inches out. With both of us hiked out as the boat turns, Jim pulls the rest of the main in about 3 pulls and I grab it while he pulls the last few inches of the jib. This gives me the opportunity to shave the mark really closely and come out high so I can hold the lane. It’s not ideal, but it’s way better than coming out low or luffing the main around the mark. We went right for a dark wind line on the East Boston side and tacked back on a lift that put us in first. We kept a loose cover protecting the right and lost the lead on a left shift at the top mark, which was a shift pattern that held for the rest of the day. On the run we faked left and went right on a right shift to sneak over the line ahead by inches. We reproduced this race later in the day with even better results and a lead that stretched out. We also had some bad starts where we were late accelerating and got rolled within the first 30 seconds. The best move was to tack away as soon as possible into a clear lane. There was frequently a right shift that would carry you across the gust front to at least the middle of the course and often all the way to the favored left side at the top of the beat.
I made a series of bad calls in one race where we had fought our way back to the top and then tacked right on the layline from 100 yards out. When we got headed about five lengths from the mark and two boats crossed us from the left, I panicked and tacked right into another starboard boat above us. Two tacks and two circles puts a lot of boats past you! It turned out that the header was very brief and we could easily have made the mark and been first. Lesson: always leave a little in the bank before tacking for the weather mark (especially in a northerly), know where everyone is around you, and don’t panic.
Things that work: a great crew that understands the tactics, sail trim, angle of heel, and the places the driver needs help, sailing fast from 20 seconds before the start and being on the line with clear air, staying away from other boats and their wind shadows upwind and down, leaving a little extra room at the weather mark, making sure the boat feels fast all the time, and having fun sailing!