Friday, March 10, 2006

Treat Her Like a Lady

Pat Byrnes, the commodore of the New Mexico Sailing Club, has been writing in his blog Desert Sea some advice for race committees on "at what point does the committee cancel the race?" I'm assuming that this is triggered, at least in part, by some hairy incidents on a windy weekend a couple of weeks ago. Pat, in a comment on this blog asked me for some feedback on his guidelines.

I don't feel it would be appropriate for me to write specifically about what wind strengths are safe or unsafe at the New Mexico Sailing Club as I don't know anything about that club other than what I have read in
Desert Sea and Five O'Clock Somewhere. There are so many variables in a decision to abandon racing - the seaworthiness of the boats racing, the skills of the sailors, the size of the fleet, the number of rescue boats, the distance from safety, the water temperature, the likelihood of local abrupt changes in wind strength ... And I don't anything about those issues at Pat's club.

But his request did start me thinking about the same question at the venues I do know. How would I decided as a race officer when to abandon racing? What wind strengths am I prepared to race in myself? 20 knots? 25 knots? 30 knots? Where to draw the line?

Warning - Small Blog Advisory: Tillerman feels strong urge to recount all sorts of tales about heavy weather sailing. Get yourself a beer or a rum punch and settle down. Let the old guy ramble. He might even be trying to make some kind of point. You never know.

Like the sailors in New Mexico I do most of my sailing on inland lakes, but I do try and travel to regattas on the ocean as often as I can. Inevitably I get a lot more time in light airs when I am lake sailing; and am often challenged by much stronger winds when I venture on to the sea.

I remember vividly the Laser Masters Worlds in Cancun, Mexico 2000. Check out an excellent account of the regatta by Canadian sailor, and fellow inland sailor, Ben Pickford. Here is just a taste of Ben's description.

It was a wonderful experience to sail on the Caribbean Sea at a Worlds Masters Laser regatta. To witness 145 boats of one class stretched out as they sailed from the beach to the starting line was a sight I've never seen before. 145 boats going every which way at the starting line as we waited for the start of the first fleet, to be surrounded by 45 boats on the windward leg and to be able to see another 50 boats sailing in the fleet ahead and another 50 boats in fleets behind is wonderful. Add the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean, sunny skies, warm spray and it was fantastic to be there. HOWEVER; my one year experience in a Laser obviously did not prepare me for the level of competition, particularly in strong winds. I don't think I've ever had so many baths in my 35 year sailing career as only the first day was sailed in a nice breeze with all the other races sailed in whitecap conditions(20 mph +).
The winds were consistently strong all week and one day racing was canceled altogether because it was too windy. As a lake sailor I was totally outmatched by the guys who had much more experience racing and training in these conditions all the time. I remember dueling with Ben at the back of the fleet in several races. I did finish ahead of him in the overall scores - but only because I was more stubborn than him and managed to struggle across the finish line in every race whereas he had the sense to take a break and recover in some races. By the end of the week I was aching and sore in places I didn't even know I had places. But I was a lot more confident sailing in heavy wind and waves than I was at the start of the week.

The point to the story is that you are only going to become confident in racing in over 20 knots if you do a lot of sailing in those conditions. So, if you are running races at a location where winds in the 20-30 knot range are rare and most of the sailors have no experience in these conditions, then anything over 20 knots may cause so much havoc in the fleet that racing should be abandoned.

Different classes of boat have different tolerances for wind strength too. I recall traveling to Newport a few years ago for the annual Sail Newport regatta. I took my Laser but a group of friends from my lake club raced in their Jet-14s. The winds were around 20 knots, I'd say, and I had a blast. Maybe capsized a couple of times but I completed all fourteen races. Phew! But my friends in their Jet-14s had all sorts of trouble - broken gear, demastings, near-sinkings. They all packed up and went home after the first day of the regatta. I guess some boats (or maybe some sailors) are more fragile than others.

But these Jet sailors had done almost all their sailing on the reservoir at our home club which is in a state park. And there is a state rule (maybe law) there that says if the wind exceeds 25mph all boaters must immediately go in to shore. There's actually a flashing light rigged up to an anemometer and when the light flashes all boating stops. It probably makes sense in this environment because the reservoir is used by sailors, fishermen, canoeists, kayakers - including many casual users who come to the park and rent boats and who clearly have little boating experience. But if you sail at a club where you never sail in a wind exceeding 25 mph (about 22 knots) you are never going to learn how too handle stronger breezes - or even find out if your boat itself can survive these conditions.

It's actually worse than that. I have a theory that you only become confident and expert at racing in any given wind strength if you have actually been out, at least for practice, in even stronger winds. So my friends who had probably never ever experienced 25 knots were totally fazed when expected to race in 20 knots.

Another Laser Masters Worlds Championship springs to mind, the 2002 event in Hyannis Massachusetts. The race officer had a rule that he would not start races in over 25 knots. We were racing in four different fleets and he managed to start two fleets, including mine, after which the wind piped up to 30 knots. He canceled the starts for the other two fleets but let us continue racing. That was a learning experience I can tell you. I lost count of how many times I capsized on the run. But I did finish the race. And after that 25 knots doesn't feel (quite) so scary.

There are some US Laser sailors who feel that US race officers are too conservative. Their view is that is we don't get any experience racing in 30 knots (or stronger) and then when we travel to international events where the winds are that strong we are at a disadvantage. This seems to have been a factor at the 2005 Masters Worlds in Brazil at which the Australians dominated and even very experienced American sailors were struggling. Check out this report by Eric Robbins for example. Here is his story of one day at the regatta ...

Into the maelstrom ...........

Racing today was postponed onshore for 90 minutes, as the wind held at 29-32 knots. When it dropped to 25, in the LULLS, they sent us out. Spray was flying off all the whitecaps on the 10-foot rollers and, as usual, the chop was coming from a somewhat different direction.

I got a good start, and was moving well ........ for about five minutes. I am just not strong enough for these conditions. As Halsey said: "If the Aussies like these conditions, they can KEEP them!" On the first downwind leg, when the view from atop my centerboard showed the fleet pulling away, and nobody behind me, I stopped my feeble attempts to RACE, and start to have some fun. I reached back and forth, with a few jibes, and hitting mach 2 down some of the biggest swells. Once I stopped trying to race around marks, it was a great day!

So where does that leave us? As a competitor I would like race officers to give me the chance to race in anything up to 30 knots - at least. If it's too tough I can always make the decision not to race. But the only way I am going to master heavy winds is to experience them. So give me the chance, please.

However, as a race officer I will take into account the experience and ability of the fleet, the quality and quantity of safety boat coverage, the distance from safety etc. etc. I will also play it by ear. Once a number of crews are in trouble, not able to recover from situations unaided, then it is definitely time to consider abandoning the racing.

This seems to be about where Pat from New Mexico has settled too after some feedback from his members. 30 mph limit - but strong encouragement to less experienced sailors to bail out at lower wind speeds. Looks like they will get a chance to test out these new guidelines this weekend!

And before we get too complacent about the relative safety of boating on sheltered inland lakes, check out this story about how police are still searching for the bodies of six men who have gone missing over the last three decades while boating in a local reservoir in New Jersey. This is the same lake where I sailed in February 2005, actually the first sail that I wrote about in this blog.

I'm one of the lunatic fringe. Last weekend my friend S. and I sailed our Lasers on Round Valley Reservoir. There were huge gusts scooting across the lake whipping up whitecaps. On the dam the warning light was flashing intermittently. This is supposed to indicate that the wind is over 22 knots and all boating must cease, but we didn't believe it. Over 2000 acres and 55 billion gallons of icy water and 2 small sailboats planing back and forth in the middle. No sight of another human being. It felt quite isolated, wild, remote. And then it started to snow. Magic!
I guess we were lucky that they're not searching for eight bodies now.

So what's the bottom line? Know your limits - and the limits of your fellow sailors. Treat the water with respect. Sail fast, live long.

Some of us sailors call her home
She's big and she's strong and she's mighty
Some of us sailors call her our own
Guess that's the reason why
I treat her like a lady
Treat her like a lady


bonnie said...

Hear, hear. Barkeep, I'd like to buy that tillerman a Dark n' Stormy!

Can I start calling you "unker Tillerman", lah? ( ;D-ing in the general direction of Asia...)

Litoralis said...

It is always the responsibility of the sailor to decide whether or not to race in given conditions. If the race committee goes out to start races in conditions that are scary to you then don't go out. If the conditions get scary when you are out there then go in. I could go on about assumption of risk as it relates to torts, but the gist of what I am getting at is that no one is forcing you to go sailing.

The race committee on the other hand can decide whether or not to race based on pretty much anything they like(assuming there's no actual restriction in the sailing instructions). If the wind is too shifty, they can postpone racing. If there's no wind, they can spare everyone the trouble of going out. If it becomes obvious that most of the fleet is in trouble, they can abandon the race. Again, it is not the end of the world if the race is cancelled.

The type of boat and the sailing venue should also be taken into consideration by the sailor. On a small lake in high winds in a sturdy boat like a Laser everything is likely to be fine. A race course a mile out to sea in a strong offshore breeze in a boat with tons of things to break like a Star should result in a slightly more conservative outlook.

Adrift at Sea said...

Personal responsibility has always been an important part of sailboat racing. This is true for both the dinghy racers and the big boats.

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