"You can observe a lot just by watching." Yogi Berra
When I arrived at the sailing club on Sunday my friend D. was already there. It was the first time I had seen him since his outstanding performance at the Sunfish Midwinters. I congratulated him and then started pumping him for tips.
"So, what was your secret? How did you manage to do so much better this time?"
"I just got my head out of the boat. Sailing the Laser I am always struggling to keep the stick pointing at the sky. The Sunfish is so much easier to sail than the Laser that I can look around and see what the wind and the rest of the fleet are doing and work out what I need to do to win."
Oh, so I'm not the only one with this problem. It reminded me of what John Kolius said to us when I attended one of his seminars in Houston a few years back. "Until your boat-handling is automatic," he said, "you're not racing you're just voyaging around the marks."
That's my problem for sure. So part of the solution is to work on the boat-handling until I have more brain bandwidth left over to work on awareness of my surroundings and strategy. But I also need to train myself to monitor the wind and water conditions more closely and I had already decided to use today's races to work on observation. Not to worry too much about boatspeed and tuning and tactics but rather to explore the course. Check out the waves and the tides and the wind. Sail some beats on the left and some on the right. Do the same on the runs. See what's different, what works, what doesn't work.
It was pretty obvious to even my feeble powers of observation that we were dealing with unstable, puffy conditions. The wind was coming directly off the shore from the north-west. There were big variations in wind direction and speed over time and at different places on the course. For a while there would be a lull with the windspeed under 10 knots, then a big gust of 20 knots would come slamming into the course from one side or the other. From the starting area you could often see big patches of whitecaps up the course, often in more than one direction. So strategically that meant it would be important to have the freedom to tack and always to try and be on the lifted tack.
I could see the tide was coming in which meant that it would be running upwind and to the left. On the start line that would mean boats crowding the pin and often a gap at the boat end. That certainly proved to be the case.
And I did check the wave direction on the way out to the course. Not as far away from the wind direction as it was a couple of weeks ago.
So that's how I sailed the races. Tried to keep on the tack with the bow pointing most directly to the windward mark. Sometimes that meant going out to the left side until finding a header. Sometimes it meant tacking on to port immediately after the start and going out to the right. First three races things were going pretty well. A top ten finish and a couple of top fifteens in a fleet of almost fifty boats. Not too shabby for me.
After the fourth race I was feeling a bit tired so I decided to sit out the fifth race and observe it from the start area. It's amazing how much more I could see when I didn't have to worry about line sights, and finding a hole on the line, and timing my start, and holding my lane, and choosing a time to tack and all that stuff. I could see there was a huge gust out on the left side of the course and most of the smart sailors were heading that way. Then just as they reached it ... bang, bang, bang ... they were falling over like ninepins. Eight or ten of the leading group capsized in a few seconds in what I assumed must have been a vicious slam dunk header that took them all by surprise. Turned out to be a good race to miss.
I did one more race and then went in. There was a lot of chat on the shore about the conditions and how unpredictable they had been. Some who had been to Dave Dellenbaugh's lecture the previous day were saying things like, "Yeah, well it's easy for him to say 'sail toward the next shift'. The hard thing is knowing where it's going to come from on a day like today." At the post-race skippers' meeting the day's winner talked about how he had watched for the gusts and sailed towards them and how because of the way they fanned out on the water you could be lifted on both sides of them and how it was important to meet the gust in the right spot and how he positioned himself so as to be able to sail from puff to puff.
Now I see those kinds of things in lighter winds on flat water on the lakes that I am more used to sailing, but I am just not seeing the wind on the sea well enough to be able to sail a beat like that. Once again I was humbled and impressed by how much more the top sailors can observe about the wind.
Seems like I still have lots more work to do on those powers of observation.