Friday, May 16, 2008

A Racer's Fact of Life

Thanks to Wavedancer for this Learning Experience...

Imagine a just-for-fun club regatta. The sky is dreary, but the rain has stopped and the breeze now ranges from 5 to 15 mph. One Sunfish geezer with only some late-in-life racing experience is challenging four Bytes (an Ian Bruce designed smaller version of the Laser). Bytes and Sunfishes have almost the same Portsmouth handicaps; so the Race Committee relaxes after the start; there is no need to record finishing times.

In the second and third race, Byte #1 beats old Sunfishguy easily. But the fourth race is different. Sunfishguy isn't exactly leading while tacking towards the windward mark, but thanks to Byte #1 capsizing, Sunfishguy unexpectedly finds himself in first place, trying not to do something stupid, like touching the mark.

The downwind leg is next. Byteman has recovered nicely from his swim, but is now some ten boat lengths behind. Sunfishguy has his boat heeled to windward with the sail way up, sitting up front and close to the daggerboard, with his bottom almost dragging in the water. Sunfishguy is sailing straight towards the leeward buoy, focusing on keeping the boat properly heeled without taking a bath to windward. The prior races had shown that a Sunfish sailed this way downwind is marginally faster than a Byte under the prevailing, relatively light, conditions. Sunfishguy thinks he is in good shape. In fact, the Race Committee is cheering him on, perhaps wondering how a back-of-the-fleet guy can be in first place.

Sunfishguy is getting closer now to the leeward mark and looking around for Byteman. Oops, almost on his tail and to leeward. Sunfishguy is puzzled at the change of scenery in the last half of the leg. At the two-length circle it looks like Byte #1 has an inside overlap by a foot or so. Sunfishguy's knowledge of the rules stretches no further than the basics, and he sees no way to cut off Byte #1. Byteman draws a tight circle around the mark, and leaves Sunfishguy on the outside. After that, Byteman has no trouble covering Sunfishguy upwind towards the finish line. Sunfishguy has been fooled again, but hopefully he learned something important.

Being on the inside at the leeward mark is such a powerful weapon that Sunfishguy may remember this lesson for some time. He should not have sailed the rhumb line. Rather, he should have gone inside (to the left, but how far?). This might have required a jibe early on and maybe another one later. He might even have gone faster and made up for distance lost; Laser theology states that sailing straight downwind is slow. Does this hold for Sunfish sailors as well? Maybe the Sunfish Bible will have the answer.

Wavedancer tells me that he has sailed a Sunfish informally for a number of years, but is now learning to sail a Laser, and sails his
Laser more than his Sunfish these days. In the area where he lives there is much more competitive Laser sailing, and it has been fun for him starting with twenty boats rather than five or so. Last year he went to his first Laser Masters event sailing as a Great Grandmaster, which means he is over 65. Hmmm, I think I like this guy. Maybe we will meet up at a Laser Masters regatta some day soon.

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