Monday, October 10, 2011

Last Blast

Something very strange and unusual happened to me on Saturday...

As planned, I went to sail in the Last Blast Laser Regatta at Quannapowitt Yacht Club. To be honest, the wind wasn't exactly a blast, but it wasn't a drifter either. Nothing strange so far.

I wasn't going with any great expectations of doing well in the racing. I was motivated more by meeting up with some old friends and catching up with them about sailing plans this winter. I also had fond memories of the excellent hospitality at Lake Q from the only other time I sailed there back in 2008. And I've always wanted to learn how to spell Quannapowitt. Nothing unusual here. Let's move on.

The first race was scheduled for 11am, and at 9 minutes to 11 I was still on the land, talking to my younger son on the phone and wishing him Happy Birthday. My baby is 31! How did that happen?

Somehow I managed to launch and sail out to the course in time for the first race, even fitting in a quick recce of the winds up the race course. It looked to me as if the stronger puffs were coming in from the right side of the course. I sailed over to that side of the course and, as expected, all the puffs were starboard tack lifts. So that was the plan: start near the right end of the line, tack over to the right side of the course as soon as possible, and try to stay in those gusts.

I pulled off a decent start near the boat end of the line and was sailing high and fast in clear air. As soon as the opportunity presented itself I went right towards a juicy looking gust, tacked on the expected header and was looking good. A little while later there was another gust coming in from the right, so I tacked over to take advantage of that one too. Lake sailing often is a game of "connect the dots."

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my plan had worked and I arrived at the windward mark in first place! Woo hoo!

The second place sailor was close behind me and started heading straight downwind until I reminded him that there was an offset mark to round first. (Actually I almost forgot that myself.) The other guy did a better bear-away around the offset than me and was soon ahead of me on the run. (Still need to work on that bearing away thing.)

He was still leading me at the leeward mark, but the wind had shifted further right so he tacked fairly soon after the mark. (Sail the long tack first, I guess.) But I carried on a bit further before tacking, still liking that right side of the course. And once again it was the correct choice. I was to the right of the fleet and with all the lifts from every little gust I was being progressively lifted above them. I arrived at the windward mark the second time with a much bigger lead than on the first leg! Woo hoo again!

I gybed around the offset mark, led the fleet down the run, still had a safe lead at the leeward mark, and crossed the finish line first by a healthy margin. I let go off the sheet and tiller, and turned to the race committee with palms up and an astonished expression and asked, "How did that happen?"

How did that happen indeed? It took a while for it to sink in how unusual this win was for me. I have won Laser races before, even won the occasional regatta, but never done it in a fleet that had more than 15 boats. There were 24 Lasers at Lake Q on Saturday. I've also beaten more than 23 boats in a Laser race many times before, but never combined that with crossing the finish line first. So this wasn't just an unusual result for me; in 30 years of Laser sailing it was unique.

Sure, there was a wide spread of abilities and experience in Saturday's fleet but there was some real talent at the top end including a many-time Laser Masters World Champion, and last year's Sunfish North American Champion (who is no stranger to Lasers.) There were probably at least half a dozen sailors there whom I hardly ever beat.

So I have to chalk up that first race as my best Laser race win ever.

Of course I couldn't keep it up. For the rest of the regatta I reverted to my usual mid-fleet mediocrity and felt somewhat fortunate when I discovered I had finished 9th out of 24 overall.

I drove home with a big smile on my face and casually mentioned to Tillerwoman over dinner that I had won the first race. Trust my lovely wife to bring me down to earth...

"So was it skill or was it luck? And if it was skill why didn't you win all the races?" she asked.

Hmmm. Good question.

No, I don't think it was luck. I researched the wind. I formulated a plan. I made a good start. I executed my plan. My plan turned out to be a good one. I didn't make any stupid mistakes. I didn't choke. No, that isn't luck. That's skill. (At least I would like to believe it.)

Sure, there's always some luck in sailboat racing, but as much you can overcome luck and win a race by having a good plan and executing it well, I think I can claim I did that.

So why didn't I do the same in every race? Good question. Maybe other people wised up to what the wind was doing? Maybe I didn't always get good starts? Maybe the wind pattern changed later and I didn't work out how to take advantage of it? Maybe I just got tired and starting making stupid mistakes? Probably all of the above.

So, whether it was skill or luck, it certainly was a strange and unusual event. A day to remember. October 8. I think I can remember that date.


JP said...

Whoo hoo! Go Tillerman!!

Crazy theory time: maybe the rush to the start line meant you didn't over analyse but went with gut feeling?

Blur said...

Well done!!!

Sometimes it just works. It's a gret feeling.

Baydog said...

"So was it skill or was it luck? And if it was skill why didn't you win all the races?" she asked.

But that's why you love her, right?

Geez, and I was ecstatic with a fourth a couple weeks ago. Good sailing Tillerman!

Tillerman said...

Baydog - that is one of the many reasons why I love her. And congrats on the fourth!

Blur - thanks.

JP - it's tempting to think so, but I think one of my faults is that usually I'm too lazy to check out the wind before a race and formulate a strategy. I think some of the post-race discussions and debriefs in Menorca may have drummed in to me how important this is.

betty said...

Was that Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, MA? If so, I used to live there; that IS a bustling little yacht club and whole lake scene. Funny.

Tillerman said...

That's the place betty.

Tony said...

Well done!

It's amazing how a race like this can stick in the memory for so long. My best ever race (in 2007) and favourite ever race from early this year are both so clear in my memory they could have been yesterday.

I hope you get a new best ever race soon...

Noodle said...

Yeah! It sure is a fantastic feeling, when a formulated plan turns out to work well. Congrats. A couple of years back I kept a book over my wins per formulated plan versus gut feeling. Turns out gut feeling wins more.

Pandabonium said...

You never cease to amaze, Tillerman.

As for "skill or luck" - skill implies a calculated and practiced set of actions which we put into play with our will. But in reality our lives are the result of a blend of causes, which may include such calculations and practices, but also the wind, current, state of the boat, and myriad influences of the acts of others and all the conditions which influence them - physical and psychological. It is not just what you think and do, but the sum of all factors involved which is something way beyond our grasp.

So, neither luck nor skill - something beyond that, but including both and much more.

PS - next time, don't share good advice with your competitors. ;^)

O Docker said...

There's a profound-sounding aphorism which I'm too lazy to look up (it being 2:00 am) about the skillful making their own luck, which might be appropriate here.

Or maybe it was, "The lucky make their own skill."

At any rate, savor whatever victories life gives you. For most of us, there are not enough.

Wait, maybe it was, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

Tillerman said...

O Docker - before I was a sailor I used to work with the young man who was, at the time, probably the best dinghy sailor in Britain. (He won national championships in 3 different classes in the same year and then went on to win the champion of champions event, the Endeavour Trophy, that same year.)

I was always asking him about sailing, being interested in taking up the sport myself. On the topic of luck and skill he once said to me, "Good sailors seem to make their own luck."

Panda - that's a bit deep for me at 7am in the morning. I will have to think about it. It sounds like something Zen would write.

Noodle - you could be right. I keep meaning to write a post, based on an analysis of one of the top Laser sailor's blog, about the percentage of times a well formulated plan actually works out.

Tony - thanks. It does stick in the memory. I still remember my best Sunfish regatta ever from well over 10 years ago. There were some common factors. I think I may milk this event for at least one more post trying to understand more about why it happened.

Tillerman said...

Hmmm. That phrase "one of the top Laser sailor's blog" can't be right. I'd better correct it before O Docker or Carol Anne jumps on it.

Let's see. "One of the top Laser sailors' blog." Sailors is now plural but it still sounds wrong.

I guess plural sailors have plural blogs. So let's try "one of the top Laser sailors' blogs." Now it's grammatically correct but ambiguous. Am I going to analyze one sailor's blog or one sailor's blogs?


The blog of one of the top Laser sailors. That should do it.

yarg said...

It was an awesome sight! I was there. My friend Tillerman was one of the elites - no - better than the elites. He was way ahead of those guys who are always way ahead.
When you hit all the shifts, you are a genius. Tillerman is (was?) a genius.

Tillerman said...

Thanks yarg for giving corroborating evidence that I didn't dream the whole thing.

I must also point out that yarg finished ahead of me in the overall regatta placings. Consistency over six races beats one fluky good race every time. He even won the award for something like "third master who didn't win any other prize."

bonnie said...

Very cool.

I'm currently talking myself into signing up for the last 3 weeks of Sebago's fall race series. That would be 2 days of racing & 1 in the committee boat.

Unfortunately, last year left me convinced that I'm just always going to be DFL.

But this post does kind of say...hey, don't give up so fast.

Maybe I'll have a race where somehow I actually get it together and am at least able to keep up with the pack. That's all I want!

Tillerman said...

Go for it bonnie. I think you will find that "staying with the pack" comes fairly quickly once you start racing regularly. It's staying in front of the pack that takes forever to learn.

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