Friday, January 26, 2007

Broken Record

Runners are always chasing after that elusive "personal best", their best ever record time for a given distance. Well, I certainly set some personal records sailing in the Laser Caribbean Midwinters in Cabarete, Dominican Republic earlier this month. But not of the best kind.

I am pretty sure that at this regatta I broke my own records for...

  • Most capsizes in one regatta
  • Most DNF's scored in one regatta

Here's how it happened...

Friday. The decision was made that we would sail inside the reef. The guys on the beach helped us launch our Lasers through the shore break and we headed off downwind to the start area near the beach where all the kite surfers play.

Waves and wind seemed much crazier than they had during the clinic but I managed to complete the first 5-lap Windward-Leeward race without capsizing and even managed to lap at least one of the tail-enders. Was feeling kind of smug and self-satisfied and starting to believe that I could handle this stuff.

In the second race a rain squall hit us just after the start. The wind got even stronger but the worst thing was that I could hardly see a thing. It was almost like white-out conditions you can get in the clouds in the mountains. The watchers on the beach only a couple of hundred yards away said that they lost sight of the whole fleet of thirty Lasers. As I came into the windward mark near the port tack layline, the leaders (on starboard tack) were bearing away and catching rides in the waves crossing my course. I could barely see them. I couldn't predict their exact courses on the waves. I was barely in control of my own boat. I somehow managed to dodge through the leading pack when I suddenly glimpsed through the murk a dark head in the water a few yards ahead off my bow. There was a windsurfer down in the water right next to the windward mark. What was he thinking, sailing on our racecourse in those conditions? More by luck than judgment I avoided killing him (wonder what it's like serving a life term in a Dominican prison), executed an ugly tack, wobbled around the windward mark and bore off in the general direction that I guessed the leeward mark might be. Don't ask me what happened next because I couldn't see a damn thing and there were waves as big as houses falling on me from all directions. I seem to remember a lot of swimming and a lot of climbing on to the centerboard.

I arrived at the leeward mark totally exhausted and decided that I should retire before I did some serious damage to myself or someone else. First DNF. But the race committee called off racing for the day after that race.

Saturday. And then things got worse.

Today I capsized twice on the way to the start. So I told myself I had two choices. Chicken out or hang in there. I chose to hang in there.

Every race I was wiping out on every downwind leg. Death rolls. Broaches. Capsizing on gybes. Being rolled over by random waves from unexpected directions. But in each race I kept going until I was too exhausted to do any more capsize recoveries and then I waited by the start area until the next race, had a drink, caught my breath, and watched the leaders' technique as they came into and rounded the leeward mark. Then I would start the next race, struggle up the beat and start the suicidal downwind mayhem all over again.

I figured that at least I was out there playing in the waves and learning something. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, right? Afterwards the RC said they had measured 35 knots of wind during a squall on Saturday. I can believe it.

On Saturday night I pumped some of the more successful sailors for information. How do you sail those runs, those beats? How loose is your vang? Do you loosen your outhaul downwind in the strongest winds or just leave it at the upwind settings? I picked up a few tips, especially about surfing upwind on port tack and being very aggressive about bearing away at the windward mark to catch a wave.

Sunday. The advice seemed to work. I started every race. And finished every race. Got some decent starts. In one race I was even in the middle of the fleet ahead of some very good sailors at the halfway mark. (How did that happen?) Only capsized once all day. What a great way to finish off the week. Felt that through my struggles on Friday and Saturday I had actually made some progress in learning how to survive in these waves. Now I just have to learn how to go faster!

Just to put my dismal performance into perspective...

  • 19 of the 30 entrants in the regatta scored a DNF or DNS in at least one race.

  • 9 of the 30 failed to complete all the races on Sunday (but I did).

  • When we came to check in our charter boats on Sunday afternoon, at least a third of the fleet had a permanent bend in the upper mast section (typically caused by a downwind capsize when the tip of the mast hits the water at speed).
All photos by Roberto Alvarez and courtesy of


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on learning from your struggles. That is always rewarding.

Care to share some of the survival tips from Saturday night with those of us who would have been swimming next to you?

Tillerman said...

Well derek it all depends on who you listen to...

Maybe I need to write another post on the different techniques I saw and heard for survival sailing.

Anonymous said...


Sounds like you had fun... and probably learned a lot... even if it hasn't sunk in yet.

Tillerman said...

Don't mention that word "sunk". We don't use the S word on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Very interested by the survival tips as well....all this reminded me my experience yesterday in European master series here in France, it's winter, but no waves, thanks Gods !!
We all try to improve for September in Rosace Spain !!!

Anonymous said...

It's OK to get thrashed when you are there to learn. I'm sure you will emerge a better sailor for the experience. There are sailors in some fleets that have YET to capsize...they never get better.
Plus it takes some dangles to go out when you know you will take a beating. Nice Job.

Carol Anne said...

Way to go for hanging in there. I'm trying to get to that same mindset myself, but it's awfully hard.

Tillerman said...

Thanks Carol Anne. I think the experience of training for and running marathons in the last couple of years has been excellent mental training for "hanging in there" when sailing.

Post a Comment