Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Are You Experienced?

It happens all the time at sailing regattas -- and it did happen last week at the Laser North Americans. The wind is blowing over 20 knots, maybe gusting to 30 or more, and the race committee decides to postpone racing, maybe even blow off the whole day.

Some of the sailors are frustrated because they live for days like this. They want to go sailing and blast around in the wind and waves and think they can handle it OK. Most of them are probably right.

Another group of sailors is secretly relieved. They would have gone out to race today but they know they would have struggled in these conditions. Maybe they would have capsized a dozen times and had to retire when they were too exhausted to climb on to the daggerboard one more time. For sure they would not have scored well.

And then there are the sailors who know they can't sail a Laser in 30 knots and would have had the good sense (at least in their own minds) not to sail today whatever the race committee chose to do.

The race committee knows that some of the sailors can handle these winds; but are more concerned about the others. It's a tough call as to whether to race or postpone. The decision depends on many factors: the size of the fleet, the number of safety boats, how large the course is, how far offshore the racing will be, etc. etc. It's one thing to run a regatta for 20 boats just off the beach; it's quite another thing to take 200 boats a couple of miles out to sea when it's blowing 30 knots.

Sure the Racing Rules of Sailing say that "the responsibility for a boat’s decision to participate in a race or to continue racing is hers alone." But if the PRO decides to take the fleet out today she just knows that there will be some sailors who come out to race who won't be able to handle the conditions. How many? What kind of trouble will they get themselves into? No matter that they've all signed a waiver form drafted by the finest legal minds in the club, no PRO wants to take a fleet out for a day's racing and end up with some sailors drowned or seriously injured. It is only a game after all.

At the North America Laser Class AGM last week, one sailor threw out an interesting suggestion to deal with this issue that might enable the good sailors to race on a day like this. How about having some kind of experience qualification that would allow the competent sailors to race on those heavy wind days when race committees are tempted to postpone in order to protect the weaker members of the fleet? Not a speed test, not who is the fastest sailor, but some way of identifying the ones that would not get themselves into (too much) trouble in 25-30 knots say.

Hmmm. The meeting received the suggestion with silence initially. We could all see the potential problems with such a plan. How could you construct such a test? Who would administer it? Would it be fair to the competitors who had travelled to the regatta but were now not qualified to race on one day of the event?

Someone mentioned that the Laser Heavy Air Slalom (of recent YouTube video fame) was an invitational event. They didn't invite anyone who couldn't sail a Laser well in heavy air. Someone else pointed out that, to an extent, sailors self-select; why would anyone even enter a regatta at a known heavy air venue if they knew they couldn't sail in the typical winds at the location?

The discussion meandered on to talk about problems at recent Laser Masters Worlds where a few "tourists" would decide "Hey - World Champs in Brazil - 30 knot winds expected - cool place to visit - no qualification to enter - I'm going - now what does a Laser look like?" (I don't think they were talking about me.) Apparently there has been some discussion at the international level of restricting entry to the Masters Worlds to masters who have achieved a certain level of achievement in other regattas. (Didn't like the sound of that. Would my one and only Atlantic Coast Grandmaster Champion title be enough to earn me entry to the Masters Worlds?)

As usual at such meetings nothing was decided. But I think the idea of an "experience test" to race on a heavy air day has some merit. I guess you'd have to announce in the Notice of Race that such a procedure would be used. Something like: "At the discretion of the race committee, any day of racing may be open only to those in possession of a current Laser Class Level 3 Fat Boy Heavy Air Nut Certificate" or words to that effect.

How would you earn such a rating? 10 points if you ever used a 3:1 vang and can supervang it by standing up and bouncing on the boom in 30 knots? 15 points if you finished any races in the 2007 Caribbean Midwinters? Bonus points for every pound you weigh over 220lbs? I dunno. I can see lots of problems with the idea but plenty of upside too. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I think it is a very cool idea. I have been at several regattas where the RC decided to cancel and the better sailors wanted to go out and practice. Typically the most confident sailors got on the water first and others watched to see how they handled it. With nothing at stake, most people had the sense to say no if there was any doubt.

Chris Vance said...

We have a similar set of ratings where I sail in Boston. On windier "red flag" days newbie sailors cannot sail by themselves in these conditions.

To be able to sail on red flag days, you need to complete a few passes around a short two- or three-mark course that they administer on these windier days.

So, no rating, no sailing for you.

Anonymous said...

There was a similar rating system in place at the MIT Sailing Pavilion for the recreational sailors. The ratings were:

Provisional Rating: involves performing basic sailing maneuvers, demonstrating rigging and unrigging, and showing an understanding of safety precautions and right-of-way rules. A provisional rating qualifies you for light air use Lasers and Rhodes-19s.

Crew Rating Test: involves demonstrating general nautical knowledge, terminology, knots, splices, etc. This rating is prerequisite to obtaining the helmsman rating.

Helmsman: requires a solo sailing demonstration in a Tech Dinghy in a strong wind — 18 to 20 knots. The Helmsman involves sailing upwind showing good hiking technique and use of the tiller extension, followed by a series of jibes going down wind, as well as demonstrating the man-overboard procedure. The Helmsman Test is a prerequisite for taking out the Lasers and R19's on moderate to windy days; it is also the prerequisite for taking out the FJs and other more demanding boats.

These ratings were useful for a facility that served a community of people who tended to overstate their sailing abilities.

In general, I don't think a rating system is appropriate for regattas. I don't sail in an established Laser fleet and only sail a few Laser regattas a year. How would I get my "experience rating"?

Tillerman said...

MIT folk tend to overstate their abilities? I'm shocked. Who would have thunk it?

As to your question, I don't know how you would get your rating Lito. I suspect the system would only come into play at very large regattas so maybe the smaller regattas would be places where Fat Boy Heavy Air Nut certificates could be earned?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I fear that if such a rating scheme were implemented it would end up as some sort of US Sailing Category [x] Competitor's License that would require taking a US Sailing Category [x] Competitor's Course that would cost $100 plus material fees and only be applicable to one class of boat. The License would need to be reviewed for recertification purposes every 24 months.
Sailing instructions would require a US Sailing Category [x] Competitor's License to sail if the wind speed is greater than 20 knots.

Too much bureaucracy...what happened to personal responsibility for your own actions. How about just stopping sailors who have never sailed a regatta without their Mommy Boat from leaving shore on heavy air days?

JSW225 said...

I just got a brilliant idea that came out of nowhere. Why not do what Poker does when someone runs out of chips but others want to keep going?

Have a side pot! A pot that can only be won by those who are capable of still playing.

So just apply that to racing. If it's ever too windy, declare it a Side Standings day. The real standings won't change and won't be affected whatsoever. HOWEVER, there will be a second set of standings for those who can handle the heavy winds. This will be for bragging rights only (or maybe one of those cheap 40 cent trophies).

This would allow racing on that day with everyone knowing that it would NOT affect the real standings of the regatta in any form.

Anonymous said...

Now that IS a good idea JSW.

Anonymous said...

My Laser racing days are long behind me...I think (tho' I'm around the same age as the inspiring Tillerman) but I've never forgotten a windy afternoon at the old British Airways in Hudson Que. The morning was moderate but the wind built and so did the wind-over-river current chop. The last race was in 20-25 and sent most of my fellow back-of-packers ashore. A few of us stayed out and had a heck of a time. On the runs, you'd look ahead two or three waves and see only the backs of heads and sail numbers, with the hulls out of sight and locked into their private waves. When we finally screamed back to the beach, grinning like idiots whether we finished high or low, the guys who had dropped out looked, well, envious.

Just go out...the worst you'll get is wet and tired!

JSW225 said...

I disagree with the Wet and Tired comment. Having spent 15 minutes in Jersey water in early spring with no form of protection whatsoever...

The worst isn't wet and tired.

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