Monday, July 18, 2011

In The Groove

I have mentioned before that the first day of the Newport Regatta (weekend before last) was somewhat frustrating for me for all sorts of reasons, not least because of the light, fickle winds.

The winds on the second day were much more reliable. We sailed out to the course in a light northerly which died and then switched to southerly just as we reached the race area. Then the southerly continued to build during the day from "sit on the deck" sailing to "occasional hiking" weather to "hike all the time" conditions. Then, as soon as the last race was over, it increased another few notches to "hike your socks off" fun for the long beat back to Fort Adams.

The race committee did a superb job of keeping the races rolling. There were five or six different fleets sailing on the same course but we never seemed to have to wait for other fleets. As soon as one race was over and the tailenders (often including me) had straggled across the finish line, it was into the sequence for the next start. So we managed to complete seven races on the Sunday.

My finishes were generally mediocre to disappointing, usually in the lower teens in the 23 boat fleet. But I was having fun battling it out with all the other bottom-half-of-the-fleet mediocrities. And as the winds strengthened during the day it was necessary to keep adjusting sail controls and boat-handling technique for the changing conditions, which kept things interesting.

On the final beat to the finish of the second race of the day something really odd happened. I was going extraordinarily well! I was sailing higher and faster than all the other boats around me! My sail control settings must have been just right for that wind strength, and somehow the way I was trimming and balancing the boat was just right too. How did that happen?

I think part of the reason was that before racing I had been listening to one of the top Sunfish sailors describe his upwind technique in various wind conditions to some of the other Sunfish sailors. He talked about how he kept the boat flat as the wind increased through different ranges. One thing he said had stuck in my mind, and that was how at a certain wind strength your weight is distributed between your feet in the cockpit and your butt on the deck and how you can keep the boat perfectly flat by subtly shifting weight from feet to butt and back again to deal with minor changes in wind speed. He said it was incredibly fast if you just get it right. Somehow his description of that feeling had stuck in my mind and I had fallen (by dumb luck of course) into "the groove."

Ah! The Groove. The Elusive Groove. The secret to boatspeed. That perfect combination of sail controls and boat trim and boat handling technique that is fastest in any given conditions. It's like jazz and love: it's hard to define but you know it when you feel it.

Would my luck hold for the next race? Would I still be in the groove? It was a black flag start but I didn't let that deter me. I found a good gap on the line. I pulled the trigger at just the right time. I accelerated well and made sure I was a little bow out on the boats to leeward and windward of me. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I was punching out ahead of all the other boats around me, just like I was in the ultimately disastrous third race at the Atlantic Coast Masters a few weeks before.

So, I can pull off one good start per regatta. So what? Why can't I do it more often? More importantly (a) would disaster strike again like it did on Buzzards Bay and (b) would I still be in the groove?

Disaster did not strike and more importantly I was sailing fast. It felt like the previous race but, of course, it always feels fast when you are in clear air in front of the fleet. I was definitely up with the leaders most of the way up the beat, but I got a little discombobulated coming into the windward mark and played the final shift wrong and a few boats got past me. (It's amazing that none of those sailing books by Stuart Walker and Paul Elvstrøm and the like address the subject of discombobulation.) Anyway I held on pretty well for the rest of the race and finished in sixth, which turned out to be my best score of the whole regatta.

Of course in the next race the wind was a bit stronger and the groove was somewhere different so I wasn't in it any more and I muffed the start and I was back with the tailenders again.

Some wise sailing coach once said to me, "You have to be inconsistently good before you can be consistently good." At Newport I was pleased with myself that I had for a short while found "the groove" and that I had raised my game from consistently bad to inconsistently good.

It tasted sweet while it lasted.


Sam Chapin said...

Well, you have figured out the start--- so keep doing that and of course the last shift at the weather mark, that just sets up whoever is coming in from that side. You can't control that. What about the ages... we have that masters stuff so the old guys don't feel so bad.

Tony said...

It's an awesome feeling, isn't it? So elusive. The quest for that groove is the main reason why I keep sailing these stupid boats.

That quote at the end is spot on.

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