Friday, November 23, 2012

Sailing the Seven C's

I signed up to sail with the Newport Laser Frostbite Fleet (aka Fleet 413) again this winter. I missed the first week of racing when I went back to sail with my new friends at Duxbury so I first showed up in Newport on their second Sunday, a couple of weeks back.

I have to confess that what I remember from previous years of sailing with Fleet 413 early in the season like this is that there have usually been huge fleets (sometimes around 60 boats) on relatively small courses meaning chaotic starts, overcrowded mark roundings and lots of "interactions" with other boats (not in a good way), leading to what has not always been a very rewarding experience for me. I wrote about this in 2008 in At Last and in 2011 at Ida. On such occasions I have always felt like a fish out of water, as they say.

On the other hand I have immensely enjoyed sailing with this fleet later in the winter when the fleet size is down and I am more attuned to the challenges of this style of racing again. In fact, I think on those days when I have raced with the fleet on the first or second week of the season, I have always given up before the end of racing on each occasion. I know. I'm a wimp.

There were (only) about 35 or boats racing on my first day with fleet 413 this year, but in the first couple of races I still went through the same experiences that I had had in other years. I was not mentally tuned in to racing even in a fleet of this size on such a small course. I was getting blown away at the starts in spite of my best efforts to win a front row start. All the way up the beat it was hard to find a good lane and I was constantly meeting other boats and having to make those "should I tack, should I cross, should I duck" calls. The flat water and medium winds meant that most of the fleet was arriving at the windward mark at pretty much the same time leading to yet more close encounters at the mark.

I was getting round the course without any major issues but I did not feel in control. Things did not feel right. There were just too many damn boats coming at me from all directions and my brain was working overtime to cope with all the traffic and avoid hitting anybody. There was no bandwidth left over to actually think about actually racing. If I had to chose two words to describe my mental state in the first two or three races it would be clumsy and confused.

I was tempted to call it a day after three races. That little voice in my head was saying. "Hey, you had a good workout. You got some practice. You're not really having much fun. Why do any more?" But then the other voice said, "You know you really enjoy frostbiting once you get back into the swing of it.  The only way to get comfortable with racing in a fleet of this quality and size is just to keep on doing it."

So I lined up on the start for the next race, determined to be more aggressive and to accelerate off the line with, or even slightly bow out on, the boats around me. And I did. And I had a lane I could hold. And I was able to gain on the boats around me. And I was actually able to choose the moment for my first tack when I wanted to do it and find a good lane going back to the middle of the course. And I was able to make sensible tactical decisions going up the beat and play the shifts a bit and position myself properly relative to other groups of boats, instead of just being bounced around like a ball in a pinball machine. And I arrived at the windward mark in a not totally humiliating position and was able to find some clear air on the run and position myself for a good tactical leeward mark rounding. I was really "racing" again instead of just sailing around the course trying to avoid crashes. I think I finished around the middle of the fleet in that race. Woo hoo! Now I was actually feeling confident and almost competent.

That good state of mind didn't last too long as towards the end of the afternoon I started becoming more and more physically tired. I think it was in the fifth race that I considered quitting again. But then I asked myself, "If you were running a half marathon and you were this tired after two hours of running and you still had a few miles to go, would you quit? Of course not. You expect to be more tired in those last 3 or 4 miles so you push on through. So why don't you do the same with sailing?" So I carried on.

The  race officer announced the last race and I mentally raised a cheer. Actually I may have audibly raised a cheer. Part way up the first beat I started to get severe cramp in my left forearm. Probably caused by my old bad habit of holding the sheet too tightly. It was excruciatingly painful and I considered leaving the race and sailing back to the beach. But the stubborn voice in my head was causing trouble again. "Hey, when you used to run marathons and you sometimes got cramps in the last six miles, did you quit? Of course not. You massaged away the cramp and kept on going all the way to the finish line." So I kept going.

Approaching the windward mark I realized I had a knot in my mainsheet. It wasn't one of those triple buntline carrick bend double surgeon's clinch knots inside a double fisherman's alpine butterfly rolling hitch that I have written about before. No it was just a simple "slip knot".

I tugged and tugged and tugged at it. That's supposed to undo a "slip" knot, right? That's why it's called a slip knot isn't it? I still hadn't undone it when I arrived at the mark and couldn't bear away with the knot still in the sheet so I had to luff up and use both hands to undo it and by the time I had done so I was at the back of the fleet. Again.

I tried to ease the cramp in my arm on the run, but was not entirely successful. I can't remember exactly how I managed to  sail the long final beat. I tried holding the sheet and tiller in the same hand. I tried cleating the sheet. I know I wasn't hiking properly and was pinching too much. It was a very defensive (and slow) mode of sailing. But I did finally cross the line and I wasn't even last. Woo hoo! I can beat a couple of boats even with one arm tied behind my back (almost literally.)

So it was a good day. I did feel very satisfied about finishing all the races. Seems like I may have finally conquered that "quitting" issue that I attempted to justify back in August with my post Sailing Philosophy with Crappy Chart

The old Tillerman is back. 

But if I had to choose two words to describe how I was feeling in those last couple of races it would be conked-out and crampy.

Am I crazy?


Unknown said...

Sounds like you need to take up the Sunfish!

Tillerman said...

LOL. You could be right. Why do I persist in struggling to master the Laser? Am I a masochist?

Keep Reaching said...

No, you are not a masochist - you simply understand that a Laser is a great little boat that will be there to provide you infinite variations on tuning and trimming in the midst of a mental chess match when nothing matters in the world but that little microcosm. And who, of course, keeps a capsize readily at hand should you need to be reminded of your limitations.

Tillerman said...

Thank you KR. You explain it so well - as only a fellow addict could.

Sam Chapin said...

When despart try to start just a little early (don't go back)and see what the clear lanes can do so you. Then practice those starts when you have a chance and be aggressive with the regular starting. Hard to sail well from the second raw.

Tillerman said...

Thanks for advice Sam. But this fleet is so helpful. If anyone is OCS everyone kindly shouts out his number all the way up the beat until he realizes he has to go back. What a great bunch of guys!

SoxSail said...

Tillerman, sounds like a FANTASTIC day; insanely satisfying. I think a ton of learning happens when you're really tired and have to race on auto-pilot. It's a skill just like roll-tacking, and you've done yourself a huge favor in developing it early in the season.

The other thing that I've learned this fall from sailing with a couple of friends is just how many points can be gained back after a bad start. I have two friends who aren't afraid to sail hard in a bit of bad air, who just persist in picking off boat after boat, and I hope I'm learning to do the same. Keep the sailing stories coming.

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