19 June 2008

Odds Are

The final conclusion and the decision must be the result of a calculation of the odds that indicate what action will create the least risk of loss and provide the greatest chance of gain at the moment. The odds are often long; it is essential to know them by knowing everything which affects them.
--Dr. Stuart Walker, The Tactics of Small Boat Racing

Know the odds and "everything that effects them." That everything must include your own ability, I think, but how do you protect against self defeat from underestimating the odds that you can do what you know you need to do? Is the answer to be aggressive? Tillerman offers up a great post this week in What Would Ben Do? asking if being aggressive is the key to success on the race course. T-man really got me thinking about this . . . I'm not sure it's simply a case of being aggressive as it is knowing the odds, being capable of playing them, and then being aggressive in your execution. In the case of Ben Ainslie, he knows his odds are better than they are for the rest of us slackers so he can execute more "aggressive" moves with confidence.

But the real question that Tillerman asks is how do we get to be more like Ben? Just be more aggressive? Maybe so. Know your odds, or course, but push yourself a bit farther. Dean and I experienced this last year at the Vanguard 15 Nationals. Neither he nor I had sailed in a proper regatta in about 20 years! We rather meekly made our way through the first few races trying not to get in anybody's way, but as the regatta wore on and we gained more confidence in our ability to point the boat where wanted to, we began to mix it up a bit more. I don't remember which race it was, but we had decided we would start at the favored rather than the uncrowded end of the line. Wow, did it ever get crazy fast. This was sailing with sharks. It seemed as if boats were flying all over the place, tacking where there was no room to tack, yelling and maneuvering. It was amazing how fast everything happened at that end of the line. Yet, we emerged from the melee in pretty decent shape. As we advanced through the 12 races of the regatta I can't say our finish positions improved much (we made too many other mistakes), but we had a lot more confidence that we could jockey with the more experienced crews. We had improved our odds of winning.

Of course, our dramatic crash in race 8 in 25 knots at the weather mark was partly the result of miscalculating the odds of our ability to pull off an aggressive mark rounding (inside a capsized boat.) At the time, I thought my skipper had made the wrong choice, pushed the odds too far. After all we capsized didn't we? Thinking back on it now from this new perspective, however, I'm glad we went for it. If we hadn't, I'd still be lamenting the chicken move going the long way 'round that allowed 3 boats to get by. We were aggressive and pushed the odds, and I feel good about that. I forgive you, Dean ;-)

14 June 2008

Taking a Turn (and observing what's fast)

Full disclosure: this blog post will add nothing new to what is already generally known about how to get a boat quickly around a race course. However, getting the chance to observe some of these principles up close and in person really helped my understanding of them.

Last evening after my Megabyte practice session (more on that later), I volunteered to take a turn on race committee duty for Vanguard 15 Fleet 76. It was a beautiful thing: 15 knots of wind, a mild flood tide knocking the chop down, and all four skippers that showed up brought one of their children along as crew. Call it father-daughter/son night. The perfect setup for fun, teaching, and relationship building. Joel and I being the only two without a son or daughter on hand volunteered to run the race committee/crash boat. From that vantage point, and in between all the yelling and cheering we were doing to encourage the skippers and young crew, I observed several things that equal fast:
  • Hit the starting line on time and at speed. The boat that did this all four times won all four races. Now this is obvious, right? But, seeing how this lead boat was able to subsequently cover and control the next boat was pretty amazing.
  • Crisp boat handling and crew synchronization is the entry fee. Nothing new here either, but to watch a boat drop two lengths behind just because the jib was brought in slowly after a tack really shows how important basic boat skills are. And, practice will make perfect. By race 4, all the boats were going faster as the skippers and crews got it together.
  • Also on the boat handing topic is balance. What appeared to distinguish the top two boats from the bottom two was the ability, call it agility, to find the right balance of hiking with an inexperienced and lightweight crew, and mainsail trim to keep the boat flat. It was windy enough that none of the boats could keep the main sheeted in all the way. The fast boats got their butts over the side and kept them there while adjusting the pressure on the mainsail to trim the boat flat.
  • Steering with the sails at mark roundings is very fast. The one boat that did this well came out a length or two ahead at each rounding.
So, like I said, sorry to bore you with what you already know. What I have to offer is the encouragement to take a turn at race committee or crash boat duty some time. Seeing these lessons play out will give you a real appreciation for the fundamentals in a way that you'll miss while busy trying to race your own boat.

03 June 2008

Lessons from Race 4 and Some New Training Goals

The Whiskeytown Regatta this past Memorial Day weekend was the first of the two big lake sailing events I have on the calendar this year. I could go on about the rain all day Saturday, the beautiful lake, the great people hosting and competing in the event, and on and on. Actually however, I can't because I'm suffering from blogger's block. But now, thanks to another challenge from Tillerman, I have some more lessons to share and a few new goals as I get prepared for the High Sierra Regatta (HSR) at Huntington Lake. In the end, Whiskeytown all came down to race #4
  • Well first off, I didn't even know there was going to be a race 4. With two bullets on Saturday, and a 3 point lead over the next two boats, all I had to do was finish in the top four on Sunday and I'd have it covered. Ooops, two races today. Charles got his stuff together and domintated the fleet with two bullets of his own. After a second in the first race, I had to claw my way back from 4th at the weather mark to 2nd at the line in race 4 to preserve the win. HSR Goal: Understand the sailing instructions, and if fortunate enough to get the lead, protect it better!
  • I was generally fast upwind, and slow downwind. HSR Goal: Go faster downwind. I'll need to get some practice sailing the boat more on the edge and finding a more neutral helm.
  • After hiking hard on Saturday (remember, fast upwind) my legs especially the knees were already sore and tired out by Sunday. HSR Goal: get in better shape! Started building a hiking bench last weekend. This next one is the HIGH Sierra Regatta; so, need to get in better cardiovascular shape, too.
  • My tacks suck. This was particularly apparent after blowing the start in race 4 and having to tack my way out of a mess only to find myself falling more behind. HSR Goal: Learn to roll tack properly. So that's it, next day on the water: practice roll tacks upwind for a while then turn around and practice boatspeed back down.
  • My starts were mixed. Good starts on day one led to wins. Poor starts on day 2 led to all kinds of problems on the first weather legs. My intensity at the line seemed lacking (was I too tired out?) HSR Goal: Study good starting technique and stay focused!
OK, enough on the learnings from Whiskeytown. I'm really looking forward to the High Sierra. A few more goals to make it special:
  • Help recruit a few more Megabyte skippers to show up (we had 3 at Whiskeytown). Sounds like we might get a couple guys from Arizona to come on out. That would be great.
  • Have a fun time with family and friends. This is a camping regatta and the the whole family is going with me. That will be fun.
  • And hey, sure would be great to win the regatta. I'll have my work cut out for me. Charles is the two time defending champ with 6 straight bullets! I can't make any of my Whiskeytown mistakes if I have any hope of keeping up with him again.