What was I thinking?
7 days of racing against the top sailors in the world. Have to be a great experience, right? Short answer: it was fantastic... but...
To remind everyone, the Laser Senior Worlds Championship is "the" Laser Worlds and the very best sailors in the world are racing. The top guys train full time and travel the world for the major events and all the top guys know each other pretty well (in contrast to a Master Worlds where we see each other once per year at best). Bottom line: they are very, very fast.
The first day of qualifying had me in the "yellow" fleet (hey! I'm in gold!) which was the first start of the day. As it turned out, this was the one "normal" day for entire event with a southwest seabreeze rolling in the 10-15 knot range (so, full hike a good fraction of the time, but definitely some soft periods out there). There were also some nice waves generated from the long fetch of the bay, though they were at a slight angle to the wind making it slightly more difficult on port tack over starboard. Anyway, the first start was my wake up call, I was in the front row but the really good guys had just enough more height that my lane got narrower and narrower as we sailed on starboard. My lane got shut off a bit shy of the layline, I rolled into a tack and thought I had a nice lane going to the mark. As I approached the weather mark I was in a position where, if played right, I could get around ahead of the pack. Unfortunately, I elected to tack on the layline, got faced by a few boats which dropped me into a position where I couldn't tack back into now what was a major stack up of boats. As I finally get to the weather mark a British boat tacks right in front of me (and where he thought he as going was a complete mystery) and to avoid hitting him I have to duck, which means I hit the mark. So... a 360 later and I'm now in back. And in this fleet there is no getting that back.
Welcome to the 2009 Laser Senior Worlds! Day one lesson: left side has more pressure - go left.
Ok, next race is a bit better and it looks like if I get myself in gear it might be possible to get into the silver fleet.
As an aside, the photographer for the Laser Worlds, Capizzono.com, is first rate and he even took some pictures of me! From Day one, here is a photo of me on the reach leg:
Day two is a frustrating day in many respects. We sail out to start on time but today we have fog and we end up reaching around in a nice breeze waiting for the fog to lift. Finally it thins enough to see the weather mark and we start racing. On this day I'm in the red fleet (last start), we have the second start sailing the outer. We start and the fog rolls back making it hard to see the marks again. Also, in contrast to day one, it looks like the boats on the right are making out big time. Still, I did end up with my best score in the qualifying (aided somewhat by a fair number of bfd's). By the time we finish its late and the RC sends us in... but with the good result I am not thinking it should be possible to make silver.
The next morning we find out that some sailors in the blue fleet filed for redress over the fog visibility and managed to get their race thrown out. So, the previous day's blue fleet needs to resail this race before we can then have our hopefully 3 races for qualifying (to get back on schedule). All except that fleet are held ashore while the one fleet goes out to race, but once again the fog acts to wreak havoc on good plans. The previous day's blue fleet is held at the entrance to the harbor until the RC finally finds a section of the bay where there is no fog. They go out and race and we are called off the beach. So, we sail through the fog in 15-18 knots and great waves only to break out on the other side of the bay in less wind and chop. Ugh! Today's racing was interesting, we are so far over that now the western shoreline is close and there is a persistent shift if you sail to the right. But if you go left you may be sailing in more pressure. First race I go left for the pressure, the boats on the right win big time. Second beat I go right and all looks ok until the wind softens considerably and boats on the left go by. Not good, and a dismal result.
The next race is only slightly better... this time its clear the the left side has more pressure, I get off the line cleanly about 4 boats up from the pin on a square line. We sail out for about 5 minutes and I look over my shoulder and see that I can a) tack and let a few boats cross, b) stay where I am where I'm starting to get shut out. I tack and things are looking good, I just need to get across one boat in a pack of 4 and I'm good - so too big to duck, I don't want to tack if I can avoid it (since we are near the layline) and if I can just cross I'm in top 10. As I apporach I yell the proverbial "Cross?" and my ears say I'm hearing a "go". Well, it doesn't make sense to hear that since it is a big duck for the boat I have to cross and, indeed, Tim Pitts is really saying "no!" Too late, I try to tack but I foul Tim rather badly and so I immedidately spin into a 720. Race over, I roll another 40's. In retrospect, even though I fouled Tim he round the first mark in twelfth, then broke his tiller extension later on the run. So... "what if?"
Qualifying is over, and I'm in bronze but in something like 6th for the fleet. So, its conceivable to at least finish near the top of my fleet.
The next day is lost to Bill. Not much to say here, my first hurricane and I wasn't impressed. Spent the day at the house we were staying out mostly talking to Eric Johnson (Clay's dad) about sailing.
Monday is the first day of "finals" and we hit the water but the aftermath of the hurricane is to leave us with no wind. After floating around most of the day the race committee makes a valiant effort to start a race. Its notable because Mike Leigh is flagged with 5 seconds to the start and at 1 second left they postpone, then send us all to shore. Oops!
Tuesday is our first real day in the finals and once again we have to sail far to the western side of the bay in order to stay clear of the fog. The breeze is from the southwest but is much lighter, at times painfully light (5 knots or so) and, occasionally, at the top end around 12 knots. This is not my stuff for sure, espeecially with the chop on top of it and it takes full concentration to keep boat speed up, meaning I'm not paying attention to the breeze much. In contrast to the other days, today the breeze has not only pressure differences but also small oscillations and I'm just not sailing them well. The second race Ii get myself in a bit better gear and have a race where I'm in the teens, until I managed to get rolled by a wave on the bottom reach and capsize, losing 12 boats. Very frustrating how poorly I'm sailing! As we set up for the final race, the breeze has filled and looks to be pushing 15 knots! Just as the we line up for the start it drops and, suddenly, nearly shuts off on the right side of the course. For the first time today I sail with my head out of the boat and play off the last of the breeze on the left to round in the top ten at the first mark. Then I stop looking around... at the gate I take a short hitch to the right to get a clear lane, then head left. I start to realize that the boats I had left cross me on my short hitch right and now going backwards in the window. Yup, a glance over the shoulder indicates the boats that went right are not well ahead. So, a lesson on how to turn a good race into a bad one: stop paying attention!
Ok, last day of the regatta, I'm determined to finish with a bang. Once again we are delayed onshore, but then sent out to sail through great breeze in the fog. We get to the "clear" starting area where the fog has come in, so the RC picks up and moves even further to the right, nearly on the shore over at the west end of the bay. We still have good breeze, probably in the 12-15 range, certainly enough for me to hike. However, Bill did quite a bit of churning and the race area is strewn with tons of seaweed, to the point where it was impossible to sail for any distance without having to clear your centerboard... and, as it turns out, rudder. I am sure the right is the way to go this race and the options are: 1) start at slightly favored pin, leg out and tack to cross as soon as possible, 2) fight it out at the boat and go right. I go for the first because I'm sure my speed will be good in this fleet. At the start, all is going according to plan as I am second boat up from pin, with Cam Cullman at pin and I roll him almost immediately. Within 1 minute all the boats starting near me are dust and I'm close to being able to cross the pack that started in the middle. I clear my centerboard and figure all is well, but start to realize that I'm no longer making distance on the pack in the middle. Now I'm stuck and we end up on the port layline before tacking... as Ii start to watch boats sailing away from me I realize that its not my centerboard that is the problem, its the rudder and I've got a big clump of stuff wedged a the top of the rudder where I can't feel it. So, clear the rudder and finally moving again. Unfortunatelly, damage is done and I'm back in the 30's - again! Anyway, I now work much harder at keeping both blades clear, play off the right on the second beat and come charging back as much as possible to finish 15th - the best finish of the regatta. A good finish but yet another "what if?" race...
All of the above may seem rather negative but, in the end, I'm just trying to give a critique of each race as I remember them. At the end of the day, the main lessons are:
1) The top guys are far more fit and far more practiced than I can ever hope to be. Over any particular time I can match their speed in bursts, but they maintain their speed a much higher fraction of the time than I. They work the waves better, the effect of this is to maintain their heght better so that I eventually fall into them.
2) I'm a much better downwind sailor that I've ever been. The top guys are still faster but its not longer several hundred yards. In fact, in one race where the bronze fleet rounded the weather mark with the top of the gold fleet, I managed to hold speed with a Swedish guy and round inside at the leeward mark. However, the above mantra still holds, they are fitter and train more so they, in general, execute better and I still have enough short periods going a bit slower to lose ground to them.
3) I have to control the "what if?" factor much better than I was this event. In particular, I believe that if I had been paying a lot more attention during the races I could have made the silver fleet.
4) It was good training for the Master Worlds in terms of reminding me where the top end of the fleet should be. However, it was not good psychologically to get kicked aorund so much and I have been spending the days off remindinig myself that, at best, there are 2-3 Apprentices here that could concievably make gold fleet.
Most importantly, I did get a great chance to see up close the technique of the top Laser sailors in the world which I think can help me sail faster in the future.
Ok, on to the Master Worlds!!