Nat TaylorBlog, Product Management & Tinkering

Wrapping Up Third Place At Marblehead Race Week

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Proudly, Jim and I (affectionately known as “Team Taylor”) just finished third at Marblehead Race Week in the Rhodes 19 Class with a score line of 5-2-10-(12)-2-1-5-6-6-8-11 and we’re ecstatic, though humbled by the dominating performance of overall winners Charlie Pendleton and Jim Raisides who finished with just 29 points.  It was a grueling four day, eleven race event with wind conditions ranging from full hiking to barely sailable in seastate ranging from flat to steep chop, which made it particularly challenging to be consistent.  As always we learned a lot.

NOOD Regatta-33This year’s 30 boat fleet was deep, gritty and determined and was met in lumpy light-medium conditions, making fleet and course awareness critical.  The “don’t give up an inch” rule of MRA sailing with flat-water, seabreeze, 15-20 boat was a recipe for disaster, and instead it was essential to stay keenly aware of “the big picture:” it was routinely advantageous tack quickly to port off the line and even take sterns, compared to avoiding a tack and trying to beat nearby boats; it was routinely advantageous to take sterns to get separated or keep a lane, compared to a lee bow; it was routinely advantageous get leveraged to a side, compared to staying in phase up the middle; it was routinely advantageous to sail the rhumb line, compared to staying between the fleet and the mark.  All of which meant unlearning MRA “truths.”

Above all else, clear air was the formula for success.  In many conditions and fleets, it’s essential to gain leverage on the boats around you which requires techniques like staying between them and the mark and battling for lanes and position, thus establishing your position ahead of those boats.  That was not the case this year and the gains that people made by getting out of the pack were enormous, even if it meant taking sterns or sailing a header.  We attribute this all the VMG.  If you were at all in the mix, you were inevitably pinching and sucking bad air, which meant that the gains from consolidating your lead on a few boats, sailing a lift, getting a puff or seeking out a current advantage where often counterbalanced (or worse!) by the boats that were sailing free simply because they were able to go so much faster.  This resulted in better VMG and gains, despite possible pitfalls of extra distance or less velocity, since they were counteracted by the advantage of “keeping things flowing.”

Six different boats won races and everyone was in the cheap seats at times, so it was critical to stay on “the grind.”  Our “best” finishes points-wise were a 1-2-2, but our “best” net (and more important/rewarding) finishes were 5-6, since in the latter set we ground back to pass between thirty and forty boats.  This was important, since adding just 15 points to our score line would have sent us back to seventh!  The keys to grinding back were mentality and execution, not drastically different strategy or big risks.  We (or at least I did) spent most of my mental effort dragging myself out of the “we’re f*cked” gutter, which is both incredibly challenging and absolutely essential.  However once you’re out, you can return to simple but effective execution of the basics.  We just avoided mistakes, avoided outsmarting ourselves and avoided huge risks — instead sailing for clear air, getting separation when we could and striving for a low, fast groove — and seized every opportunity to pick off boats.  In Race 7, we rounded W1 in front of just four boats.  On the run, we separated from the reaching pack by sailing the rhumbline and by the leeward mark we had already passed almost ten boats.  On the beat, we again took an early opportunity to separate and sailed in clear air around some more boats.  On the last run, we kept grinding and moved from sixth to fifth just 100 feet from the finish.  Textbook grind.

Starting with freedom, or the option to get onto port quickly and into clear air, was worth the cost of a tack and even the cost of taking a few sterns.  Several times I was shocked (and horrified!) to see boats that we had flushed coming back to cross us after only twenty or so boatlenghts of separation, despite the fact that we felt like were winning by continuing to hold a lane on starboard.  Since the fleet was so deep, lots of boats could effectively hold their lane on starboard by pinching, which collectively slowed everyone down and let the early tackers sail free.  Larry in particular seemed to make money with this strategy.

The complexities added by inconsistent chop, velocity, direction and current made communication particularly essential, and gentle (or not!) reminders about everything paid off on our boat.  Multiple times both of us got caught up in what was going on outside our boat, and temporarily but egregiously screwed up our baseline sail trim (a problem we’ve all but solved in most conditions with good marks.)  It was immensely helpful to have a second set of eyes take a moment to glance at the marks to ensure reasonable trim and make a comment, thus breaking our normal boundaries of trust where recommendations for changes in trim are discussions of subtleties.  We also had to keep up a constant back and forth about being full speed, since chop and traffic were so frequently slowing us down.  (As Jim Raisides put nothing felt good.)  Normally we look for cues like a change in heel angle to prompt adjustments, but instead to our cues from staying hyper-aware of relative velocity and angle compared to the boats around us.  Assessing that unquantifiable feeling of “full speed” is so nebulous, that it paid to just always talk about it, despite the possibility that it might be a distraction from other signals.

People seemed to forget that max VMG is usually dead downwind in heavy, slow boats with symmetrical kites, and instead reached all over the course.  After eleven races, I estimate that we passed 40 boats downwind due to our commitment to sailing near the rhumb line.  Our technique of max weight forward, max roll to weather and floating the kite head about six inches off the mast no doubt contributed to our gains, but we also sailed a ton less distance than those who reached.  Clear air was still a consideration, but it usually wasn’t a hard decision to choose the low road, if there were more than 1 or 2 boats to battle for clear air on the reaching road.

We believe crew weight was a huge factor and there seems to be some supporting data points.  Tipping the scales at almost 400 pounds, we sailed to a horizon job win in the breeziest race of the series.  Dave Nelson and Frankie Heart, who won the 2015 Nationals in similarly light-lumpy conditions, finished a disappointing ninth and we suspect it is no coincidence since they sailed the event with around 500 pounds of crew weight.  Joe and Elise, who must weigh around 250 pounds combined, had amazing speed all around the course.  So while everyone knows the importance of crew weight when it’s windy, I think they forget that 100 pounds of crew weight is around 10% of the total displacement in Rhodes 19 and since F=Ma… it follows that heavier boats are at a disadvantage in lumpy, light conditions when lots of acceleration is required.

Overall, it was an epic regatta.  Huge thanks to my Dad for enabling us battle and laugh through it together.  Another huge thanks to the race committee and all of the volunteers.  And huge congratulations to Jim and Charlie for sailing masterfully and earning a trip to the BVI!

UPDATE: I forgot to include that we also completed what I consider a successful tuning experiment during the event.  We observed that the wave direction was very skewed to the wind direction, such that on Friday the chop was punishing on starboard yet relatively flat on port, and vice-versa on Saturday.  We sailed with the lower shroud a full Sta-Master number looser on the choppy tack, which combined with more headstay sag and the lead a bit forward, seemed fast.  Our worst day for boat speed was Sunday, on which the wave direction was still skewed but we forgot to do this step!

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