Therein lies the Rhumb

Midnight Rider-Down the Bay Race-5/25/12-5/26/12

These past few days have seen some of the William and Mary Sailing Team undertake as a team one of the most grueling sailing competitions the Chesapeake Bay can offer.  John H. kindly offered his boat, Midnight Rider as an opportunity to get us on the water and making some of the decisions involved in distance racing.

We set off Wednesday from York River Yacht Club, on the Perrin River, on the York River for Annapolis, Maryland just south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (sans tunnel).  There was no breeze the entire way up so we motored and came up with nicknames and other long boat day activities.  At night it thunder-stormed and it rained on those keeping watch, while the others slept below…nice and dry.

Thursday John and his W&M Sailing team ducklings explored Annapolis after a 24 hour motor at 5 knots (1 cylinder Yanmar diesel).  We spend a ton of money on the calories we would use the next days.  Job hunts commenced, boat staring occurred, APS thoroughly raided without purchasing anything, much shellfish eaten.  We had a great time in Annapolis and rested and prepared for the  upcoming race.

Preparation: Wind forecasts from buoys down the bay predicted 5-10knots SSE and S breeze for Friday and Saturday with a few changes in velocity.  As well we recorded all the current velocities at certain locations along the route at  the NOAA stations.  This information proved valuable throughout the course of the race and should be recorded prior to the race along the entire race route at many different times.  This information seemed even more valuable prior to the race due to the expected light breezes in the forecast.  The wind forecast was also heavily considered though it varied widely throughout the course.

When considering an inshore or coastal distance race the wind forecast is highly important but should not always play the leading role in preliminary strategizing.  Many geographical and thermal effects take precedent over expected wind directions and velocities when considering a small coastal area.  The down the bay race is very long north to south but not so much east to west.  The boats were largely restricted to the channel due to draft limitations of some of the larger boats.  Cutting corners would be a very apparent reality and advantage for boats with shoal drafted keels if those restrictions were not in place.  Since the wind was mainly SE to S this restricted most boats from making enormous gains with the lack of leverage.  Large gains and losses were made though depending on the wind, though much of that was not foretold in the forecast.

Other preparation tasks included stacking sails in predicted order of usage and availability for easy access.  Also making sure gear and sleeping necessities were prepared.  Having the sailing instructions handy is another important preparation technique.

Studying the course is very important as indicated before in the context of current and wind (predicted geographical effects as well as predicted forecast).  It’s also very important to pre-plot all marks of the race into the GPS (whether handheld or a pseudo nav station thing).  Make sure when you plot and name the marks that you include in the name which way they should be rounded (to port or starboard).

Main Points of Learning Re-Cap:

The Start: The initial goal was to start between the two boats we knew we could make ground with to prevent losing our lane or being rolled.  The wind was shifting a good 15 degrees during the pre-start with the large shifts being to the left favoring the port end.

At 1:30 we’re running down the line on port (a clear lane to tack or gybe), with the fleet setting up far to the starboard side of the line.  The vision took hold of me, the opportunity to win the start, the dreaded skipper syndrome.  We tacked and ran down the line until 15 seconds by the pin when we tacked right under the port layline…the fleet still 2 deep on the boat side.  These are the reasons we didn’t win the start, despite the opportunity.

1. Keelboats don’t accelerate in light air like dinghies, where you can leave the tack faster than when you went in it (even though illegal).

2. There weren’t as many boat-lengths between us and them as I thought…due to this acceleration concept they were already trucking

3. Everybody had a lower rating than us, so went faster anyways. I was naive to think I could judge our speed against theirs.  My dingy senses took hold of me and I went for it.

The results: We didn’t have to duck all the boats! We crossed the ones that were spat back out of the lead which was good.

What I learned from the start:

1. Be conservative at the favored end, especially for the start of a distance race. No need to go for the gold.

2. When I’m more familiar with the competition and the line I can be more risky and really go for gold.

What I would have done in retrospect (sailboat racing is the king of retrospect): I would have started on starboard at the favored end.  I would have just made sure I was leeward of most boats and had plenty of room to put my bow down. I would have also forged out more of an acceleration lane.

The Race:

As you read in Scott’s blog we made our way out of the harbor and were solidly in 4th place for our division only behind boats with lower ratings than us.  This was great! What a good start.  Now we just have to stay ahead of those behind.  Shouldn’t be too hard.

Until…we passed a mark on the wrong side…it took us 20 minutes to re-round it and that had significant consequences in our overall strategy (stay ahead of those behind and stay out of the current during flood and in it during ebb).  This had a significant impact on our performance because when we went back to round correctly (and untie our string) there was close to zero breeze and this persisted for an hour after we rounded it.  We were out in the channel because of the ebbing tide and we knew the tide was going to switch within the hour so we didn’t want to be caught in the channel when it started to flood, especially near Sharpe’s Island where the flood tide is allegedly quite brutal.  So we dove off towards the west, to escape the adverse current.  We didn’t sail off the rhumb because we couldn’t lay the mark at that time.  The wind was southerly at that time.

We dove off towards the right towards Chesapeake Beach to escape the adverse current when the wind filled in from the South East.

The wind filled in from the left or SE and we were located on the right in very low velocities. We got the breeze last and everybody ahead or to the left was able to extend.

So we got the breeze last and were on the wrong side of it.  Needless to say things would have been a lot different if we didn’t have to round that mark, but that’s sailing. We cast our dice, placed our bets (with the light winds and currents) and did the best we could considering our position.  From that point on we were playing catch up.  Those who got the breeze first were able to extend and stay extended, this was apparent in the results, with PHRF A boats finishing 6 hours in front of the rest.

The Sail Plan:

When do you change headsails? Our Soverel 33 does performs very well with the 155 in anything under 10 knots, but at what point should you change headsails, and/or reef the main? The upwind polars in 10 knots of breeze with a 145 headsail up is a velocity of 6.25 knots at 47 degrees from true wind.

When you’re overpowered on your headsail you have to lower the traveler on the main (dumps air/heeling force by changing the angle of attack for the main without losing leech tension).  Being overpowered occasionally is alright, but knowing when to reduce sail area is crucial because the more the traveler has to be lowered so the boat can keep its feet, the less pointing the boat will have.  You don’t lose immediate pointing ability, but leeway is incurred over distance.  This is especially crucial during long distance races when spending a long time on one tack or another.

Once the wind ramped up we were slow to go for the headsail change.  It’s really satisfying once you change the headsail and the boat is keeping it’s feet and you’re closer to your VMG for the wind speed.

When to reef the main is another good question.  When do you reef? Not when you’ll be going downwind in the near future and not until you’ve made a headsail change.  Reefing the main upwind is good because it lower the center of effort on the rig, rendering a more stable sail plan.

What I need and every boat needs is a good set of indicators showing when to go for the headsail change and when to go for the reef.  I think we were at least 2 hours slow on our headsail change and were quite overpowered for that time.  This increased leeway adds up every foot that’s sailed, so as soon as you think you might be overpowered get things set up for the change.

Changing back is just as important, while you might not lose any pointing you will certainly lose speed so be aggressive.  If you have an able crew who is able to do quick and effective peels, make sure to take advantage of that with a proactive and aggressive sail changing plan.

I want to wrap this up with some of my most important questions. I’ll even try to answer a couple of them.


Should a reduce in sail area follow #1, to #2, to #3, to #3 and reefed main? Or should the main be reefed somewhere along the way?
In a round the buoys race I prefer to not reef the main at all, but in distance racing it would be nice to have an established plan for wind and wave conditions.

The question of sailing the rhumb line (including current corrections), when 30nm out do you sail straight to the mark or above it (to put money in the bank), or do you dive out of the current (or into it), or do you sail towards the breeze? Or do you just sail straight to the mark?
I know the answer to this question is ‘it depends’, but what exactly does it depend on? I would say breeze velocity, current velocity, and expected weather, but mostly in small coastal distance races, I would say it depends on where the fleet is.  If you’re ahead get the breeze first, but most importantly just stay ahead of those behind and in building breeze you’ll extend and in dying breeze you’ll compress.

Short list of things I learned:

– Focus counts over long distance
– Push it at night and you will gain boats
– Keep longer watches at night so drivers can get into the groove and stay there
– Discussing the strategic gameplan with everybody before and during the race to keep the overall vision in mind

Overall mood: Great! We didn’t finish as well as I hoped but we sailed very well, there were only a few big mistakes, but the rest was outstanding!

Midnight Rider soon after the start. Photo Credit to John Deutsch.

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