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WOW - Amanda Callahan: Lessons learned during a global pandemic

12/23/2022 6:08 pm

Amanda Callahan WOW: Lessons learned during a global pandemic

Posted December 23, 2020

Go sailing more, continue to learn new things.


At the North Americans, Eugene Schmidt organized a daily debrief where the top three boats each day spoke about what made them successful that day. I didn’t add much, but I learned a lot from Mike Ingham, Conner Blouin and Greg Gust during the debriefs.


Articles on sailing topics from the top sailors, aka “Words of Wisdom,” have been around the class for a while (you can find old WoWs on the website), but we haven’t seen much lately. Bill Brangiforte, who is always very generous with his knowledge and time, urged me to write some thoughts from NAs and rather than summarize what I learned from Conner and Greg, I asked them to do write ups in their own words. Thanks to Eugene and Bill for getting the ball rolling...


As I mentioned, I was involved in the debriefs, but I felt like I didn't have much to contribute because I wasn't necessarily the smartest or fastest any of the days, just consistent enough to be up there with Conner, Greg, and Mike. So rather than focus my WoW on the regatta, I’ll share what I’ve learned this year. If nothing else, 2020 was good for my sailing...


A silver lining of the pandemic, I got a lot more tiller time this summer. I was sailing ~4-5 days/week in various boats (dinghies and small keelboats), both crewing and skippering. That translated into ~15
more practice days in the ‘fish. (And when I say days, I’m guessing most of my sessions on-the-water were ~1.5 hours, tops.) Mostly solo sails, but occasionally got another boat on the water with me.


When sailing by myself, I tried to do so in a sea breeze just to work on sailing fitness. At 5’3”, 130 lbs., I can “hang” in 14-17 knots when I’m in better shape. I would sail upwind to the Hog Island light or around Hog Island. During lighter air solo practice, I would set tiny W/L courses to work on mark roundings. Occasionally, I would also set a starting line and do :30 rolling starts, with focus on the acceleration and more importantly for me, finding that perfect turn up angle. When sailing with other folks, it was almost all speed work, or match racing around a W/L.


Outcome: I dialed in two Jens settings that seem to work well for me. I felt really confident with those settings in almost all conditions. And as a result, I don’t have to second guess and can free up some space to focus on other things. I use a single Gust Adjust halyard configuration. Normally, I set the halyard to match the expected forecast at the beginning of the day. However, on occasion (between the 2nd and 3rd race on the last day at Midwinters, for example, when it went from 10 to 20 knots) I will make that adjustment on the water. To do so, I’ll drop the halyard all the way down (booms on deck, trying to keep the sail out of the water as much as possible, not always possible), slide the clove hitch up or down to the pre-taped setting, and pull the halyard back up. I try to match the gooseneck setting to the breeze while making those adjustments as well.


Why not add a second halyard to make this easier? Well, I used to sail with two halyards, (1) in a full rig position, and (2) in a Jens position. At the 2014 Worlds, I saw some of the bigger sailors and many of the South American sailing with a Jens 100% of the time. As they say, imitate, imitate, imitate, then innovate. Since then, I’ve transitioned to sailing with a Jens 100% of the time too. It is rare that I’ve had to make that adjustment on the water. Now I prefer the cleaner look and feel of a single halyard. As Bill reminds me often, Keep It Simple Stupid! (But new thoughts on this below.)

This summer, I finally realized I’m good at shifty, flat water racing. In other words, LAKE sailing! Surprisingly, the NE Sunfish circuit brings us to lakes more often than not. Here’s why I think I’ve been successful at it this summer:


Quick reaction time in variable conditions, in other words keeping the boat moving in puffs/lulls and headers/lifts that are so typical of lake sailing. I’m doing this by quickly and smoothly moving my weight in so the boat doesn’t heel to windward when coming out of a puff. Similarly, moving out on the rail early so not let the boat heel to leeward too much at the onset of the puff. I’m also aggressively playing the main: easing into lifts, quick ease in puffs, etc. I pay close attention to the transitions between different breezes, which results in better boat speed around the course.


Quick decision making I got to drive a few team races this summer and in our Monday night league. Team racing requires quick decision-making. It also forces you into tight tactical situations a lot. I was well-practiced at snappy decisions. The best bet is to avoid tactical situations all together on the racecourse, but I knew if I got into a tight spot, I knew how to get out.


Finding clear lanes after a bad start. I would categorize my starts as fair: rather conservative, and usually not stellar. The great thing about shifty lake sailing is that there are usually a lot of passing lanes should you need one after a bad start. I had a couple of douzies on the last day of the Wequaquet Regional, but found that by the windward mark, I was able to get ahead of the traffic by looking for clean lanes to play in. First, I’m realistic about my positioning after the start. I ask myself: if it is bad, am I going the correct way and why? Are there any big reasons (i.e. big pressure ahead) to hang in a bad lane? If not, I’m out. Some people waffle back and forth and miss their tiny window to escape. Like I said in the last paragraph, I decide and go. Bang, bang. Being aware of the boats to windward is critical, because if that shift comes, you need to be able to tack. I’m also not afraid of making a significant duck if it means I’ll be able to sail in my own lane for a while. I found that after 3 tacks (not necessarily in quick succession), I was able to find a clean lane every time. (Greg elaborates on this more.)


Other lessons from this summer and frostbiting season:
- Ever since Malcolm Smith sailed though me and my baggy mainsail to leeward in light conditions at the Barrington North Americans in 2011, I sail with my outhaul very firm, clew never more than 4.5” from the end of the boom. But at Massapoag, I had taken a purchase out of the back of my outhaul and it was slipping a lot. Despite a little more bag than I’d like, I felt really fast in the puffy conditions we saw. So I’ve been, easing up a little on the outhaul in up and down conditions.

Chop/heel - Paul Dierze, Liza Clinton and I made a road trip to New Jersey for the Mid-Atlantics at Ocean Gate Yacht Club. We encountered some serious chop on the Barnegat Bay (though the locals assured us it was nothing compared to what they see during the summer- yuck). We also sailed on triangles! I found myself sitting IN the cockpit, heeling to leeward on the reach legs. It was weird, but felt fast. I also sailed upwind with more leeward heel and eased mainsheet considerably more than normal for me. In retrospect, I should have gone full rig to power up more, so I didn’t need the leeward heel to “feel” fast.


Full rig? Last day of frostbiting this fall, I got lazy (typical!). The weekend before, 6’13” Paul Dierze sailed my boat with a full rig. It was light when we left the ramp even though the forecast was for 10 knots. So for the first time in ages, I left the full rig as is and proceeded to sail to the course. As a result of this laziness, I had a major revelation!


Typically, I STRUGGLE downwind. With a Jens, I eessentially have to hike the boat to windward with my butt dragging in the water, and my forward gam as far out to windward as I can manage in order to get a little windward heel going. I truly thought this was a size problem. But that weekend, I realized it is a limitation of the Jens downwind. With the full rig deployed, it was a piece of cake to get the boat optimally heeled to windward. I found I had no problem sailing by the lee or a hotter angle. So the next thing I have to figure out, is how to Jens upwind, and full rig downwind???

Still working on in 2021:
Upwind bow down mode
More experiments with full rig
Bigger wind range (better fitness, better settings)
Sailing in more chop
Buy compass
EVERYTHING having to do with off wind sailing


Recap of NAs (location of arrow is where we raced each day)
Day 1: 
Light 5-6 (pink arrows), light chop, breeze when right as sun starting going down. 3 races. Downwind I was one of the faster boats out there. I sat as far forward (butt up by the daggerboard, thigh/leg on deck) as I’ve ever sailed DW. Tried to find an okay lane, and moved as little as possible. There weren’t waves to catch.
1st race mistakes: on the last beat, I turned left around the LG in second place with Conner and Greg just behind me. Instead of going to layline, I came back early and bounce off Conner twice while Greg who had gated the other way continued out to the left side. Too many bounce off tacks and I was on the wrong side of the course. I ended up losing them both.
3rd race mistake: I wanted to go right, so I set up near the boat. I started pulling the trigger ~2 seconds too early. Martha Heusler was to leeward and fortunately she didn’t force me over the line. Could have been a disaster. I still owe her a drink.

Day 2: Medium 10-14 knots (blue arrow) dropping slightly as the day went on, chop, people with compasses said shifts were max 10 degrees. There were maybe 5-7 shifts/beat usually associated with small pressure differences. We saw right to left current all day so leaders were intentionally soaking low out of the WM. I didn’t notice the current as much as I should have. The top of the racecourse was probably doing something like this graphic from Bill Gladstone’s book or Speed and Smarts, I can’t remember.

There is a lot to unpack here, but if there was 1 knot of right-to-left current at the top of the course, and less current at the bottom of the course, then you would feel a left hand shift near the top as shown by the top green arrow.

Conner DESTROYED us all on the second day. Read his write-up.


Day 3: Medium to Heavy (black arrows) flat, then choppier as the wind built with a 90 right shift. For me, the day was about mindset. I knew I could afford one deeper race. My game plan was to have conservative starts, and use my boat speed to get near the top of the fleet. In the first race, I got clogged up near the boat, but was able to tack out right and get some clear air. Fortunately there was also a massive breeze line on the right. I thought I was looking good, but Greg squeeked by in a personal puff and he could not be caught! I lost one point to him, but picked up a couple on Conner. One race down, two to go.

Second race, the breeze was moving right. I opted for a midline start, both Conner and Greg were closer to the boat than I was. Conner eventually tacked and crossed just ahead of me, but I could see Greg, Richard Chapman, Bob Findlay and Ricky Welch bow out and to leeward. Against my better judgement (as I mentioned the breeze was trending right and forecast called for 90* right shift), I decided to stick closer to Greg and gang on the left side. As luck would have it, we got dialed into a big lefty. Again I was near the front of the race. Across the finish line, Greg was 1st, Conner 4th, and myself 5th. Rich and Ricky finished ahead of us, but the pin boat let us know that Rich, Ricky and Bob were OCS.

Thankfully, I still had that one drop race, which was great to save for the last race, when it started blowing 20!

Normally I take notes after regattas. When I went to find my notes from sailing at Bay Waveland in 2014, I couldn’t find any. Only after the fact did I realize, I wrote these “notes” which were not helpful at all.