Bill Brangiforte WOW: From the 2012 World Championship

Posted November 01, 2012

Thoughts from the 2012 Sunfish World Championships in St. Petersburg

With light winds and sometimes strong current, the 2012 Sunfish Worlds was not the most exciting series I have ever been in, but it was one of the most interesting! Never have I seen so many penalties, flags, and people walking around reading rule books. However, the yacht club and city were quite nice, and after the regatta, there was much to talk about. The most important thing to take away from an event like this is that it should be used as a learning experience. Let’s take a look at some lessons learned.

I have said this before, and I certainly learned it again; before going to a big event, brush up on race committee procedures. I don’t think I have ever been to a major event where something confusing didn’t happen. This time , there were Z flag and OCS penalties that carried over into the next race after an abandonment , lots of yellow flag penalties, and a confusing finish, at the gate, after shortening the course at the second weather mark. (You are supposed to finish between the gate marks). After Tuesday’s races, people were trying, and failing at getting redress and everyone’s head was spinning. This leads to lesson two!

Tuesday night, when we got back to the house Chris Williams, Eric and I were renting, we were all annoyed. We spent most of the night angrily discussing the day’s events. We all had foul trouble- Chris had a Z flag penalty (20%) and his first yellow flag penalty, Eric had an OCS and Z flag penalty (40%), and I had my second Yellow flag( one more and I would basically be out of the regatta). So, here is the second lesson- Once these penalties occur, you need to move on! As I get older, I see more and more similarities between racing sailboats and other parts of life! I see it all the time running a business. Crazy things happen, but you still need to focus on the tasks at hand! To some people, this comes naturally, while others struggle with it. I am somewhere in the middle. The main tasks for the next day’s race didn’t change- We still needed to focus on the basics- getting a good start, playing shifts and going fast! Actually, anytime things are not going well, or you are having a bad series, stop and think about the important basic things necessary to sail well. When doing this, I find it helpful to think about things that have worked well in the past and try to do the same things again.

Speaking of doing things that have worked in the past, there is a new rig that the Southern group is using. It is basically a Forrester Jens rig that is used in light air. It allows the rig to sit farther aft. This moves the center of effort back and allows for tighter sheeting, without bending the boom. I used it the first day and had good results (I don’t think it had anything to do with the rig) and felt slow the second day, so I took it out and did not think about for the rest of the week. I just don’t think a World Championship is a good place to test a new rig. This set-up does deserve some further thought however. Amanda used it all week and was fast. She said that she had to move her gooseneck back to 16’’ to balance the boat. This makes sense, since bringing the center of effort aft increases helm. Tom Whitehurst used it all week and was one of the fastest on the course. Had he not had starting penalties, he would have been in the top 3. On the other hand, the winner, Alex Zimmermann, was clearly the fastest guy on the course and he did not use it. Perhaps, we could do some speed testing with it this winter if we get some good Southerly’s and thus some fairly long beats.

One thing I noticed about Whitehurst, was that he sails the boat very flat! This would be particularly important with that rig, in order to balance the helm. In the last race, I was having trouble holding off a group of fast South American Kids, until I started sailing the boat flatter. Once I did this, I was able to match their speed and effectively cover them. Zimmermann sails with some heel, but I think he flattens the boat once he feels he is moving ok. He also sails with the tiller extension behind him (frying eggs style) and is crazy fast upwind!

There was definitely a good strategy for sailing the first beat in this regatta. It is basically the same strategy used anytime the fleet is large and the wind is light. The trick is to analyze which side looks better before the start, then start and initially work toward that side. Once you are out towards your chosen side, start watching the fleet! Once boats to windward, on the same tack as you, start falling bow down to you, tack back towards the center to consolidate your gain. You want to play a side (there is less breeze in the middle of the course), but you need to keep using your gains to work back towards the middle. Now here is the tricky part – once you start working back in, if boats to leeward (on the same Tack) are also heading in- go with them. Don’t tack until they do! This requires patience. There is no reason to tack out, if the leeward boats are more towards the middle, since you will still get the puffs first, but are not risking being hung out to dry if the breeze goes hard the other way. While heading back to the middle, if you have a good lane, it is a great time to put the bow and foot. Stuart Walker calls this- “Moving out, then digging in!” Now, unless you are near the top of the fleet, you must move back to a side as you approach the weather mark. The area, to leeward, between the weather mark and the offset mark becomes a “cone of death” as the lead boats begin to round and head downwind. Between the light air, chop and large number of boats, that area becomes almost unsailable (not sure if that is a word). So, the drill is –Move out-move in- move out. In my 5 good races, I followed that strategy and was in good shape at the first mark. In two of my bad races, I simply did not dig back in when an opportunity presented itself. I was greedy, waiting for a bigger shift, then got out of faze and finally got clobbered when the breeze went the other way. Had I tacked back in when I got a small gain (there were opportunities) I would have been back in the fight!

Remember, anytime the wind is shifty upwind (as it was in St. Pete) it will be equally shifty downwind. This presents great opportunities for gains. I made some decent comebacks, by simply paying attention downwind. There seemed to be pack mentalities downwind. Many times, boats would be sailing dead downwind, on each other’s breeze, while sailing away from the gate. Since there was sometimes a strong opposing tide, (as it is on the Warren River) it was extremely important to keep the boat moving fast by 1. Keeping the boat heated up (broad reaching or sailing by the lee) 2. Keeping as clear a lane as possible behind you and 3. Staying in the strongest pressure you can get to. Whenever things got tense, or I felt slow downwind, I simply watched the angle of my mast head fly and headed towards the best pressure. I also found it best to avoid the “cone of death” downwind as well. This generally meant that you would have to stay high initially when starting the run.

My sister jokingly tells me not to give out all of my tricks in these Words of wisdom, because “someday, in some important race, it will come back to haunt you”. Well, apparently, someone printed one of my old WOWs from Barrington Frostbite, on how to sail in current, in the Sunfish website during the regatta. The article says “when the committee boat is pointing down the line, due to current, start at the boat. Well, the next day, that was happening. On top of that, the boat was favored and the right side of the course had more pressure. Seemed like a no brainer. However, as I sat at the boat, in the biggest logjam I have ever been in, I thought – Maybe Rene was right! I think it was 45 seconds after the start, before I even crossed the starting line! The lesson here, like everything else in life, is-if it is too good to be true-think twice about! The right move here would have been to sit on port tack, near the boat, and watch how the fleet is setting up. If there looks like the fleet is going to pile up at the boat, tack and work your way down the line a bit. However, if it doesn’t look too crowded there, and the tide is pushing the boats away from the committee boat, get up there. If it is not too crowded, you can even try a barging start.

Speaking of starts, an interesting situation occurred in the last race. With about 4 minutes to go before the gun, the wind went hard left. It was so far left that it was hard to cross the line on Starboard tack. Many of the competitors were complaining that the committee should postpone. What they should have been doing was paying attention! All day, the breeze tended right and by simply looking upwind, you could see the same thing was happening again. The lefty was a temporary oscillation. The left looked really weak and light, yet the fleet was piling up at the pin. I started at the boat and immediately tacked. This accomplished two things- First, it put me on the favored (long) tack, and second it got me into the new, stronger pressure coming from the right. Once I got into this pressure, I tacked immediately (trying not to be greedy this time), put the bow down hard, and footed back towards the middle of the beat. This ended up working out really well.

A couple of final thoughts-

Alex Zimmermann sailed a fantastic series, and clearly deserved the win!

The Sunfish website was awesome! Even some of my non-sailing friends thought it was cool. It would be great for the class to have a site like that!

I certainly wish Len Ruby was here so I could tell him all about the Regatta, as I have done so many times over the last several years! I would also love his input on the new rig!
Ok- now let’s get everyone out on the river this winter for some good practices

Bill Brangiforte

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