I watched my team have some very frustrating races in a fleet racing regatta on Saturday. The wind built through the day from about 5 knots to 14 knots, but conditions remained shifty and puffy all day. Everyone had some trouble with the shifts, finding themselves on the wrong side of them way too often, but the best teams seemed to do a good job of finding the puffs. Sailing in the puffs was routinely 10% faster and occasionally 50% faster than sailing in the lulls. Although it was difficult to stay in a puff for very long, even downwind, those who connected the puffs the best were consistently ahead of those who didn’t.
As I watched our best skipper and crew have two uncharacteristically bad races, I wondered how they could be in the wrong place at the wrong time so often. We’ve all had races like that, but twice in a row? – particularly after 4 solid races at the top of the fleet. Like most bad races, they began with a poor start. With as little as two feet to as much as a whole boat length off the line at the gun, there was a guarantee of sailing in dirty air for the first minute or two. With few opportunities to find clear air, our sailors were stuck in disturbed air until those ahead eked out bigger leads or got a puff and took off.
I always try to be optimistic about eventually getting clear air, but the truth is there is always a lot of work to do after giving the others a head start. Fortunately, in lake sailing, the shifts and puffs provide opportunities to gain back the distance lost with a poor start. Unfortunately, those ahead have the best chance to get those shifts and puffs first. I’m not sure what our sailors were thinking, but they seemed to forget the concept of “connecting the puffs.” Even the mid-fleet boats were getting some of the puffs while our team seemed to remain in the lighter spots. At one point, a mid-fleet boat capsized in a big puff, righted the boat, and remained ahead of our team.
I do not always keep my cool in these instances, and in our post-race debriefing, I told the kids they “did a remarkable job of connecting the lulls.” I added, “With all the puffs out there, it’s hard to believe you avoided so many of them.” They thought I was mean. I thought I failed to give the needed encouragement in a difficult situation. I could have at least offered the cliché, “Keep your head out of the boat,” but all concerned were just too disappointed to think clearly.
How did it all go wrong? With a little time to reflect, I think connecting the lulls was caused by a combination of impatience and confusing lulls with headers. When other boats were sailing higher and faster in the puffs, it was hard to accept that their puffs might soon subside or their wind might shift and remember that the best we could do was sail to the next puff within our own reach. The lull started to feel like a header (a boat going slowly can’t point as high as a boat going faster), so there was an irresistible temptation to tack. That subsequent tack in the lull was very laborious and after completing it, the sailors found themselves still going low and slow. Having completely lost sight of finding a puff, they thought, “It must be another header!” and they desperately tacked again. Instead of sailing through the lull toward more wind, they ended up spending needless time in the lull. With a little patience and clarity, they might have spotted the next puff and sailed toward it. Instead, by doing a couple of lengthy tacks in the lull, they insured that the only puff they would get would be one that found them. The puffs did not find them.yarg