Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is This Zen Racing?

Our laser fleet races four days a week in the summertime, but on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons, nobody keeps score. On both days the format is as many races as possible within a certain time window, and each race is shorter than 10 minutes, much like a frostbiting format without the frost. Saturday is conventional fleet racing and Thursday has become mostly team racing. These days offer a totally different experience than the formal series and regatta races which are scored, recorded, tallied, trophied, and immortalized on the permanent record.

Our special days have several advantages over other racing:

  1. By not keeping score and by not having a permanent record for others to see, we are encouraged to try new things. The only downside for failure is to do poorly in a ten minute race, but if something is learned in a ten minute lesson, something wonderful has been accomplished.
  2. Newer sailors are encouraged and get more help from others because we are more interested in a good race than a boost to our egos.
  3. We make racing more competitive by making up new rules that level the playing field. Sometimes newer people get a head start, and some team race teams get more members than others.
  4. As the rewards for winning the races shrink, the tone lightens and people just enjoy the moment. (This is the inverse of high stakes racing, like the Olympic trials, where old friends don’t even talk to each other as they focus on the holy grail of that one spot on the Olympic team.)
  5. The event is recorded only in our selective memories, where our good races and the things we might have learned are what we take from the experience. Our mistakes become lessons for next time rather than drops in our standings.

Am I finding a Zenny happiness? Is the elimination of scoring the equivalent to stripping away an illusion that interferes with our experience of reality? After all, scoring is an after-the-fact representation of a single aspect of the race, order of finish. When we look at that, we obscure most of the nuances of the experience itself. Is the elimination of scoring a letting go of our egos? By its nature, scoring separates the world into us and them and undermines our sense of oneness with the world. Does the lack of an ongoing record of the event encourage us to be mindful of the moment? There is nothing outside each race itself. We live more in the present during each race because that is all there is.

I don’t know if this is really Zen, but I’m sure it is happiness. These days are the most fun I have in sailing, even more fun than winning, although to be honest, I haven’t really won anything big in quite a while.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

12 Reasons To Have A Laser Fleet

There are at least twelve good reasons that every dinghy racing yacht club should have a laser fleet. (Almost all of these apply to Sunfish too, but I’m a laser sailor.)

  1. One man, one boat. It is easier to get more boats on the water and thus establish critical mass in the fleets, if it only requires one sailor per boat. There are no days off because you can’t get a crew.
  2. Lasers are cheaper than sloops. You can buy two or three lasers for the price of one Daysailer or Flying Scot. Parts and sails are cheaper too.
  3. Lasers are easy to manage. It is simple and easy to move your laser around on its dolly and to get it in and out of the water. No cars, trailers, row boats, docks, or launches are required. With one sail and a few lines, rigging is quick and straight forward too.
  4. Lasers are easier to store. Because they are small and easy to handle, they require less storage space than bigger boats. They can even be stacked in various ways to reduce needed storage space even further.
  5. Over 192,000 lasers have been made. Although many people hoard their lasers even when they don’t sail them, with so many boats out there it is easier to acquire one.
  6. Laser is the most popular racing class in the world. The manufacturer, supplier, and class organization support is truly world class.
  7. The Laser and Laser Radial are Olympic class boats. If you are good enough, there is an Olympic gold medal at the end of the rainbow in this class.
  8. A laser is fun. The boat is addictive. It’s fun to race or to just fool around in. It planes easily so many people just plane back and forth having a blast. Kids love them and are drawn to racing because the boat is fun. It’s hard to find sailors more enthusiastic about their boats than laser sailors.
  9. The laser is a great learning boat. More than with other boats, laser sailing demands and teaches everything from basic sailing skill to the subtle nuances used by world class racers. Numerous big name sailors in all types of boats and all types of racing have sailed lasers for part of their career.
  10. The boat adapts to different skill levels and different size sailors. With three different size sails available, the boat is good for everyone from 80 to 220 pounds and for novices to experts.
  11. The boat is safer than many others. By virtue of its size and design, it can be righted from a turtle by one person. We can not find a single fatality world wide associated with laser sailing.
  12. Sailing lasers saves on rescue boats and personnel. Because the sailors right the boats themselves, rescue boats are necessary only for freak occurrences or to keep the insurance company happy. Even if a laser needs to be towed, the operation is faster, easier, and requires less horsepower because the boats are light and can’t be filled with water.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Laser Masters February Events in Florida

As a relative newcomer to Laser sailing I didn't know what to expect when I arrived for the Florida Masters events a couple weeks ago. The first of three events was at Palm Beach. The host club is on the protected intracoastal waterway, but the regatta is on the Atlantic with on-shore prevailing easterlies and 3,000 miles of fetch. It required a 45 minute sail to get to the stating line. As a small lake sailor, it was a rude awakening to see a line of rolling breakers that needed to be crossed just to get out there.

Sailing a Laser in the Atlantic with 15-20 kt on-shore winds and higher gusts was certainly a challenge for a small lake sailor. I can't say I enjoyed it. I gave up that first day after completing 2 of 3 races, a good decision, as was the choice to use a radial. I capsized twice, once while on a run, barely in contol, when I reached down just for a second to try to unstop the autobailer. It was so unnerving when the boat would surge forward surfing on a hugh wave resulting in a sudden loss of pressure on the sail due to the change of the 'apparent wind.' I thought it was like riding a bucking broncho without being able to hold on, not that I've ever been on a bucking horse. I wondered if it was a mistake to try to do these regattas. I felt a little better that evening when the main conversation among the racers was about sore muscles and Advil. It definitely wasn't enjoyable sailing, but I hope my Laser survival sailing reflexes have been improved. Maybe someday I'll have the skill to actually enjoy sailing in large waves.

The second of the three events was at Jensen Beach within the protected intracoastal waterway about an hour north of Palm Beach. The wind was strong, but with just small waves, much more doable for someone at my level. It was tough going with a lot of hiking, but it was starting to get fun.

The final event at Sarosota on the west coast of Florida was sailed in light winds on Sarosota Bay. With much less of a physical challenge, I could concentrate on trying to do better starts which has been one of my weakest points. I can never seem to get into or stay in the first row in a large fleet. There were 83 boats competing on the line. Folks were very aggressive. The were many general recalls. All the successful starts were done under the black flag.

One morning I had breakfast with an expert Laser sailor from the Dominican Republic. I told him how timid I was lining up for starts, especially when there is a black flag. He advised me to remember that if I stay even with the boats on each side, the RC boats at each end of the line can't see my sail numbers. They will only disqualify the boats they can see. With that in mind, I finally got some first row starts on the final day.

Looking back on the experience, I'm definitely glad to have done it. It is a pretty good deal to get seven days of very competitive sailing in nine days with a nice break from the New England winter. I think I learned a lot from the sailing, and from the many on-shore conversations with other sailors. I'm thinking, maybe I'll do it again next year. We'll see.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Five Characteristics of Highly Successful Fleets

Fleets come and fleets go, but racing still remains. I suppose the evolution of fleets is an organic process where some die and others are born, some shrink while others grow. In many fleets, there is a continual ebb and flow between the enthusiasts and the forces that can kill the fleet. One of the tasks of the enthusiasts is to promote the things that foster a healthy fleet and watch out for the danger signs that can kill it.

1. The fleet maintains critical mass. Critical mass is having enough boats, enough members, and enough regular racers so that everyone knows that if racing is scheduled there will be enough participants to make the racing fun. Both “enough” and “fun” are highly subjective and are defined by the racers themselves on a continual basis. “Enough” for our local laser fleet might mean 5-7 racers, while “enough” for the Newport frostbite fleet might mean 30 - 40 boats on a typical day. When individuals perceive that their thresholds of “enough” and “fun” are regularly met, they make their schedules work, go sailing (even in bad weather), and end the day knowing they made the right choice. When they cannot count on their thresholds being met, there is always something else to do, some less than ideal condition that keeps them at home, or they take up golf. Their decision not to sail impacts the definition of “enough” for others and in turn, keeps them away as well. Not “enough” diminishes “fun.”

Sad to say – I belong to two laser fleets – summer and winter – that both struggle on the edge. The enthusiasts work hard, but just a few more regulars would make so much more fun.

2. The fleet has sailors of various ages. Although there can be great camaraderie among sailors of the same age, getting old together has its limitations. There are many fleets where the most active and enthusiastic sailors are the older ones, but fleets with nothing but geezers are on the way out. Here at Lake Minipiddle, the Town Class died from this condition, and another fleet seems to be gasping. As older sailors trickle out of a fleet, there is a point where there are just not “enough,” and the downward spiral can begin. New, young blood is essential to the health of any fleet. Conversely, a fleet that depends too heavily on young members (pre-college graduation) is subject to the loss of members as kids enter “real” life and get busy with other things. A mix of all ages works best- senior enthusiasts encouraging the others and a continuous supply of new blood from all age groups. Both regional and national laser sailing events are great in this respect. I get beat by 60 somethings and teenagers in the same regatta. Locally, we could some use some more sailors in the middle.

3. The class of boat is popular with local sailors. Local custom, the interests and needs of the sailors, and long term quality of the boat all play a role in a class of boat becoming highly desirable. It seems that every club and every area has their favorite boats, and those fleets thrive despite obvious limitations of the boat (e.g. Interclubs – Even the frostbite diehards can’t imagine taking an Interclub out for a pleasure sail.).

Boats have their own personalities and make different demands on their sailors, and the boats and the sailors need to be compatible. A boat that is fun to sail for one person may be boring or miserable for another. Un-athletic people won’t like lasers or 49’ers, and unsociable people will not like J24’s. Twenty somethings are unlikely to sail Hereshofs, and not many fifty year olds sail trapeze boats. Our local young people find Sunfishes boring and Flying Scots too bulky and inaccessible; Lasers, however, are a perfect fit for them. And for those of us who were tired of scrounging for a crew, Lasers have spawned a second wave of sailing enthusiasm.

Boats also need to last a long time while remaining competitive. Only rarely are fleets built by wide scale purchasing of new boats. It takes time to build fleets. Durable old boats provide a welcome, lower cost way of growing and maintaining a fleet. Healthy fleets routinely have an old boat or two at the top of the standings.

4. The boat has a vibrant class and fleet organization. The support of regional and national organizations is also important. Being able to get replacement parts with a phone call or a few mouse clicks keeps you sailing the boat rather than repairing it. Belonging to a class where a large number of boats have been made allows prospective sailors to acquire boats and expand the fleet. Having regional and national regattas gives you a chance to broaden the sailing experience. Strict one design rules keep new and old boats competitive, and they prevent spending and boat redesigning competitions. Having a class forum promotes communication with other boat owners with similar concerns. Additionally, strong fleets have enthusiastic leaders who tirelessly promote the class, participation in the fleet, and even help procure boats. Fleets where this does not happen are more likely to disappear; fleets where this does happen thrive in spite of limitations. It is easier to love a boat with a large support group.

5. The race organizers must meet the needs of the racers. The racing format needs to fit expectations of the fleet. Even in my limited inland lake-centric experience, I have raced in several formats. Races have been designed to last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and a half. There has been as few as one race a day to as many as 10. Time on the water has varied from 1 hour to 8 hours. Some race committees are slow and methodical, and others start the next race as the last boat finishes. Racers gravitate toward the formats they like best, and often sailors within each fleet have similar preferences. When fleets grow or shrink or change members, race organizers need to reassess and keep up with the changing expectations of the group. Racers, particularly the much sought after new blood, can be pretty quick to decide that the racing is not as much fun as they would like or as it should be, and then they find other venues. But when the race organizers adapt formats depending on the fleet and its members, things stay fresh and vital, and the fleet attracts more sailors.


Monday, February 16, 2009

There’s No Place Like Home – CPYC frostbiting

As some of my sailing friends enjoy their exotic winter sailing trips to the Dominican Republic or Florida, I console myself with Dorothy’s simple, homespun wisdom, “There’s no place like home.” It’s easier to do that after a great day of frostbite sailing in perfect conditions at my winter sailing home, Cottage Park Yacht Club in Winthrop.

By many standards we have a humble, little laser fleet of about 16 -18 boats, with about 10 racing on any given day. We are a tag along fleet to the larger fleet of Interclubs, those little tubs that no one sails in the summer, but which have a die-hard following of excellent sailors in the winter. Despite our humble stature in the Laser world, and even in the local club world, we enjoy our sailing here as much as anywhere.

In a two hour time window, we typically race 5 – 7 short windward – leeward races, with start – finish in the middle. Races are run by Hatch Brown, retired MIT sailing master, who knows how to keep lines and courses square and how to keep things moving. Even with two fleets, he keeps both fleets racing ninety percent of the time, with no waiting around, and minimal fleet interference.

What I like the most about racing here is what I would like in racing anywhere – that it is always competitive. The short courses certainly contribute to that; seldom can anyone get a great enough start or hit a big enough shift to get way ahead. In twelve to fifteen minute races, the fleet never spreads out far enough that there isn’t tight racing. Starts, tactics, and boat handling are all really important in races where time doesn’t allow boat speed to make up for other mistakes.

The other important factor is that the sailors seem reasonably close in skill. None of us are rock stars and everyone is good enough to take care of themselves in winter conditions. We usually have three to four different races winners on a given day, and two thirds of the fleet has a least one top three race.

For all the advantages offered by exotic venues, warm weather, large fleets, and proximity to the very best sailors, most of what I love about sailing is here in my own backyard, even in the winter.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The clothes make the man - Frostbiting

Sometimes people ask me how I can go sailing in the rain, or in cold weather, or on very cold water, and the answer is always the same – the clothes make the man. With the right clothing, sailing is comfortable, warm, safe, and sometimes dry. One of the keys to happiness in Laser sailing is choosing the right outfit. This is what works for me in the winter…

In frostbiting, the main choices are pretty easy, even though the gear is rather extensive. The water is cold (about 40 degrees) and the air is even colder. The goal is to stay warm, dry if possible, while being able to move around and grip lines. I dress in two to three layers; dry suit on the top, a fleece layer underneath, and a wicking shirt (and sometimes wicking pants) as a base layer.

The drysuit is waterproof with watertight or water resistant seals at the feet, hands, and neck. My drysuit has waterproof booties (that aren’t quite waterproof) made from the suit material, latex waterproof wrist seals (latex seals really are water tight), and a neoprene water resistant collar. The neoprene collar is more comfortable than latex, but water will trickle in when I’m fully submerged.

On my feet I wear waterproof sealskin socks under the drysuit booties, and Rooster sailing boots on top. I wear Rooster AquaPro gloves which have some fleece in them. The whole outfit is reasonably warm when submerged in 40 degree water, and if my neck is above water it doesn’t leak a drop. My feet can get a little cold on days below 25 degrees, and my hands get cold only if I dunk the entire glove in the water. The gloves are way better dry than wet.

The last part of the ensemble is the hat – ski hat under 30 degrees and baseball hat above. A pair of sunglasses and I’m ready to go sailing.

These are my choices, but I know there are variations on this, especially with gloves and boots. What do you wear?


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Improving Safety

As the yacht club worries about the safety of laser sailing and generally tries to improve on safety, I am struck with how simple safety seems to be in the context of high school sailing. I was thinking about the most important changes required to make yacht club sailing safer, and here are the top five.

  1. Always wear a life jacket – on docks, in row boats, in sailboats, in rescue boats, everywhere on the water.

  2. Wear the proper clothing. Sailors must stay warm in the boat or in the water. No cotton except in July and August. Wetsuits, drysuits, polypropylene layers, nylon, fleece, spray tops and pants, foul weather gear and combinations of these provide a myriad of good choices. Cold water is a serious safety hazard that is frequently underestimated; it literally leaves you gasping for breath and rapidly saps your strength.

  3. Practice and master capsize recovery. Knowing how to right your boat and having the skill to do it makes capsizing an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe.

  4. Have skilled rescue boat operators. Training, testing, and practicing are invaluable. Being able to maneuver a motor boat in a rescue operation takes more skill and know how than just being able to drive a boat.

  5. Practice rescues. Nothing develops skill like practice, and it seems unreasonable to think that people who do not practice rescuing boats and boaters would be any good at it

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against using radios, cell phones, life rings, lines, towing harnesses, or any other of that good stuff. It’s just that none of those made the top five list.

Several observations about the top five list are relevant here:

  • In high school sailing, all of these things are mandatory and automatic. No one – even a grownup – goes on the water without a life jacket. Sailors must wear clothing in which they can capsize and remain reasonably comfortable and functional. Sailors practice capsize recovery before they practice sailing. Rescue boat operators are certified (usually by at least US Sailing), and we practice continually by being on the water so much. By doing the five most important things, we keep it relatively simple and have an impeccable track record (knock on wood) without the extra hands or better equipment that would be nice if public school financing permitted.

  • All of these things are improvements in our habits and in ourselves. Enhancing safety is not primarily a matter of better equipment, but it is a matter of improving our own behavior and skills. We are the safety equipment we have been looking for.

  • Laser sailors regularly do the first three things on the list, the ones that the sailors can do for themselves. Doing these things make them far safer than sailors who don’t do them.

  • Rescue requirements are drastically different for the sailors who are prepared by doing the first three things than they are for those who are not prepared. The prepared sailors need rescue support only for a freak accident, while unprepared sailors can get into serious trouble very quickly even with the most able rescue crew.

Yacht club planners should consider all this when formulating safety plans.


Monday, February 9, 2009

You know you’re in trouble when…

Every once in a while, you find yourself headed down a road where you can see impending disaster ahead, and it’s so obvious that all you can do is find the humor – like a pile up at the leeward mark. One of those instances occurred for me a couple of nights ago.

I was waiting for my hearing at the local Conservation Commission. In and of itself, this was an enterprise destined for disappointment. As the applicant, I knew I wanted to build something that this board of environmental guardians was bound to hate, and they would either impose expensive and odious limitations on it or crush my idea all together. In this instance, I realized that I was pushing all the limits, but I felt that I had come so far that I should at least have my say. I wasn’t expecting much.

As I was waiting, they began their session by addressing the applicant ahead of me. An aspiring eagle scout wanted to build a canoe rack for the town, located on the town’s beach, at no cost to the town. The apprehensive kid could barely speak in front of the Board of Zealots (and he wasn’t even aware of the zealot part). He had a very nice three page PowerPoint handout describing his project, but it was painful to watch him try to explain it. Somehow his intentions were finally understood (it was only a canoe rack, for God’s sake), and then the questions started. Would he be using pressure treated wood? Isn’t that full of arsenic? No, they don’t use arsenic anymore. Maybe you should use cedar? How many holes in the ground? Do you have to dig holes? How far from the water? Thirty feet, right at the stone wall. Could it be farther away? We’d like to have it fifty feet from the resource area. Know what? You should meet the agent at the site and review the location. Do you want to wait until there isn’t two feet of snow on the ground?

On the site there is a small beach, then a stone wall, then a hill. Where did they expect it to go? Up the hill? The canoe, water, rack relationship most of us would expect was not taken for granted.

As I felt sorry for kid, I thought to myself, “You’re in trouble when they tell an eagle scout that his donated canoe rack is too close to the water.”

Imagine what they said about my proposed boathouse being two feet from the wetland.