Monday, October 26, 2009

Windward Gates

Maybe I get bored easily. I know that high school students get bored easily. We’ve done the drills. We need to keep doing the drills and keep building the skills, but after two months, enough is enough. So after eight weeks of sailing four days a week, what can I do to make the last few days of the season interesting? The last week should be about fun.

The day planned for “Poag Ball,” a version of Ultimate Frisbee played on the water with a soccer ball, had absolutely no wind and was a complete bust. The other days had too much wind for a game where collisions were likely, but they were ideal for racing – racing that was some how different than it had been all fall.

At the end of every season, we have an intramural regatta with formal scorekeeping and a perpetual trophy for the winning pair (double handed boats). In all honesty, the competitiveness of this event is limited. There is usually a fairly clear pecking order of sailors, so the regatta is more of a jostling to swap positions with the guy just ahead of you than it is a wide open contest. Two may challenge one, but six won’t. Similarly, the new freshman will not seriously challenge seniors who are still in the middle of the pecking order. The final results for a day with many races are usually fairly predictable.

This year, my goal for the event was to make each race as competitive as possible within this framework of highly varied skill levels. My solution was to borrow an idea I have seen only once before. At last year’s 25 boat state championship regatta, Fran Charles, the sailing master at MIT, set windward leeward courses with gates at both ends, leeward and windward.

Leeward gates are becoming commonplace. I suppose they are intended to prevent massive pileups and reduce fouling and protests. They also change the dynamics of the race. A single leeward mark rounding rewards the winner of the contest for inside room by increasing his lead as the other boats round wide or fall a boat length or more behind each other to stay close to the mark. It also allows boats ahead to use boat on boat tactics going upwind to maintain the lead. But by having a gate, a boat that is essentially tied can remain that way by choosing the other mark. Perhaps even more important is that the two boats are now heading different directions, sailing in different wind. Boat to boat tactics are eliminated here. Each boat is sailing against the course more than against the other boat. Choosing the favored gate may be more important than getting inside room, if one has to choose. Gates give the boats behind far more opportunity to challenge the boats ahead.

A windward gate has the same characteristics, but occurs much earlier in the race. This keeps those behind much closer to the leaders as they go down wind. It also makes each sailor think about where she should be on the course to maximize wind shifts and puffs. Overall, the use of gates tends to make racing more about playing the wind, and less about tactics and raw boat speed.

I actually tried this out twice. The first was our intramural regatta, where there was a gate at the windward end only. I reasoned that the fleet would spread out so much by the leeward end of the course that a gate was unnecessary – wrong! The course was successful enough that we built on the idea the next day in a “mixed doubles” regatta. This teamed crews who had not sailed together (or not much) this fall, and put freshmen with seniors, sophomores with juniors, and girls with boys. This time we used a leeward gate as well and a closed start finish line in the middle. The first time we finished with the expected pecking order, but 8 of 11 boats has at least one top three finish for the day. The second time two edged out one, four advanced to three, a freshman (with one of the best crews) vaulted from eight to four, and 9 of 12 boats had a top three finish.

I really like that so many kids had that one good race. I love it when the newbies beat the cocky seniors once in a while. It builds confidence and motivation. If they can do it once, they can do it again! I like finding a way to emphasize the importance of reading the shifts and puffs, even in short course racing. I like mixing things up a little in a way that the kids had lots of fun. And I like that coaches and sailors alike found the windward gate made for competitive, interesting and entertaining racing.

It looks like I’m saying that I like windward gates!

1 comment:

  1. FYI, Windward gates have been tried and tested before at various events. Matter of fact, they tried it again earlier this year at one of the Etchells Mid-winter events in Florida. There we many articles published and discussions on it - both good (tactical) and bad (increased rig issues i.e. collisions due to prt/stbd in mid windward gate crossings.

    Keep an eye open for that event again this year. It may happen again.