Monday, July 26, 2010

10 Suggestions For Managing Multi-fleet Regattas

The last three regattas I have attended have had two, three, and four different fleets starting on the same starting line. Sometimes the fleets have different numbers of races, different lengths of courses, and sometimes even different course configurations. It can be quite a juggling act for the Race Committee. Although nobody has asked me, I want to offer my two cents about techniques that can be used to make race management more efficient in these highly challenging conditions. I’m not an expert, but I have been to enough races to see a lot of good ideas and endorse them as if they were my own. The terrific regatta I wrote about a month ago used several, but not all of these suggestions. I think each item makes an incremental improvement, but each also requires some resources, so there is always a trade-off between the two. I’m sure my list is not comprehensive, so please feel free to add your thoughts.

The overriding principle here is to maximize the PRO’s options. In a multi-fleet regatta, the PRO is constantly making judgments about minimizing inter-fleet interference and getting the next fleet started. He needs all the tools he can get to be flexible and agile, and he can’t have his hands tied by unnecessary constraints in the Sailing Instructions. He needs the best committee members or crew that he can find, he needs plenty of mark and rescue boats, he needs to be able to move marks quickly and easily, he needs the capacity to change courses, shorten courses, and have a separate finish boat when required.

1. Get a skilled PRO and a crew who enjoy doing all this.  Some people actually have fun meeting the challenges managing this kind of regatta brings. Some also enjoy sailing as a spectator sport. And who doesn’t like riding around in power boats talking on the radio?

2. Keep the start and finish lines outside the course.  This keeps all those not starting or finishing away from these areas. Lines in the middle of the course or even at marks are subject to traffic from any of the fleets.

3. Use separate start and finish lines.  Having to delay the start of a whole fleet for a couple of stragglers at the end of another fleet wastes a lot of time. A separate finish line solves this problem. One line on each side of the committee boat is the easiest way to do this. A finish line completely separate from the starting area goes even further by allowing simultaneously starts and finishes by different fleets. But it also takes a boat and a skilled crew to set a good finish line and record finishes.

4. Use a short starting sequence.  It is always tricky to determine if there is enough time to get off a start without running the starting fleet into a fleet already racing. The shorter the starting sequence the easier it is to make that judgment. The three minute dinghy start works well.

5. Get enough marks.  Having different marks for different fleets is the ultimate in flexibility. They do need to be very clearly different, like yellow and orange. They can be tied together whenever the same location can be used for multiple fleets. A change of course mark is also good to have so that the new mark can be placed immediately, and the mark boat has more time to remove the old mark.

6. Make the marks easy to handle.  I like marks with a handle on top and a lightweight anchor (a short chain or a sash weight work great where I sail). As I was told in a US Sailing seminar, “You are only anchoring a bag of air.” If marks can be dragable – even better. Placing and moving marks can be relatively difficult or easy and relatively time consuming or quick.

7. Equip all mark boats with change of course and shorten course flags.  All boats also need to be able to anchor and record finishes if called upon. The crews need to clearly understand the procedures for all this. A rule book provides a handy reference for double checking the correct procedures. This gives the PRO tremendous flexibility to deal with radical changes in sailing conditions or weather.

8. Communicate well with the competitors.  The competitors need to understand the actions and intentions of the Race Committee, so the Sailing Instructions need to be very clear about how competitors will be notified of their starts, what marks are to be used for their fleets, and the schedule of races. If the Race Committee makes adjustments on the water, there needs to be a clear procedure (specified in the Sailing Instructions) for notifying the competitors of the changes.

9. Communicate well with all members of the Race Committee team.  This begins before the regatta with the PRO clarifying his expectations and defining roles and duties for all the members of the team. All variables should be anticipated and discussed in advance. Procedures should be reviewed. The language for discussing things should be clarified. Are wind direction and mark locations defined by compass direction, compass bearing, or simple right and left? Are right and left as viewed by the PRO or by who ever is speaking? Radios should be checked both on shore and on the water, and even then, back up radios or cell phones should be in each boat.

10. Practice, practice, practice.  It is great if the entire Race Committee team can work together at least once before the regatta, but any experience with any of the above techniques develops expertise, and every little bit helps.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Communication with the Race Committee

Last weekend I was at a regatta, and before the first race, I asked the Race Committee to confirm my understanding of the course. Their response was to point to a placard and say “course 6.” Well, that was helpful. If I had known what course 6 was, I wouldn’t have been asking the question. I realize I was a dolt for not having committed the 7 different courses in the sailing instructions to memory. I was even more foolish for deciding that there‘s no good way to carry reading material on a laser. And I was an irresponsible competitor to have tried to depend on the kindness of strangers to explain what had already been explained clearly enough in those sailing instructions next to the regatta tee shirt in my car. Clearly I deserved to be punished.

Needless to say, I was. The convergence of my reckless negligence with the unlikely good fortune to be leading the first race led to the inevitable tragedy of my snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. To finish the course, I managed to sail upwind back to the start line, while the competitors way behind me sailed to the real finish line which it turns out was not nearly so far upwind. While sailing to the “correct” side of the course, I succeeded in sailing around the real finish by so far that I didn’t even see it. Subsequently returning to the real finish, I recorded a 5 and was grateful for the small laser turnout for the regatta.

I get it - understanding all the sailing instructions is part of racing. But really! Is it too much to ask the race committee to explain their unique course designations to a visitor?

This all leads to the general question of how much the Race Committee should communicate with the sailors. At pre-race skippers’ meetings, it has been standard practice for years for the PRO to answer questions with the magic, unhelpful phrase “refer to the sailing instructions.” This has always impressed me as being unfriendly, if not arrogant. It suggests a tone of seriousness or gravity that is contrary to the expectations of most of the sailors I know. For most of us, this is supposed to be fun.
“Refer to the sailing instructions” sounds like homework, when we are looking for recess.

I realize that the thinking is that the PRO or Race Committee should be careful not say anything to contradict the carefully written sailing instructions. While there is some merit to this reasoning, it seems to me that it goes way overboard for any but the most serious high stakes regattas. The risk of offering explanations and clarifications to the instructions is that one could actually increase confusion or introduce contradictions that then could result in some disastrous consequence that in turn could cause a protest or even skew the results of the event. Does that seem likely? Are the explanations really likely to be so bad that they would do more harm than good? In a time when there is a need to attract more people to sailing, what is more important – covering for the remote possibility of an imperfect explanation by the Race Committee or establishing a friendly atmosphere where everyone enjoys the sailing experience?

One of the high school coaches I work with always tells the sailors “if you have any questions, ask; if you are confused about the course, ask the race committee – it’s not supposed to be a mystery.” I know that I would be happier if events were run with this philosophy. I admit that I was the stupid one last weekend, but who wants to win or lose because one of the sailors misunderstood the course?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Multi-Class Regatta with No Waiting Time

I have been to many multi-class regattas where three or more classes share the same starting line and the same course. The one common characteristic for almost all of them is that they have lots of waiting time - long, wasteful, and seemingly unnecessary waiting time. Last weekend I finally went to one that broke the mold. With four classes on the same course, the races for each class were started as promptly as if there was no one else on the course. Major kudos to Duxbury Yacht Club.

I have to admit that in the last few years I have become very impatient on this subject. Aside from personal psychological deficiencies, the blame goes to coaching high school sailing and laser sailing, especially frostbiting. High school sailing is always short course racing, and a good sailing day is filled with many races. (College sailing is similar in this respect.) The fleet race regatta we host typically has 12 races with sailors returning to shore to swap boats every two races. If the course to shore distance were less, we would do 16 races. I run an intramural regatta twice a year where there are 7 – 9 races in a two hour time frame. Laser frostbiting works the same way. Our high school head to head team race events have five races in the same two hour window.

The reasons for these efficiencies are fairly obvious. Frostbiters get far colder when waiting than racing, so nearly constant racing is the prescription for greater comfort. (I acknowledge that for most of the world frostbiting and comfort are antithetical.) Many places follow more or less the same format in summer racing because it is simply more fun to race than to wait – especially in a laser. In high school racing, the minimization of down time is related to the short, little attention spans of students culturally trained to have ADHD. If they aren’t focused on the coach-guided activity, they drift into never-never land, and they are hard to recapture.

Having experienced a piece of the sailing world with faster paced racing, I have very little interest in going back to the slower pace of larger boats. The fun of racing just seems to overshadow the relaxation (boredom) of milling around and waiting. It is even more interesting and challenging to be the race committee in these situations.

Despite my impatience, I can recognize that my enlightened opinion might not be the enlightened opinion of others. The majority of the sailing world seems to have little interest in the seeming hyperactivity of nearly hypothermic sailors and inattentive high school students. Last summer I wrote about A Three Race Regatta?! where the Flying Scot racers were satisfied while I was mystified – 3 races in 2 days? At the far end of that spectrum is the America’s Cup where one race a day after hours, maybe days of anticipation, is all the excitement anyone can handle

It’s certainly a good thing that sailing contains a multitude of options allowing people to enjoy the sport in very different ways. But occasionally there is a clash of the different worlds within the sport. In those instances, it is surprising how little we seem to understand each other. Last spring our team sailed in a regional regatta where teams qualified for nationals. It was hosted by a major yacht club that was unreasonably generous at making their very upscale facility available to questionably responsible high schoolers. However, when it came to the racing, their course was a mile from the club, sailors in the second fleet were stationed on a large float to wait in the wind and the rain, and the first attempt at a course set-up had a one-mile long windward leg that looked like it would yield 45 minute races. Can’t do many of them in one day! How could they fail to understand the courses used in high school sailing when they were the perfect host in every other way? How could the high school organizers fail to make their expectations clear? Different worlds.

Multi-class regattas where lasers are invited present a similar opportunity for a clash of different sailing worlds. Usually the world I live in is the loser in such a clash. But Duxbury was different. The differences in the class of boats were striking – quick little Lasers, comfortable but lumbering Flying Scots, Marshall 15 cat boats that are fiberglass re-makes of New England boats of the 19th century, and Pintail 25s that look a bit like a plasticized Herreshoff design. Yet with right length courses and the proper spacing between fleets, there was virtually non-stop racing and no interference between boats of different fleets. For the lasers, a few more races than five might have been desirable, but overall it was a great day of racing. Sailors from the other classes seemed to be similarly satisfied. If there were compromises, they were the right ones as the race committee expertly bridged the gaps among very different classes. Kudos again to Duxbury Yacht Club.